Do men and women cheat for different reasons?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from

Molly: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. This is Molly.

Cristen: And I'm Cristen.

Molly: Hey listeners, if you guys ever read our blog HowToStuff -

Cristen: Which you should.

Molly: Then you may notice that Cristen and I have sort of a little ongoing competition, which is to mention the show Mad Men.

Cristen: As many times as possible.

Molly: Yes. Frequently, if you read my post one day and it features some Don Draper reference, then Cristen will do it the next day, as well.

Cristen: Yeah, it's not really just mentioning Mad Men. It's specifically mentioning Don Draper, the lead character in Mad Men, mine and Molly's - could I say dream crush?

Molly: Yeah. I think we're both fairly obsessed with this show. It's a great show, if you don't watch it. Some people say it's just sort of a good-looking soap opera, though.

Cristen: It kind of is. It definitely has some soap opera elements, but you know what? I'm fine with that if I get to watch Jon Hamm on screen in well-fitting suits for 40 minutes.

Molly: Right. So I was telling one of my good friends about my dream crush, as Cristen put it, on Don Draper, and she started watching the show and she was like, "I just cannot watch this show because that guy makes me so mad. He cheats on his wife all the time. He's not a good guy.I'm just so sick of watching him fool around." And I don't know if it's just - I don't know. I can put that aside because I'm willing to think that maybe if I had been around during that time period, I would have had an affair with Don Draper, but it doesn't bother me as much, but you can't deny that adultery is everywhere.

Cristen: Oh yeah, these days. We've got the Tiger Woods scandal. We have all this new kerfuffle about John and Elizabeth Edwards. Everybody's cheating.

Molly: It's everywhere. Everybody's cheating.

Cristen: Cheatin' hearts.

Molly: So we thought we'd talk about adultery because Mad Men's got to be good for something, and this lets us both get a point in the competition for talking about it.

Cristen: Well, I think Mad Men is a good place to start with this because it does sort of play on this stereotype of men and women sort of cheating for different reasons. Spoiler alert, I guess a little bit. Don has sex with a lot of women who are not his wife in the show, and it seems like for the most part, he rarely gets emotionally attached to them at all. In cases where it's portrayed from the other end, where women are cheating, there does seem to be a bit more romantic attachment in their minds.

Molly: Right. They're looking for something that's missing from their "1950s only perfect from the outside" marriage, and I think that that's sort of the stereotype that we've been led to believe, that men will cheat because they just have to have sex with anything that moves, to put it frankly, and women are always going to be looking for that dream attachment, that dream relationship, the romance. The romance must never end.

Cristen: Yeah. And this also goes back to an earlier episode entitled, "Why does the sizzle fizzle," but monogamy in general is not exactly in our biological natures. As you point out in this article that you wrote, Molly, for How Stuff Works, there are very few completely sexually monogamous species, one of which is a flatworm that fuses to its partner until its death.

Molly: Yeah, basically a parasite.

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: That's the only thing I can think of that's completely monogamous. And even in animal species that get together, like humans do, to raise their young together, so-called social monogamy, sexual monogamy is usually not part of the deal. They'll do genetic testing on, let's say, baby birds, and they'll find that one male bird is stuck raising a brood that 10 to 30 percent of is not his. So if you look at it from just monogamy in nature, we're not built for it.

Cristen: However, in the U.S., adultery and cheating in general is a huge social taboo, and it's become even more taboo in recent years. This is according to the General Social Survey. In the 70s, 63 percent of men and 73 percent of women believed that marital infidelity was always wrong. In the 2000s, however, that is up to 78 percent of men and 84 percent of women, which is a pretty big jump.

Molly: And they did a survey where they ranked things that they found morally abhorrent, and adultery ranked more morally disturbing than polygamy and human cloning, so clearly adultery is just something that almost everyone in the U.S. has a problem with, and yet it happens. Look at Tiger Woods; it obviously happens.

Cristen: It does happen, and the statistics that you point out shows that it happens a lot.

Molly: Yeah. This was probably the most depressing article I've ever written for, and I've written about things like death and disease, but basically - it's hard to get good statistics on this because, obviously, it's not something you really want to admit.

Cristen: Yeah, just tell a stranger, "Yes, I have committed adultery."

Molly: And it's also hard to tell what is adultery. I'm sure everyone goes back to the Bill Clinton moment, where he goes, ah, it depends on how you define sexual relations, and that's a problem today. Like if you're having sort of an emotional affair online, is that considered cheating? If you just kiss someone, is that infidelity? Is it sex?

Cristen: Which is worse?

Molly: Yeah, so it's very hard to get people to admit what they actually did. But if we're talking about just sex, then the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy thinks that 15 percent of wives and 25 percent of husbands have had sex with someone who is not their spouse, and actually, if you look at those numbers of people who think it's always wrong, 78 percent of men think it's always wrong and 84 percent of women, and then there's that other 25 and 15 percent roughly. Adds up to about 100.

Cristen: Interesting point, Molly. So we've got all these people running around on their significant others, spouses specifically because I guess this article really has to do with marital infidelity.

Molly: Well, that's mainly what people have studied. Again, it's just really hard to study. Sometimes they'll do studies where they get a bunch of college students together and they'll say, "Which will be worse if this happened or this happened?" but by and large, right now, they've studied heterosexual relationships between married people.

Cristen: And when we look into the reasons of why men and women cheat, it usually goes back to this sort of evolutionary, biology idea that women are seeking out kind of a quality soul mate, who will provide resources for her offspring, whereas men just want to spread their seed as far and wide as humanly possible.But the interesting thing is you found that according to this researcher Gary Neuman, 92 percent of cheating men say that it's not just about the sex; it's about feeling, I guess, underappreciated by their spouses. And in addition to that, 88 percent of men claim that the person they're cheating on was not as attractive as their wife.

Molly: Now, here's the thing. When I saw these statistics, I tried to bear in mind that the person they're telling this to is a marriage counselor. That's Gary Neuman's primary role. So let's say you're in marriage counseling and you're a husband and a wife, if you're trying to keep your marriage together, it probably serves your case a little bit better to say, "I was underappreciated, and she wasn't as good looking as you."

Cristen: Yeah, that's true.

Molly: So I don't know if it's just a rise in sensitive males, and we just had that alpha male thing kind of wrong all along, or if these are people who are legitimately trying to keep their marriage together, or if that's really why they cheat if they really do feel underappreciated, and I think that it's probably untrue that women must be in love to have sex. I think a woman can just as easily go out and have it be just about the sex and not because she feels unfulfilled, but that's not as well studied.

Cristen: Yeah. Well, let's also not get too ahead of ourselves. If he's feeling supposedly underappreciated, then you would assume that maybe their marriage is just kind of on rocky ground at that point, someone's looking for an out, domestic bliss is gone.

Molly: That's what Dr. Laura said.

Cristen: That's what Dr. Laura said. Maybe we shouldn't always listen to Dr. Laura - side note.

Molly: But she said if you don't make your man feel like a superhero stud, if you're not providing for him emotionally, then can you blame him if he goes to a high-class hooker? She said this in relationship to the Eliot Spitzer case.

Cristen: Ah.

Molly: So take it with a grain of salt. Now, she later backed off and said if the man is narcissistic, then all bets are off. Good side note, Dr. Laura.

Cristen: Thanks, Dr. Laura. Well, the interesting thing is, though, how you define your marriage, your marital happiness, whether or not you're pretty happy, very happy, whatever, isn't going to safeguard your, I guess, fidelity.

Molly: Yeah. If you're that wife that Dr. Laura wants, who has been making the man feel like everything is great and both of you think your marriage is pretty happy, according to a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family, still not going to help.

Cristen: Yeah. This compared couples who defined their marriage as either very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy. Obviously, the people who said that their marriages were not too happy were the most likely to cheat on their spouses, but surprisingly, Molly, couples who said they were pretty happy were still twice as likely to cheat as the couples who said they were very happy. And like all the research that we have done on relationships, at some point the honeymoon phase does end.

Molly: Yeah. This led some researchers to wonder if we just have too high of expectations of marriage. How happy is happy enough? It's not always going to be chocolate and flowers, or whatever your, I don't know, bar is for very happy. There will be times when you have kids, when things get rough, and they wonder if these couples because they've been trained by pop culture to think that affairs are okay and that constant romance is a norm, that these people are throwing away what would have been just a fairly happy marriage.

Cristen: And to complicate matters even more though, Molly, it's not really marital discord that's going to lead to your cheating heart, too, according to yet another study, a 2008 study, that found that half of women reported marital problems before an affair, which means the other half, no big deal, whereas only a quarter of the men reported marital problems. So that's three-quarters, 75 percent of the guys -

Molly: Think that everything is great.

Cristen: Not too bad.

Molly: Or they're not paying attention. Maybe they don't realize they have a problem in their marriage, and they really do because apparently more women than men are thinking, "Yeah, this relationship's over and time to find someone new."

Cristen: Yeah, because according to - and this is another study in the Journal of Sex Roles, men usually cite "They saw an opportunity and took it," as their reason for cheating.

Molly: And women are more likely to say, "Oh, this relationship is already ending. I'm bored with this person." And they're more likely to, if they do take a new lover, to continue a relationship with him after they end the previous relationship.

Cristen: So do you think then, based on this pile of studies that we were discussing, that this is confirming the stereotype of men cheating for sex and women cheating for love?

Molly: So far it does look like that.

Cristen: But things are starting to change a little bit with all this research because the rates of women committing adultery are starting to climb, sort of correlated to the rise of women in the workforce.

Molly: And I think that because women might have more jobs where they travel, I do think that there are more women having affairs just to have the sex than maybe these numbers or these studies we've discussed so far would indicate.

Cristen: Yeah, and women are also kind of increasing in status professionally, and that is, therefore, making them more attractive and more alluring, perhaps, to other potential partners.

Molly: Right. Because some people that - we mentioned Dr. Laura's exception for narcissistic partners, and one theory that's been brought up is that if someone's a politician, they have to have some level of narcissism to constantly promote themselves and think that they're good enough to be voted by America to perform a task.So they're saying that some careers, like politicians or let's say an airline pilot, has to have a certain amount of confidence in himself. They're saying that some jobs will always kind of be magnets for adultery, and as more women maybe get into these careers - apparently, the infidelity magnet careers are athlete, pilot, lawyer, doctor, and anything that brings fame.

Cristen: What about Internet podcaster and writer?

Molly: I couldn't find any research on that, Cristen, but here's one study that does affect both of us because we are currently single. I found one study that found that single women - all the single ladies - sorry, I got distracted by Beyoncé there in my head - single women are likely to give married men that opportunity to cheat that is so important to them because one study that was reported in The New York Times, found that single women are more likely to mate poach, to see a married man and say, "Hey, give me a piece of that."

Cristen: Wow, mate poach. I'm just stuck on that right now.

Molly: Yeah. They did this study where they showed single women a picture of a man, and there were two groups - one was told this man is single, ready to mingle, and one group was told this man is in a committed relationship, and it was a picture of the same man in both cases. So when the single women were told that he was single, 58 percent of them were like, "Let's go," and in the group where they told that he was committed, 90 percent of the single women were like, "Let's go."

Cristen: All right. I won't tell if you won't tell.

Molly: So there is some sort of evolutionary thing they think where the man has proved to society that he's worth marrying, and thus he is a better partner than someone who is still a lonely fish in the sea.

Cristen: Man, we are telling up all these points in favor of evolutionary biology, and I got to say I'm not entirely comfortable with it, Molly. I don't like everything just being boiled down to women, babies, and resources.

Molly: You're not the only one. Let's go evolution head on because that is sort of the next phase in terms of how they have studied cheating.

Cristen: Yeah, some researchers have taken issue with the way that a lot of these cheating studies have been set up, they think skew the results in favor of sort of kneejerk evolutionary biology results.

Molly: Right. And it comes down to something called forced choice. A lot of these studies will pose a question to men and women and say, "Which is worse to you? Sexual infidelity or emotional infidelity?" And usually there's a big gender difference in this, that men will say the sexual infidelity bothers me more and women will say the emotional infidelity bothers me more, and this makes perfect sense to evolutionary psychologists because they're like the man doesn't want to be stuck raising a kid who's not his, and the woman doesn't want to have her resources threatened by another woman that the man feels strongly about.But like you said, these critics are questioning asking a question in a forced choice method because it might allow people to think and make rational, complex decisions rather than having, like you said, a kneejerk reaction to infidelity.

Cristen: Yeah. I think one of the researchers compared - he calls it the Sophia's Choice method.

Molly: Right.

Cristen: So in order to test this hypothesis, instead of just having them just choose between emotional or sexual cheating, while they were having to answer the question, they also had these participants have to remember and recall a series of numbers. So they were thinking that this would kind of jumble their thinking process, so they wouldn't be able to really go through the -

Molly: They couldn't rationalize.

Cristen: Yes, that's the word. They found the gap closed; the gender gap closed. Both sexes said that they were more disturbed by sexual infidelity.

Molly: So basically if you want to not have your lady think too hard, according to this study, just have her remember numbers and then she'll only be upset about the sex and not the emotional betrayal.

Cristen: Yeah. Be like, "Hey, I cheated on you, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6."

Molly: But these people are trying to say that evolution probably can't account for all of it, that a kneejerk reaction everyone's upset that any sort of physical infidelity takes place.

Cristen: Yeah. They've also noted that there are cultural differences, as well, among American, European, and Chinese men. They'll find different forms of cheating upsetting.

Molly: Right. Apparently, Chinese men are more upset by the emotional betrayal, as opposed to the sexual one.

Cristen: But Molly, one thing, though, that we haven't come around to, and this was the most compelling finding from this article that you wrote, to me, is a little something called sperm wars.

Molly: Let's talk about sperm wars.

Cristen: Because we really haven't talked that much about the physical act of women cheating.

Molly: Right. And you're not fully on board with the evolutionary viewpoint, but if you do take an evolutionary viewpoint and let's say that the old stereotype about wanting an emotional connection, if that's the reason for cheating holds up, then why would women cheat if they do have all of that that they need?

Cristen: Ooh, our favorite answer for everything here on Mom Stuff, Molly - hormones.

Molly: Hormones and babies because there was a study in, appropriately enough, Hormones and Behavior, that shows that women tend to cheat at the most fertile part of their menstrual cycle, even if they are not trying to get pregnant.And the men they cheat with, are men who are more attractive than their spouse, even if the spouse represents everything you would really want in a father, in terms of being emotionally stable, financial stable, and so forth. If you find a man that you deem more attractive, these researchers are saying that some evolutionary urge will kick in and tell you that good genes come from handsome men.

Cristen: And you, therefore, wage a sperm war.

Molly: And you cheat. So you cheat to get these good-looking genes, and if you're in your most fertile part of your cycle and you have sex with several men, best sperm wins.

Cristen: So according to these researchers, women are waging these so-called sperm wars in order to get the most genetic bang for her buck because she has to carry around a baby for nine months.

Molly: Right. She's always going to be looking for the best deal. Now men, men are not going to want to, evolutionary speaking, want to raise children that aren't their own becau se they've got resources to give, and they've only got so much to give. So they want to foil the sperm wars, and researchers at Florida Atlantic University have been studying how a man in a relationship can foil his partner's sperm wars.

Cristen: Yeah, and they think that a woman who has been separated from a man, who has possibly had sex with someone else, this does have some kind of an effect on her partner because they've noticed that if a couple's been separated for a long time, regardless of whether or not he knows if she has had sex with someone else, the next time -

Molly: But if she's had the opportunity.

Cristen: If she's had the opportunity, the next time that couple has intercourse the man will produce more sperm, which therefore gives him better odds of impregnating his partner.

Molly: Right. And it's possible that the actual act of sex itself, once a couple has been separated or if there have been allegations of infidelity, can foil sperm wars because there's thinking that some sex positions allow the man to pull sperm from the woman's vagina.

Cristen: Yeah, so they think that subconsciously, women are waging sperm wars and men are fighting back by producing more sperm, and using certain positions. Okay.

Molly: That's why some people don't like evolutionary psychology.

Cristen: Yeah, but that's research.

Molly: That's why you were expressing discomfort.

Cristen: I'd like to read that grant proposal for sperm wars.

Molly: I'd really like to read that screenplay. But if you want to know more about any of these studies, just head on over to How Stuff Works. I wrote an article called, "Do men and women cheat for different reasons?" and all of those studies are cited there, so if you want to read more about any of those that would be the place to do it. But I have to say, it was probably the most depressing article I've ever written, like I said, and I'm glad it's done.

Cristen: Yeah, it's a problematic question because there has to be more to cheating, sometimes, than just men being sexual opportunists and women looking for soul mates. It's kind of sad that a lot of the research sort of boils it down to that, but -

Molly: But that's why we have listeners to write in and share their own experiences.

Cristen: Yes. Please share your thoughts because like you, Molly, I am a little troubled by the sum of all these studies. So speaking of which, let's turn to our wonderful listeners for a little bit of email.

Molly: Some levity in the midst of all this dark sadness.

Cristen: Yeah, let's go from adultery to Disney princesses.

Molly: What if there had been a Disney princess that had committed adultery?

Cristen: Uh oh.

Molly: That would have thrown a wrench into things. So do you want to start?

Cristen: Sure. I've got an email here from Kate, and she says that Cinderella is her least favorite of all princess movies. "Prince Charming has four lines in the entire movie, and he had no distinct facial features. It always seems to me that it was the worst example of a prince. Even as a child, I was confused as to why any princess with a great wardrobe and a magic couch would waste her time on a man with no voice, no personality, who takes no initiative in finding her.I've always felt that simply by choosing such a bland and boring individual, Cinderella immediately dropped to the bottom of all princesses." She instead "prefers movies that combine strong women, a man with a strong personality, and villains capable of being dangerous, which is why Sleepin g Beauty is the greatest of all Disney movies. Aurora is great, Phillip has pizzazz, and Maleficent is scary as heck. It also has a fight with an enormous fire-breathing dragon, not to mention amazing art, truly the greatest of all things," so thank you, Kate.

Molly: Now, Abby has a little bit of a different take on Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty. She writes, "I received a copy of Sleeping Beauty for my 16th birthday, and was surprised to watch it at that stage of my life and realize then how small a role in the film the prince actually has. This is something that has stuck with me, and whenever my friends and I get on the subject of Disney movies, I tend to comment on how Prince Phillip is really quite useless. He is just there to kiss the princess to wake her up, and actually does very little else.Even during the end battle against Maleficent, it's actually the fairy godmothers who do most of the work enchanting the baddies' weapons or charming the sword so it finds her heart. So the true moral, I've decided, is the people you should count on the most are the ones who have raised you and taken care of you since you were a baby. Taken from this angle, Sleeping Beauty is a very positive story. Sure it's nice to have a man in your life who will kiss you so you wake up, but it's also important to have strong women who will always have your back." That's from Abby.

Cristen: Yeah, so guys, if you have any thoughts about cheating hearts or whatever else is on your mind, you should send me and Molly an email at And as always during the week, you should check out our blog HowToStuff, and look out for those Don Draper references.

Molly: Give yourself points when you find them. We do.

Cristen: Yes, and if you, again, want to read Molly's excellent article, "Do men and women cheat for different reasons?" where you can find all of the study references that we have mentioned because there were a lot of them, you should head on over to

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Want more How Stuff Works? Check out our blogs on the homepage.