Adultery's two sets of rules

August 20, 1993|By Karen Uhlenhuth and April D. McClellan | Karen Uhlenhuth and April D. McClellan,Kansas City Star

Burt Reynolds admitted he did it, but he accused his wife, Loni Anderson, of doing it first.

They're the most recent example of marital infidelity involving celebrities, and they're by no means alone. Estimates vary, but one commonly cited statistic holds that about half of American men and about one-third of American women cheat at some point during their married life.

Days after Mr. Reynolds filed for divorce, he revealed in a National Enquirer story that he had been having an affair for 2 1/2 years with a cocktail lounge manager from Tampa, Fla. He also accused Ms. Anderson of having an affair, which he said initially caused the marriage to crumble. She has denied his accusations.

In adultery, as in so much else, there's a gap between the sexes. Women do it their way and men do it theirs.

For example:

Although more men than women cheat, "that gap is narrowing," says Frank Pittman III of Atlanta, a psychiatrist and author of "Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy."

He contends that men are having fewer affairs than 20 years ago and women are having more. Now it is "politically correct" for women -- but not men -- to have affairs, he contends.

Annette Lawson, a British sociologist and author who surveyed the British about adultery, concludes that the "fidelity span" -- the period between the wedding and the start of the first adulterous relationship -- has decreased in recent decades.

According to her study, among cheating couples who were married before 1960, the fidelity span is 14.6 years for women and 11.3 years for men. Among couples who married between 1960 and 1969, the gap is 8.2 years for women and 7.9 years for men. Among couples married after 1969, it is 4.2 years for women and 5.3 years for men.

She theorizes that women have developed greater expectations from marriage in recent decades and have accordingly been more willing to go outside of a marriage that wasn't meeting those expectations.

In extramarital affairs, men are "very much attracted to damsels in distress," according to Dr. Pittman. "They pick someone needy and dependent and end up with outrageously inappropriate choices.

"Women are a great deal wiser in their choices. If they're feeling particularly helpless or overwhelmed, they're likely to choose someone who seems strong."

Women are more inclined than men to take their paramours to their own home and bed. According to one estimate, 33 percent of women take men home, whereas an estimated 20 percent of men take women home.

As you might suspect, men are mostly seeking sex in an affair; women are more interested in emotional satisfaction, according to Dr. Pittman.

Women most often have affairs when their marriage isn't working well. Men, especially those who cheat repeatedly, often go out on their wives because the marriage is going too well. Commitment-averse men can keep their distance in a sour marriage. But in a marriage that's chugging along, some men pursue affairs "to keep from being completely engulfed, from losing themselves in the partnership," Dr. Pittman says.

"The central difference is that women make more of [affairs] than men do. Women keep thinking it's going to end in marriage, this guy is going to slaughter his wife and children, and the two of them are going walk over mutilated bodies to walk down the aisle.

"Men don't think in those terms."

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