Why Women Cheat

The recent infidelity scandal involving generals Petraeus and Allen has focused on how and why powerful men cheat on their wives.  Even on days when infidelity isn’t dominating news headlines, it seems there are endless magazine covers or new Katie shows or old Oprah reruns on the same subject.


The focus is invariably on why men cheat, and advice for how women can keep men from straying.  When the description “cheater” is used, the mental image is usually, unfairly, male.


But women cheat too.  All the time.  And children are often innocent, overlooked victims of both male and female adulterers. Why is our society so determined to focus on men who cheat, instead of people who do, and the damage they cause?


There are two married female cheaters  -- moms with young children-- in the current headlines. There are two husbands, and five children, behind them. Paula Broadwell, who admitted to an affair with General David Petraeus, is married to Dr. Scott Broadwell and has two young sons with him. Jill Kelley, rumored to be a rival for Petraeus’ affection (at least in Broadwell’s eyes) is linked to General John R. Allen; she is a 37-year-old Tampa socialite, married for 14 years to Florida cancer surgeon Dr. Scott Kelley, with whom she has three young daughters.


According to 2012 statistics from the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 57% of men and 54% of women admit to cheating at some point in their lives. Within marriage, 22% of husbands say they have strayed, versus 14% of wives.  So the stereotypes are somewhat justified.  Men cheat more frequently, at least after marriage; but women clearly do too.


Jill Kelley and Paula Broadwell are young, attractive, wealthy and powerful in their own realms, whether it is the Tampa social circuit or West Point alumni circles.  They are both financially secure and clearly independent minded. American women of earlier Cave Men and Mad Men generations risked their economic independence, social status, custody of their children, and sometimes their survival if they cheated. 


Today’s gender equality means that Broadwell and Kelley had far less to lose by cheating (although my aside is that losing the trust of the person you are married to, and your children, outstrips all other losses; that’s why it’s called cheating).