Tiger Woods scandal leads to question: Why do men cheat?

USA Today Quotes Israel Helfand

By Sharon Jayson
December 03, 2009, USA TODAY

Tiger Woods is the latest celebrity caught up in a sex scandal, which makes people wonder – why do men cheat? And are the famous and powerful more prone to indiscretion, or are they just under the microscope more than your average Joe?

The famous golfer’s admitted “personal failings” have been unfolding ever since his car wreck just before Thanksgiving. Those who study marriage and work with couples say men who cheat usually do so because they feel something is missing in their primary relationship.

“The underlying piece is the fact they’re not getting the kind of attention or intimacy they’re looking for within their primary relationship. That’s true for women as well,” says Israel Helfand, a marriage and family therapist in Cabot, Vt.

He says he doesn’t believe adultery is necessarily more prevalent than in the past, but he says it may seem that way because famous people who are unfaithful in their marriages bring attention to the overall issue of why people cheat.

“We’re hearing more about it because of the information age,” says Helfand, who along with his wife, a psychotherapist, conducts marriage counseling retreats. Helfand says whether or not someone is famous isn’t the issue. Rather, he says the “situation is pretty equal across the board these days.” In other words, the incidence of affairs is now relatively equal between the affluent and the middle class. What used to be an upper class phenomenon – concubines or mistresses – has in modern culture become more bourgeoisie.

“They have more opportunity. There is more affluence. The middle class is stronger than it used to be. There is a lot more traveling in the corporate world. There is a lot more quick information with the Internet,” he says.

Helfand says data from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy suggests that 15% of wives and 25% of husbands have experienced extramarital intercourse.

A new data analysis by W. Bradford Wilcox, an associate professor of sociology who directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, seems to support that idea.

Wilcox reviewed data from the General Social Survey, a large social science survey of trends between the 1990s through 2000 and from 2000 to 2008. He found that 21% of men and 14% of women who had ever been married (including those who have been divorced) said they had sex at least once with someone other than the spouse while married. Of those currently married, 16% of men and 10% of women responded affirmatively.

Wilcox agrees that it seems we hear more about infidelity now, but the trends have been pretty similar since 1990. Wilcox says that despite appearances, there is a “real premium on fidelity.”

“It’s kind of a testament to the soulmate idea,” he says. “We are much more likely to look at marriage as a soulmate relationship. One indication of a soulmate’s commitment to you is that he or she is faithful to you.”

Additional calculations of that survey data by Wilcox show less tolerance toward infidelity now than in the past. In the decade of the 1970s, 63% of men and 73% of women said marital infidelity is “always wrong.” In the current decade, 78% of men and 84% of women believe that marital infidelity is “always wrong.”

“Infidelity affects people at all levels of the social ladder, but judging from the evidence, it’s more likely to be common among people who are higher up on that ladder,” Wilcox says.

He says celebrities are under a lot more surveillance now, so it’s easier to catch them in their indiscretions.

Helfand says, for celebrities, it may well be a combination of sex and power that draws them into affairs.

“It’s a very complex issue,” Helfand says. “Sex in clandestine places is very exciting. The next piece is being desired and feeling desirable. A lot of rich and famous celebrities have a pretty poor self-esteem. For them, I would agree it’s not so much about the sex as it is feeling about being desired.”