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Your marriage has weathered a couple of kids, two demanding jobs and a move to a new town. No danger of your husband having an affair at this point, right?
Not so fast. By the time men reach fifty, 37 percent have been unfaithful, according to the National Social Health and Life Survey conducted by the University of Chicago. "While men who are unhappy in their marriages are more vulnerable to cheating, infidelity is more often determined by a man's attitudes and values," says Shirley Glass, PhD, a psychologist and infidelity researcher in Baltimore, Maryland.
Today, it's easier than ever to cheat--and to keep it secret. Now that women are a strong presence in the workforce and more people are spending long hours at their desks, office romances are on the rise. "Affairs are growing out of collegial workplace relationships," says Glass. "It's not the typical attraction that comes from sexual curiosity or excitement." Private investigator Bruce Robertson, president of Tristar Investigation, in Los Angeles, says that modern technology plays a part, too. "Cell phones, pagers and e-mails make it easier for men to communicate with their girlfriends," he says. "We're also seeing a proliferation of escort and massage services on the Internet that cater to businessmen."
It probably doesn't help that cheating is so openly acknowledged and less stigmatized these days. Public figures--including, ahem, a certain former president--have suffered few, if any, repercussions when their affairs were brought to light. The TV series Temptation Island promoted infidelity as entertainment, taking committed couples and doing everything to entice them to stray, short of actually tucking them into bed with potential lovers. "Hollywood tells us that affairs are sneaky and fun and exciting, or else they're an escape or a reprieve from your life," says relationships expert William July, author of Understanding the Tin Man (Doubleday, 2000).
Contrary to stereotypes, however, most cheaters don't usually go out looking for extramarital romance, nor is the other woman a sultry vixen waiting to lure men into her den of sin. "Affairs can happen between men and women who have known each other for some time," says Glass. "Often what begins as an emotional attraction turns into a sexual one." In fact, many observers say, the other woman may be very much like you: independent, attractive, sympathetic. She may be a co-worker, a former girlfriend, your next-door neighbor, a friend's wife or even--sad to say--one of your own pals. Adultery is, in many ways, a crime of opportunity.
What the other woman offers depends on the situation. "Affairs are about unmet needs," says Stan J. Katz, PhD, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, California, who counsels couples coping with infidelity. "Sometimes a man wants sex and affection; other times, he just needs to bolster his self-esteem." Says Susan, 39, who has been involved with several married men, "In an affair, a man can tell stories that his wife stopped wanting to hear long ago. It makes him feel special."
Does that mean that a husband's affair is the wife's fault? Oh, puh-lease. Last we heard, men were still responsible for their own actions. Still, experts agree that there are certain times in a man's life when he's most likely to seek out someone else. Here, six of the most hazardous situations:
Just because your marriage doesn't resemble a Harlequin Romance is no excuse for your husband to cheat. But the fact is that a man is more tempted to look elsewhere when the lovemaking at home is less frequent or exciting than he prefers. Even if you think your lovelife is okay, he may not. (Think of the scene in Annie Hall where Diane Keaton and Woody Allen disagree on whether having sex three times a week equals "all the time" or "hardly ever.") "For many men, sex is the way they connect to their wives," says Glass. "So a husband may take rejection personally and feel his wife is implicitly giving him permission to be with other women."
Still, a man won't necessarily seek out a new partner, but if the opportunity presents itself--say, he's propositioned on a business trip--he may be inclined to accept. "A lot of men who wouldn't initiate a relationship are not prepared to say no, either," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and author of Everything You Know About Love and Sex Is Wrong (Putnam, 2000). "And afterward, he may decide to see this woman again because she was dynamite in bed."
Case in point: Serena, 31, who dated a married man several years ago. "His wife had lost interest in sex--or so he said," she says. "The truth is, I think he really did love his wife, and if there had been anything going on in their bedroom, he probably wouldn't have gotten involved with me."
Sex may lead to babies, but not vice versa. It's hard for a new mom to get psyched for passion after she's been walking the floor all night with a colicky infant, and her plummeting post-baby hormone levels only add to her waning libido. She also may be so focused on her new responsibilities that it's hard for her to give as much time to her spouse as she used to. "A new father loses his position as number one with his wife," says Glass. "She's bonding with the baby, and he may feel shut out."
Peggy, 39, says her husband turned to another woman 11 years ago, not long after their child was born. "He wanted to keep our baby out of day care, so he suggested that we take different shifts at the institution for disabled children where we both work," she says. "We had only one day off together each week. I think he got lonely being home with the baby every night. Eventually, a fellow teacher started giving him rides home from school, cooking for him and spending evenings with him." Peggy and her husband were eventually able to patch up their marriage, thanks to their strong mutual religious faith.
Sometimes, having a baby can make a man act like a little boy himself. "Men are concerned about their autonomy," says Glass. "Some are reluctant to assume the responsibilities that go along with having children, so they have an affair with a single woman to prove that they're not tied down, that no one can tell them what to do."
"After our twins were born last year, my husband became overwhelmed by the fact that he was now the sole breadwinner," says Shelly, 27, who's still married. "I think it made his co-worker look appealing to him. Her bills weren't his responsibility. She had no obligations and placed none on him. She was a good time just waiting to happen."
Let's face it: That 40th birthday is rough. And a man who can't cope with the thinning hair, thickening middle or the fears of "Is that all there is to life?" may turn to another woman to make him feel less washed-up.
"For such men, an affair has more to do with individual issues than relationship problems," says Glass. "A man at this stage may try to recapture his youth by doing something exciting like buying a motorcycle, or having a fling with someone who can help him deny the aging process."
At this stage, men are also more likely to hook up with old girlfriends or former acquaintances. "In midlife, there's a desperation to prove that you're still a viable, potent competitor, and one way to do that is through the conquest of a woman," says William July, who has interviewed hundreds of men while researching his books. "At this age, he may also feel trapped in his life. If he's not fulfilled at work or in some other capacity, he may try to find that fulfillment in an affair."
Sometimes, affairs are a matter of husband-see, husband-do. Men bond through shared experiences, and hearing his buddies brag about their extramarital exploits can make an otherwise happily married guy wonder: Hey, what am I missing here? "Friends who are cheating create an accepting social environment for the behavior," says Glass. "One of the things men have reported when they stop having affairs is that they miss the pleasure of sharing their adventures with other men."
Hearing about his friends' infidelities also tends to make a man more aware of the problems in his marriage that he may have been willing to overlook before. Or he may start looking for flaws in his relationship and use them as an excuse to stray. "I strongly believe that my husband's friends changed his attitude about our marriage," says Ellen, now 50 and divorced. "His two best friends were in relationships that were disintegrating, so the wife-bashing began. My husband got involved with an old high-school friend, while his two friends found themselves girlfriends. He became 'one of the guys.'"
Success on the job can make a man feel entitled not only to the corner office, but to another woman, too. "I hear it all the time in my practice," says Stan Katz. "Men say, 'I work hard. I deserve to treat myself.'"
Certainly, the opportunities for infidelity increase along with professional and financial status. "Think of politicians and basketball stars," says Pepper Schwartz. "Their power is attractive, and they've got women lining up outside the door." When they do cheat, husbands may seek out a "trophy" girlfriend--a younger or very attractive woman--as another visible symbol of success.
Often, however, successful men choose women who are less influential than they are, and with whom they have little emotional intimacy. "There's some evidence that men in positions of power and wealth may be more likely to be unfaithful with the kind of women they would never actually marry," says Glass. Ironically, once sex enters the picture, the man can no longer hide behind his barrier of superiority. "A man in a powerful position who unzips his fly is being demoted," says Glass. "A woman in that situation feels she's made a conquest by using her sexuality. A man talks about looking for a trophy woman, but he doesn't realize that he's the trophy, too."
Even in this liberated two-career age, men still connect much of their identity to their jobs. So if a husband is constantly being persecuted by the boss, or if he's worried about being pink-slipped, his self-esteem may plummet so low that he may turn to desperate measures--such as taking a lover--to bring him out of his funk.
A man in this situation also might stray if, for some reason, he feels he can't talk to his wife about his work problems. "But even if his wife is sympathetic," says Glass, "he may see unpaid bills and other reminders of his inadequacy. With an affair, he can escape from reality. The other woman isn't aware of his flaws. He can play a different role with her."
Nancy (not her real name), 47, believes it's no coincidence that her husband's fling started soon after he had a losing season as a high-school football coach. "He wasn't able to produce the big wins, so the people in our community were disappointed in him," she says. "Having an affair with a woman from another town gave him an ego boost."--Susan Kleinman
Susan Kleinman has written for The New York Times and other national publications.