Women have affairs, too...
Updated: Oct 1, 2019
If you're a woman having an affair or thinking about having one, you're not alone. Recent studies suggest that women are just as likely to have something on the side as their male counterparts. But women may experience additional shame and guilt due to our culture’s expectations about women and sex. This may keep you from seeking help or getting support when you need it.
Why do women have affairs?
There are many reasons women seek relationships outside of their primary one. In her book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, psychotherapist and author Esther Perel unpacks some of the reasons for infidelity among both men and women. She suggests that we should step back from the judgment and stigma associated with infidelity to really understand why it occurs. The idea that an affair is a “symptom” of a problem in the marriage may be too narrow – some women report happy marriages and an affair partner on the side. Others, however, discover something about themselves they were not able to find with their husband or partner.
In my own practice, I’ve seen a number of themes when it comes to women having affairs. Let’s take a look at some of the most common.
A woman’s real life may look like shuttling children around, going to the grocery store, cooking, running errands, cleaning, housework, and career demands. All these stressors may leave her feeling undesirable or zap any energy she once had for sex. The affair creates a fantasy “second life” where she can feel beautiful, powerful, in control, and desired. Many of those feelings are lost in the day-to-day of normal adult life.
Reliving the Past
Similarly, some women describe recapturing a euphoric feeling from their past through the affair. She may say, “I feel like I did when I was in high school.” In these cases, the affair might not be as much about the affair partner as the way that person is making her feel.
A woman may have sexual fantasies she doesn't feel comfortable talking about with her spouse. In some cases, a woman will share a fantasy with her husband, but he rejects the idea or says he doesn’t want to try it. One study found that among women having affairs, many of them were having very frank discussions with their affair partners about what they liked and wanted in the bedroom – their deepest fantasies. Openness, acceptance, and the chance to try out deeply held fantasies are all part of the appeal of the relationship.
We typically think of men as having affairs for sex, and we think of women having them for emotional connection. In State of Affairs, Perel suggests that a woman may choose an affair because she has complicated sexual desires she doesn’t feel comfortable discussing with her spouse.
Our society doesn’t like to think of women as sexual beings, but many women seek out affairs because they like sex and an opportunity presented itself. These women even report being happily married and otherwise satisfied with their lives.
Why might a woman who has had an affair need therapy?
When the affair ends, she may experience all the pain associated with the loss of any other love relationship – grief, depression, withdrawal. The difference with a relationship of this nature is the guilt and shame that may be associated with it. Social stigma about women’s infidelity may lead to feelings of isolation and shame. She may avoid reaching out for social support and feel very alone. Her isolation compounds her sense of shame, and a vicious cycle is created.
If a woman has had an affair and the relationship ends, she should be aware of symptoms of depression: loss of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, changes in sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little), changes in appetite, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, feelings of hopelessness, increased irritability, and suicidal or homicidal thoughts/feelings.
Choosing the right therapist
Unfortunately, even therapists are not immune to biases about infidelity, and some may not know how to explore these issues in a way that does not feel shaming or judgmental. It’s important to talk to your new therapist prior to meeting with her/him, regardless of the situation, in order to make sure the relationship is a good fit. Many therapists offer free consultations prior to the first appointment. If not, you can always request one. This is an opportunity to see if that particular therapist can address your situation in a helpful way. Check out their website – does it mention infidelity, affairs, or betrayal trauma? Do they mention that they work with partners or people who have had affairs?
There are many reasons a woman may make the choice to have an affair. Not one of those reasons is that she is a bad person or that she has bad moral character. When uncovering the roots of infidelity, it’s important to remove the blame, judgment, and stigma from the conversation in order to gain true understanding.