It seems like every day we open the paper to find that another morally upstanding family values-advocate has been hoisted by his own petard. I can’t lie. When the Lewinsky story broke, I marveled at how an intelligent, accomplished man—one who came from a modest single-parent home, who rose through the ranks to become a Rhodes scholar, governor and finally, Leader of the Free World (despite previous reports of marital indiscretions)—could not manage to keep it in his pants until he moved out of the White House.
It boggles the mind.
And if we can’t expect someone like President Clinton, whose enduring legacy went from brokering peace in the Middle East to getting a curiously strong blowjob in the Oval Office, to stay faithful for two measly four-year terms in office, despite all that was at stake, then what—really—can we expect of our own partners?
According to the fact-finders, many (and in some reports, most) people cheat. Men, women, young, old, gay, straight. Most polls found that some 30 to 60 percent of people will cheat at some point in their lives—and the margins err on the conservative side.
The most consistent data on infidelity comes from a survey run by the National Science Foundation, which has used a national representative sample to track social behaviors since 1972. In any given year, approximately 10 percent of marrieds: 12 percent of men and 7 percent of women, admit to extramarital sex. But recent information cultivated between 1991 and 2006 by University of Washington researchers shows some unexpected changes.
For example, infidelity rates for men over 60 increased to 28 percent in 2006, up from 20 percent in 1991. Women in this age group jumped even more: from 5 percent to 15. Younger couples have had changes, as well. Roughly 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women under 35 say they’ve been unfaithful, up from 15 and 12 percent, respectively.
Why? It’s less mysterious among retirees. All manner of medical advancements—from Cialis to hip replacements—are helping maintain seniors’ sexual health. As for the young ’uns?
“No question, it’s the Internet,” says Genevieve, 56. “E-mail, chat, texting—they give everyone access to make connections. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that people are biologically inclined to stray, though divorce rates seem to indicate that half or more married people seem to be at least somewhat unhappy. I know I’ve found an answer that works for me.”
The Flying Trapeze
Genevieve, who calls her 33-year marriage to husband Marc “extremely happy and successful,” is a swinger. She and Marc began experimenting in the 1970s. “Our first attempt was an utter failure,” she laughs. “You can’t just do it with anyone who’s willing. You have to meet people, get to know and trust them, make sure that their relationship is as strong as your own—otherwise bonds that go deeper than sexual attraction can develop. That causes problems.”
Genevieve and Marc don’t believe what they do constitutes cheating. “We’re 100 percent committed to one another. We’ve raised two children; been through the ups and downs of marriage like any other couple. The swinging is fun. We enjoy the company of the friends we do it with, but it’s only sex. It’s not emotional intimacy. It’s not love.”
Infidelity, Kathy believes, generally stems not from the shortcomings of one’s relationship or partner—but from within. The 39-year-old speaks as a child of a marriage chewed up and spat out by philandering.
“My dad was a repeat cheater,” she says. Her parents, married 20 years, separated once when she was in the eighth grade, then reconciled—until another indiscretion. This one, while Kathy was in college, put the final nail in the coffin.
“Both acts seemed to yank away part of my personal innocence,” she says, adding that her father’s cheating affected her self-esteem, making her more cynical, less trusting. “It was painful to see what it did to my mother … I pitied her, I was heartbroken for her, yet on some level, I looked down on her, and felt a sense of shame—blamed her, even.”
Now a wife and mother herself, Kathy remains guilty over the feelings she harbored back then. “I was 19 and stupid. I thought I knew a whole lot more about life than I did. I wish I’d been more there for her.”
Even after two bouts of betrayal, Kathy’s mom—who married at 22 and helped put her husband through college—always tried to make it work. “She was in it for the long haul,” says Kathy, whose father ultimately pulled the trigger. “Some might say it was the divorce that led to my issues, not my father’s infidelity, but to me, they’re inseparable. It was simply the weapon he used to blast his way out of our family.”
Will hired Rachel “based on the fact that she was a long-legged, dark-haired beauty. In the back of my mind was the thought that, although we wouldn’t be working together directly, I’d enjoy seeing those legs around the office. Besides, we were both married.”
Two weeks later, the ‘hello’ e-mails started. “We soon graduated to discussions about her overbearing husband. I reasoned that I was free of any wrongdoing, sharing nothing of my fantasies. They were just thoughts.”
Eventually, she sent an e-mail with a pointed and provocative question. Pandora’s Box swung open with a thud.
“I don’t remember any conversation afterward that didn’t have some sexual or intimate content, yet I reasoned any fear or guilt with ‘She started it.’ ” Will readily admits he brushed aside the fact that he was risking both job and marriage. “I didn’t care that the IT department could read our e-mails; I didn’t care that leaving work one day, I’d met her husband. I cared only about the pussy I was sure to be getting.”
Eventually, that day came. Will admits he thought of nothing “except how good it felt to be me,” but that night, succumbed to pangs of guilt. “The next day she wrote that I was the best ever. That ego stroke was enough to justify doing it for another month or so—mostly nooners. They let her go soon after. Apparently someone didn’t like her coming back late from lunch.”
Will says he tries not to do the guilt thing. “It’s not my fault,” he shrugs, winking. “It’s a natural instinct, pure biology. I saw it on TLC.”
Infidelity: The Poor Man’s Polyamory?
Okay, there’s some twisted version of truth there. Of approximately 5,000 mammalian species, only a handful has ever been called monogamous. This has led some people to claim monogamy is unnatural, something that’s been imposed on us over the millennia. For her part, Kathy doesn’t buy in.
“I have a hard time believing we’re not capable of monogamy. There are many parts of human existence that separate us from other mammals. I have to think this is one of them.”
Debbie has had some experience with infidelity. The first was a college boyfriend who cheated habitually with his ex; the second a long-distance lover she later discovered was married. Now 37, still single, she rattles off a host of reasons why people might stray, none linked to biology.
“Narcissism, a sense of entitlement, a naughty thrill. Some do it out of boredom or because they think life owes them more than they’re getting, some out of a sense of wanting more power in a relationship. Or for revenge. Often, I believe they’re not thinking through the consequences of cheating. They’re making a conscious choice to not do the right thing.”
“I won’t feel guilty about something almost everyone does, something that is ingrained in us all,” Will says of his month-long affair. “The hypocrites love to point their fingers and say ‘shame.’ Meanwhile, they have prostitutes on speed-dial. Spare me your pulpit speeches about the Devil. The Devil is me. And that’s fine, because I’ve done more good than bad in this lifetime, so pass the guilt somewhere else.”