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David Schnarch
Dr. David Schnarch

New ideas, important thoughts, and assorted musings

Why Rich and Powerful People Cheat

Part 2 of 4: They Are Just Like Everyone Else

By Dr. David Schnarch

Author of Intimacy & Desire and Passionate Marriage

In the prior column I wrote about how the lifestyles of the rich and famous promote extramarital affairs. Here we'll consider it the other way around: Part of the reason rich and powerful people cheat boils down to how they are just like everyone else.

No culture exists in which adultery is unknown, despite social rules, moral precepts, and punishment with death. Research indicates over 70% of men and 50% of women have affairs. Bonding with a single mate (monogamy) and extramarital affairs seem to be part of our evolutionary pair-bonding strategy. As a species, we like devotion and philandering.
The rich and famous have their flaws, blind spots, and lapses in judgment, just like you and me.  That’s why there’s been an ongoing parade of political, business, and religious leaders blowing up their careers long before Tiger Woods. Even really smart people do incredibly stupid things when it comes to sex.

One major factor that makes affairs popular is common dependence on getting a positive reflected sense of self from the people around us, the clothes we wear, the house we live in, and the car we drive.  We light up when someone finds us attractive or thinks we’re special.  We feel desirable because someone desires us, and we often spend our days (and nights) trying to find someone to validate us. When other-validated intimacy fades in marriage, as it inevitably does, many people turn to affairs to pump themselves up,  regardless of wealth or status.  This surprises us in people like Tiger Woods because we expect  famous accomplished people to believe in themselves before or after they “made it.”  But many are painfully insecure despite their success, and need constant validation, adoration, and limelight.  This combination of insecurity and grandiosity is the downfall of many “stars.” Tiger may be screwing up his life, but his choice of sex partners suggests he is screwing “down” –picking people of low status and achievement who will idolize him.

But to really understand Tiger Wood’s situation, stop thinking of him as a powerful man and think of him as just like you and me, a married man with a 2-year old daughter and a 9-month old son. Tiger and his wife Elin are in the middle of a 5 year marriage, and let’s assume it’s a really good one. In my book, Intimacy & Desire, I write about why normal couples have sexual problems. One truth about committed relationships is the low desire partner always controls sex.  The low desire partner decides when and how sex happens. This holds true all around the world.  So if Tiger and Elin are normal, sex has cooled off and become routine. NORMAL couples have problems with low desire and sexual boredom because it’s built into committed relationships. Fifty  to 70% of people have affairs instead of working this out.

Now when you’re a powerful man having an affair, the rules change: the high desire partner controls sex.  You can have sex any time and any way you want. And it’s easier to be sexually adventurous in an affair, than with your wife, where it’s harder to validate something new you might want, and these things may have already been declared off-limits.

Add to this the typical impacts on sex of having two children, an infant and a toddler. Husbands often miss the attention they use to receive that their wives now devote to the children. Besides the fatigue and demands of caring for young children, wives are notoriously turned off by needy husbands who compete with their children for attention instead of pitching in to help.

The other-validated intimacy that characterizes dating is strictly time limited in marriage. Many people have affairs  because they  crave that reflected sense of self—the great emotional high—you get when you’re dating or flirting. When you have plenty of adoring attractive women making themselves available, ready to pump up your reflected sense of self like your wife did in the old days, lots of people succumb.  Judging from the emerging pattern of Tiger’s affairs throughout the length of his marriage, these are just contributing factors to a pattern well underway before he and Elin walked down the isle.

In Part 3 we'll consider why celebrity couples are prone to affairs.