Is Infidelity a Gender Issue?

Sep 24, 2008 • Lifestyle, Research, The Media on Sex

In August, architecture critic and author Philip Nobel wrote a piece for Elle about his affair with his twenty-something research assistant and subsequent divorce from his wife of ten years. The response online, particularly from women, was huge. Run a search for “Philip Nobel” and you’ll find freelance journalist Lindsay Beyerstein’s “Worst Person On Earth” treatise among the top three.

Worst person on earth. I could expect that sort of reaction from Nobel’s ex-wife in a moment of rightful rage, but from someone unrelated to the situation? The consensus at Jezebel, Gawker Media’s excellent women’s pop culture blog, which covered the story over the course of August, is that Nobel is an entitled creep who is trying to excuse his behavior and somehow prove he has come a long way thanks to his recklessness (and cheap comparisons to his twenty-something former mistress, whose naïveté now is evident to him in his new-found maturity).

“Nobel said that his piece in Elle was about ‘the burden of being a lightning rod for the fears of women and the resentments of burdened men,'” writes Jezebel editorial assistant Jessica Grose. “The implication there is that all married men, even the ones who are happily married, are burdened by the responsibility placed on them by their nagging harpy wives.”

“Lots of women are afraid of getting dumped for a younger model,” Anna North concedes, “and when someone does this, we’re not exactly going to be thrilled.” She has more to say in another piece:

What Nobel did may not be ‘contagious,’ but it happens often enough to make a lot of women worry. We worry that a man will do grown-up things with us, like marry and have kids, or just fall in love and make us feel safe, and then he’ll announce that he never really grew up at all and that he needs to go back to his twenties, with a twenty-something girlfriend to match. […] Of course, none of this is solely Nobel’s fault. It’s the fault of a culture that trumpets the sanctity of marriage while painting male fidelity as lame. And that casts older women as unsexy and unsexual. The solution to this problem isn’t to force people like Nobel to stay in unhappy marriages — it’s to understand the sexual double standard that makes women feel so vulnerable, and to set about changing it.

Funny, until I read it in Jezebel, I didn’t think of this as a gender issue at all.


I found marriage difficult from the beginning. Not unpleasantly so, but enough that when my friends ask me, “how’s married life treating you?” the reply never changes: “it’s somewhere between the bliss and the blitzkrieg.”

Like Nobel, I married someone very different. I’m an insatiably curious information monger, ready to go where the story takes me without so much as an itinerary. My husband is the practical type. He doesn’t retain data he doesn’t need and everything he does is carefully orchestrated. We have different breeds of intelligence. “If we get stranded in the Mojave, I’m glad to know that someone will have thought to pack some water while I’ve been too busy wondering about the impact of Pluto’s demotion on my astrological chart,” I joked when we got married.

I know men who are more like me than my husband — I’ve dated quite a few of them. There’s a reason I didn’t marry them. But I know what Nobel is talking about, too, when he talks about adjusting his diction and editing out the allusions he thought would fly over his wife’s head. And so does my husband. He still confuses Schrödinger with Smirnoff and I still have no idea what a 1003 is or what to do with it. And that’s fine — I never believed my spouse should be everything to me.

But every once in a while, I know we both wish we could talk about those things that inspire us and see the same gleam of excitement in each other’s eyes.


“Are you a stray-at-home mom?” KTLA’s Leila Feinstein asked, leading in to a new story as I vegetated in bed next to Richard one warm May night. “According to a survey conducted by Cookie Magazine and AOL, one in three stay-at-home mothers have cheated on their husbands. The reason? They don’t feel they’re getting it enough.”

One in three women have cheated on their husbands? I immediately jumped on the web and looked up the details of the Sex and the American Mom survey and was surprised to find, according to The Huffington Post, that the sample was an impressive 30,000 stay-at-home moms.

The following month, Details had a piece about the new breed of men trying to nail the missus (among them the understanding boss, the yoga instructor, the stay-at-home-dad with whom she hangs out at play dates, etc.).

“I see more women who cheat than men,” says Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist and the author of The Commuter Marriage: Keep Your Relationship Close While You’re Far Apart. [Author Susan Shapiro] Barash estimates that close to 60 percent of married women have had extramarital sex.

“With men’s affairs, it tends to be not enough sex — with women it tends to be not enough attention or interaction,” Tessina says. According to Barash, most women feel an “unrelenting need for romance and excitement.” And they’re not getting it in the half hour they spend flipping through magazines while you watch The Daily Show every night after the kids go to bed.

The reasons given for women’s cheating may be inconsistent, but the statistics remain like an offensive stain. Really?


During a dinner party at the home of a renown politico, someone congratulated Isabel Allende for a satirical article she’d published and asked whether she ever planned to write “something serious.” Embarrassed, the then-young writer responded “yes, I’d like to interview a woman who is unfaithful.”

“A heavy silence descended on the table and the conversation turned to the food,” she recalls. “But when the time for coffee came, the mistress of the house — thirty-eight, svelte, the executive in a government office in a Chanel suit — took me aside and told me that if I swore I would keep her identity secret, she would accept the interview.”

At her office the next day, the executive confessed she was unfaithful for the following reasons: she had ample free time after lunch; sex was good for one’s spirit, one’s health, and one’s self-esteem; and because men were not so bad after all.

“That is to say, the very same reasons that so many husbands are unfaithful, possibly her own among them,” Allende concludes. “She was not in love, did not suffer any guilt, and maintained a discrete garçonière that she shared only with friends as liberated as she.”


“Of course people are surprised by the study,” my friend Joan told me when I decided to reproduce Allende’s interview of the unfaithful woman. “Women have always cheated as much as men. We just don’t get caught. Not because we’re smarter, but because we don’t want to. Men in this country seek everything in the same place, have you noticed? When they cheat, they’re usually looking for a replacement. Women are more realistic and know how to multitask. We look for supplements.”

Susan Shapiro Barash, author of A Passion For More: Wives Reveal Affairs That Make Or Break Their Marriages, agrees: “Women having affair aren’t looking to replicate the feelings in their marriage. They’re looking for what they can’t get in a marriage.”


In their book The Mirages of Marriage, William Lederer and Don Jackson analyzed the marital relationship in terms of the systems concept, providing a no-nonsense manual for how to undertake a functional marriage. The book is so devoid of frills that if read prior to marriage, it could make even the most enamored have second thoughts — which may explain why I think it’s the best engagement gift one could ever give, yet one I’ll probably never dare give.

On their wedding day, a young man and a young woman, standing before the priest, minister, or justice of the peace, usually have a high opinion of one another. They overflow with joyous thoughts. Each has a firm intention of pleasing and nourishing the cherished person who is about to become a partner for life.

Some years later, (the highest incidence of divorce, excluding teenagers, is after ten or so years) the same two people may be living in a chronic situation of hate, fear, and confusion. Each spouse in such a marriage may blame the other and defensively emphasize how he* tried to be loving, tried to make the marriage a success, and tried to keep the other from sabotaging the effort. What causes such frightful changes? What brings about such startling emotional and behavioral metamorphoses?

The most easily apparent causes are the failure to pick a suitable mate, and the failure—once a mate has been chosen—to work out relationship rules that will be durable and equitable.

*To avoid the awkward repetition of “he or she,” the terms “he,” “him,” and “his” have been employed throughout the book to refer to either spouse — husband or wife.


“Marriage is like a newspaper,” the author Raymond Chandler once said. “It has to be made fresh every damned day of every damned year.”

It’s true. Anyone who has any experience with marriage will not hesitate to tell you that marriage is hard work. As early as 1968, when The Mirage of Marriage was originally written, its authors were cautioning about the institution: “American thinking patterns and traditional American values concerning marriage rusty, broken-down, obsolete.”

Philip Nobel happens to agree. In an interview with Anna North of Jezebel, he went as far as to suggest that Jezebel should enforce a marriage strike until the institution is fixed, saying that “maybe there’s something wrong at the structural level with the whole idea of state-sanctioned monogamy.”

Unfortunately, neither Nobel nor the writers at Jezebel know how it can be fixed. Which makes me wonder: If marriage is essentially a challenge few of us can pass without half killing a vital part of ourselves, why do we keep doing it? Why are we so ready and willing to deny our needs and give up things we may want so much, that we’ll go insane and end up doing everything in our power to get them later, consequences be damned?

My friend John put it best: “from birth, 30 percent of your being is normally consumed by the pain of loneliness. Being in a relationship solves the vital, killer problem of loneliness. But what no one tells you is that once you solve that problem by being in a real relationship, that 30 percent pain is replaced by about 29.8 percent frustration and anger about other, new issues.”

Are we just afraid to die alone (our corpses eaten by our beloved pets, to borrow one of the comic elements in Nobel’s piece)?


“All human beings perform unilateral and selfish acts,” Lederer and Jackson write in The Mirages of Marriage. “To do so is not always bad; it sometimes can be wholesome if the individual knows what is happening. But under no circumstances can these acts be regarded as loving, and the first requirement for a workable marriage is to live and relate on the basis of reality, not of myths, obsolete and meaningless traditions, and self-deceit.”

Philip Nobel is not the worst person on earth. He’s is a symptom of our mess. The construct of matrimony as we know it no longer fits: we’re more individualistic, more isolated, more mobile, more ADD, more demanding in terms of instant gratification than we were 40 years ago when Lederer and Jackson first pointed out that the institution was obsolete.

If we can see further, it’s not so much that we stand on the shoulders of giants, but that we’re standing on the wreckage of the marriages that have crumbled before us.