Surviving Infidelity: What Wives Do When Men Cheat

New York State Gov. Eliot Spitzer is joined by his wife Silda as he makes a statement to reporters during a news conference Monday, March 10, 2008 in New York. (Image credit: AP Photo/Mary Altaffer.)

Dressed in a black suit with a subdued silk scarf, Silda Wall Spitzer stood by her husband, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer as he announced his resignation to a room full of reporters. When the cameras stopped flashing, however, a husband and wife were left to deal with an alleged violation of marriage and above all, busted trust.

Gov. Spitzer has referred publicly to the alleged infidelity as a "private matter," but the experience is rooted in human behavior and family sociology. That means social scientists can to some extent get into the minds of the parties involved.

So, whether or not Silda Spitzer stays by her husband's side, she is likely considering a divorce, as most women in this situation would, sociologists and other experts told LiveScience.

Gov. Spitzer, 48, allegedly paid $4,300 for a prostitute to commute from New York to Washington, D.C., and meet him at a hotel there last month. News reports state Spitzer was tracked with court-ordered wiretaps. Spitzer was a repeat call-girl customer known as "Client 9," according to The New York Times.

"Some sociologists have argued that 'being faithful' is the central, defining norm of marriage," said Paul Amato, a professor of sociology at Penn State. "Although marriage implies multiple obligations, the obligation to be sexually faithful to one's spouse seems to carry the most weight."

He added, "In fact, infidelity is the marital problem most likely to lead to divorce."

Even so, Silda and Eliot could stay together. "After all you have Hillary and Bill [Clinton], and what hasn't Bill done to Hillary. Everything that could be done to a woman to humiliate and hurt her emotionally and a family, Bill has done," said Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. "And yet Hillary and Bill have a tight connection that overcomes just about everything, maybe not anger and at some deeper level even hatred. But the attachment and the commitment seem to be inviolable."

When it comes to infidelity, research shows that men are motivated primarily by the lure of sex, while women trek outside the marriage due to emotional neglect and the need for emotional intimacy.

Though more men than women cheat, infidelity is on the rise among both in recent decades. For men and women, the ease of travel to cities where they are anonymous could partially explain the increase. And more and more women are less dependent on their husbands for financial and other stability, so there's less at stake if she does get caught.

Who cheats and why

The Spitzers are far from alone when it comes to fidelity issues. The prevalence of marital infidelity and extramarital sex varies widely depending on the definition of infidelity used and the survey referenced, ranging from about 10 percent of couples to more than half.

A 1994 study by sociologist Edward Lauman found that 10 percent to 11 percent of spouses had cheated in the prior year. Over a lifetime, that study revealed about 18 percent of women and 24 percent of men reported an extramarital affair.

While Americans have become much more accepting of premarital sex during the past several decades, they still view extramarital sex as somewhat intolerable, Amato said.

A 2006 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults revealed that nearly 90 percent of participants said it is morally wrong for married individuals to have an affair, which may or may not involve sex. About the same percentage said adultery is morally wrong.

That's one reason "it really shakes up a marriage," Amato said.

Will she leave him? When deciding whether to go the divorce route or follow the winding roads of marriage-repair, many factors come into play. In addition to cheating for different reasons, men and women react differently to an unfaithful spouse.

"Typical reactions from both sexes include becoming enraged, sad, humiliated, and depressed," said David Buss, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. "There are large individual differences within each sex; men tend to focus more heavily on the sexual aspects of the infidelity; women more on the emotional aspects."

These differences may have deep evolutionary roots. "From a man's perspective, sexual infidelity historically jeopardized his paternity certainty -- 'mama's baby, papa's maybe,'" Buss said. "Male sexual jealousy is, among other things, an adaptation designed to solve the problem of genetic cuckoldry."

Women, on the other hand, are 100-percent certain they are the mothers of their children. And the most upsetting acts of infidelity from a female perspective involve the emotional ties their husbands may have formed with the significant or insignificant others. They are more likely to forgive their husbands if the affair "meant nothing" and involved no emotional intimacy. Overall, women are more likely than men to forgive a cheating spouse.

"So one-night stands and use of prostitutes is less threatening than is a long-term, emotionally bonded extramarital relationship," Amato told LiveScience. "Wives are more likely to forgive their husbands if their husbands were not 'in love' with the other woman."

Amato said men are not as concerned about the emotional connection between their wives and the third party. Even still, husbands "don't want their wives fooling around under any circumstances," Amato said.

Women also tend to take the family into account when pondering a split-up.

"Women are more likely to take into account their children, their economics, their general survival," Schwartz said. "Men are just crushed or upset about what happened to them. They won't think as quickly about their children as the first or second issue; but they will eventually consider that." She added that men generally experience a flooding of anger over the violation.

That rise in blood pressure could result from a guy's perception of cheating as something done to him more than something done to the relationship.

"Men are less willing to forgive," said Ruth Houston, founder of and author of "Is He Cheating on You? - 829 Telltale Signs." She added, "Men view infidelity as a statement about their manhood, so it's such an affront to him that most men cannot get over this hurdle."

Practical concerns can also steer a woman in one direction or the other. "Wives are also less likely to consider divorce if they are economically dependent on their husbands, have children or hold strong religious views," Amato said. "Nevertheless, most wives at least consider the option of divorce. And, in fact, infidelity is the marital problem most likely to lead to divorce."

The public eye

While such a transgression would rattle any relationship, those in the public eye — as in the Spitzer case — get a Hollywood dose of the marital misdemeanors.

"Many find the public humiliation the most upsetting aspect of a spouse's infidelity," Buss said. "When's it's played out in the media, as in the Spitzer case, Silda Spitzer must be going through psychological hell."

Schwartz agrees, and adds the amount of money that reportedly supported Spitzer's alleged call-girl habit makes this an "extreme situation" of public humiliation.

"There's also the question of whether she [Silda Spitzer] loved him and he loved her. We don't know that. If she did truly love him and he did truly love her but has a narcissistic problem, she may forgive him. All that said, she may go on and be with him," Schwartz said.

Trust time

No surprise — trust is damaged deeply after infidelity is out in the open.

"After the incident comes to light, husbands as well as wives are less happy with their marriages, report more marital conflict, experience elevated levels of psychological distress and increase their thoughts of divorce," Amato said.

"Many spouses never fully recover from their feelings of betrayal and anger, even if they stay together," he said. "Counseling can help, however, and some couples eventually manage to repair their relationships."

Couples should expect a lengthy process, as no quick-fix exists.

"Re-establishing trust takes time, of course," Amato said, "but if both spouses sincerely want the marriage to continue and are willing to work on it, then it is possible to have a healthy relationship again."

One recent study found that most couples stayed together after an incident of infidelity.

"Sometimes it's a real wake-up call for the relationship," Schwartz said in a telephone interview. "They have no excuses, but they realize they really have something they want to protect and they really commit themselves to it."

Relationship (emotional) recovery

For couples on the journey of patching up their relationships, Candyce Russell, a licensed family therapist, points out the importance of understanding the emotions following infidelity.

In her research, Russell found three emotional stages will follow an incident of infidelity:

Stage one (roller-coaster): a time filled with strong emotions, ranging from anger and self-blame to periods of introspection and appreciation for the relationship.

Stage two (moratorium): a less emotional period in which the cheated-on spouse tries to make sense of the infidelity, obsesses about details of the affair, retreats physically and emotionally from the relationship, and reaches out to others for help.

Stage three (trust-building): for couples who decided they wanted to stay together and make their marriage work.

"In the trust-building stage, showing commitment to the relationship was most important for injured parties to begin forgiving and building trust," Russell said.

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.