There is an infidelity gender gap — and women are starting to close it. "Women are cheating more today than they ever have," says Esther Perel, a couples' therapist and author of the book The State of Affairs. In fact, according to research she cites, women in heterosexual relationships are nearly 40% more likely to cheat on their spouses today than they were in 1990. Men are still cheating about 30% more than women, but the numbers don't lie — women are stepping out more than ever.
Even though women are catching up to men in terms of who's cheating on whom, we haven't shaken loose old notions of who is "to blame" in these scenarios. Which is to say: The infidelity gap may be closing, but the blame gap is pretty much set in stone.
"Women are the keepers of a relationship," says Andrea Bonior, PhD, a psychologist and author. "There's the deep-seated belief of women being the caregivers. They should be able to nourish men and keep them happy." The idea is that, in a hetero partnership, the woman is meant to take care of things — be it childcare or keeping the house in order. So if a couple is unhappy, it's presumably because the woman isn't "doing her part" to keep it together.
Perel echoes that sentiment. "Nothing holds the family together today except for the relative happiness of the couple," she says. "You could cheat before, and the family was not threatened by it." Of course, "you" here means men, and she's referring to a time when women relied on their husbands for economic security — and everything else.
That burden of keeping the couple happy fell squarely on the woman's shoulders, even (or especially) when her husband wasn't being faithful. But factors including no-fault divorce laws, and women's rising economic independence mean that now, women aren't as dependent — and yet blame is still placed on them. And that's women in general, not just the scorned wives.
According to researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University, who asked 21 men and 23 women to review Facebook messages sent during an affair, a woman is more likely to blame the "other woman" in an affair than her cheating husband. "What a man does is [seen as] a direct result of the woman," Perel says. "It's either that one tempted him, or one drove him away."
The idea that women are blamed for men's behavior in regards to infidelity isn't a new concept. Hillary Clinton is still asked to answer for her husband's infidelity, while Monica Lewinsky is still maligned for being his other woman. Bill, meanwhile, has suffered little consequence (although that is changing with the #MeToo movement). When Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt divorced, it was Angelina Jolie who was painted as the villain for stealing away someone's husband — not Pitt, for cheating or leaving. That's not to say that women aren't responsible for their own roles in extra-marital relationships, but the fact remains that women on both sides of the infidelity equation are blamed, while the man in the middle tends to get off scot-free.
This formula is pretty tied to heteronormative expectations: A woman and a man are together, and the man seeks out a woman on the side. That same study from Cardiff Metropolitan University states that when a woman cheats, men blame her, not the man she cheated with. That leaves the woman to weather the storm alone. But when a husband strays, there are two people to blame: the wife and the mistress.
"There is no 'other man,'" Perel says. "There is only 'the other woman.'" There isn't even a word for a male mistress. The closest we've got is "cuckold," meaning the guy who got cheated on, which the alt-right now uses as an insult. To be a "cuck" is to be weak, fragile, and feminine.
And the woman being cheated on? There's no word for that, either. But she's made to feel guilty, because she wasn't giving her husband what he needed to stay. Which, most of the time, means sex.
"If we're talking about cheating in broad terms, men are often cheating for sexual gratification," says Justine Shuey, PhD, a board certified sexologist and sexuality educator. "So people assume that the woman isn't having sex with him, which is making him cheat." There's also the assumption that a woman has "allowed" herself to be less sexually appealing to a man, Dr. Bonoir says. "People will say that since the woman 'let herself go,' she's given her husband a pass to search for a more appealing sex partner," she says.
Women's motivations for cheating tend to be emotionally driven, still speaking in broad strokes. In situations when they are tasked with the upkeep of the relationship, their own emotional well-being is also expected to fall in their own hands — not their partner's. And that's what they may go out looking for.
No matter the gender, whenever a person strays outside the boundaries of their relationship, that behavior is their own choice and responsibility. And people in all kinds of relationships step out for all kinds of reasons. But as men and women increasingly occupy both sides of the scandal, it's time to recognize blame goes both ways, too — regardless of what traditional gender roles dictate.
"Women have traditionally been seen as monogamous, and the ones who value commitment," Perel says. "But the idea of 'men being men' doesn't fly anymore. It's time to change these dynamics."