On a recent debate about marital infidelity on CNN a fellow panelist was adamant that Tiger Wood’s unfaithfulness was both predictable and unpreventable. ‘As a famous guy you meet a lot of beautiful women. You feel attracted to them, they feel attracted to you, and you end up in bed. It’s not more complicated than that and there’s no way to stop it.’ Men cheat. Get used to it. Case closed.
Such shallow drivel has been the level of discourse ever since the story broke that Woods may have had enough mistresses to staff a female softball team. Firstly, if there is no way to guarantee male faithfulness, why are we all scandalized by Tiger’s behavior? And second, a whole parade of powerful men – Eliot Spitzer, John Ensign, Mark Sanford, John Edwards – are destroying themselves and their families with acts of infidelity. And we can’t come with any cause other powerful men have a sense of entitlement?
What impedes any deep understanding of infidelity is the public’s natural assumption that husbands have affairs for sex. In fact, the vast majority of husband’s affairs have no physical component. They are cyber affairs that take place over the internet. They are conducted over the phone and are never consummated. And even when they do get physical it is often very bad and unsatisfying sex, as Monica Lewinsky shared in the Starr Report and as a multitude of JFK’s mistresses alleged as well.
In truth, men have affairs not for physical reasons but for emotional ones. They cheat not out of a sense of confidence but out of a state of brokenness. Not out of a sense of how desirable they are but out of a sense of what failures they are. And this is especially true of men like Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton who live in a hyper-competitive environments where they realize that they are only special to the extent that they keep on winning. Men like these are particularly broken, living as they do just one failure away from obscurity. They know that their value as human beings rests entirely in other people’s hands. And they live in permanent and painful insecurity. They constantly question their self-worth and they turn to women both to feel desirable and sexy and to comfort them from their pain.
Yes, I know. Men like Tiger Woods appear to the public as cool-as-a-cucumber. But beneath the calm veneer is a man who has been trained to believe that his value as a human being rests entirely on a never-ending game of human one-upmanship. Those who have made their names in sports and politics live with unimaginable insecurity. And rather than deal with these insecurities in a healthy way by having deep emotional conversations with their wives about their fears, it is easier to simply paper them over by turning to strangers who make them feel special. The attention of other women brings a momentary silencing of the inner demons who constantly taunt them with whispers of their own insignificance. And the more prized the woman is by other men, the greater the validation these men feel. Coupled with this is the intuitive gravitation by men to the healing powers of the feminine. Men who are in pain use the caress and the care of a woman as a salve to sooth their broken egos. Having a woman care for you and make herself available to you – not to mention tell you how wonderful you are – becomes a like a drug that makes you feel instantly better. Of course, the healing is ephemeral and unfulfilling based as it is on a highly artificial sense of intimacy.
The obvious question, now, is this. If a man who feels deeply insecure looks to a woman to make him feel special, then why doesn’t he turn to his own wife? Because any man who suspects deep down that he is a loser is going to look at the woman dumb enough to marry him as a loser squared. She has allied herself with failure and is part of the same loser package. And if she has no value, how can she confer it on someone else?
The public makes the mistake of assuming that powerful, successful men are the most confident, that elite sport stars like Tiger Woods are unflappable. Precisely the opposite is true. Everyone who seeks the spotlight, whether in sports, television or politics, does so to compensate for some inner feeling of inadequacy, as Aristotle made clear more than two millennia ago. Every ‘successful’ man is inwardly broken in some way. If not, why would they spend their lives seeking a place in the public’s heart?
Many will argue with me. Adultery is about sex. It’s about powerful men behaving arrogantly. But then why is the most common refrain of the adulterous husband to his mistress the very infamous, ‘My wife doesn’t understand me,’ meaning, My wife can’t take away my pain, but maybe you can. My wife can’t make me feel good about myself. Even in my marriage I still feel so insignificant. But being with you makes me feel special.
I was not at all surprised to hear Tiger’s alleged mistresses saying that he told them he loved them and was unhappy with his wife. Cheating husbands always say things like this. And at the time, they mean it. Monica Lewinsky said that Bill Clinton told her he would leave Hillary and marry her, which again is common with the unfaithful spouse. They’re expressing their inner misery and blaming their wives for their unhappiness when really they are solely responsible for their low self-esteem which will carry over into every relationship until he finally decides to fix himself.
This is why we see philandering husbands so often having many, as opposed to just one mistress, like Tiger Woods. No woman can make a broken man feel good about himself. So he becomes a wanderer, obsessively traveling from woman to woman hoping that at least one will provide the magical salve he seeks.
Many have said that husbands like Tiger Woods are sex addicts. But then why aren’t they addicted to sex with their wives? Why does it have to come from another woman?
But from understanding the cause we can create a solution. Men who learn to talk to their wives about their deepest fears slowly become immune to an affair. Infidelity, it turns out, often provides a starting point for couples to address the void in their relationship which usually consists of the lack of truly intimate communication about life’s anxieties and apprehensions. A man’s deepest fear is of failure. And the person he most masks this from is his own wife because she is the person whose opinion matters most. I know husbands who have been laid off from their jobs in this recession who still put on a suit every day and leave the house so that their wives never find out. So called ‘successful’ men harbor the same fears. And rather than destructively address the fear by becoming a stud to other women, he can purge from himself a dependency on strangers by learning to confide fully in his wife.
The number one complaint of wives in marriage is that their husbands don’t talk to them about their feelings. When a philandering husband is trying to win his wife back after cheating on her, what better way than to finally open up to her about the reasons for his unfaithfulness. It was never a rejection of her. It did not happen because she did not give him enough sex, or that she didn’t go to the gym, or wasn’t emotionally available. Those are the excuses of a coward. A boy blames others for his failures. A man takes responsibility for his actions. Rather, it was because he falsely thought that someone other than his wife could make him feel good about himself. And now he has learned that those feelings of self-confidence are the preserve of only one woman.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is author of many books on relationships, including ‘The Kosher Sutra,’ ‘Kosher Sex,’ and ‘Kosher Adultery.’ www.shmuley.com