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A Real Guy on Why Men Cheat

My dad set down his coffee cup and thought about it for awhile. I had just asked him why he cheated on my mom many years earlier. “You know, what? I was just so unhappy at the time. I had to do something.”

That answer, other than scaring me off of marriage for years, is still the best answer for why most men do it. It’s what Jesse James or Tiger Woods or even John Edwards would say if you sat down with them over a drink and asked for a short answer as to why they screwed up their lives when they were living the dream with great women.

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Men often don’t think in shades of gray (and if they do, they usually lose to Republicans), but as they soldier on in life, they define their success by being married to a sexy, successful woman in a swanky house with some kids and a sweet ride. And then, once they achieve any part of that, they go out and do something to sabotage it. They say to themselves “I have it all but I’m still unhappy … why?”

Of course, there are a multitude of reasons—many of which are specific to the relationship. But men do have a few things in common. Namely, they must feel like they have some degree of power over their lives. They must be in control. And as we all know, marriage is about giving up some of that control. No, we can’t throw empty beer cans against the wall and leave the seat up after we pee. No, we can’t leave Debbie Does Dallas on in the DVR or cold pizza on the kitchen floor. We have to give up freedom. And we associate freedom with control. And it scares the living s— out of us. But the married man is willing to give that up because he sees there’s a gain for what’s he’s lost. Love, really—someone who actually gives a damn about him. Seems like a fair trade off to me and it’s one reason I got married.

So why would I screw it up? I think it would be the moment I stop giving a damn about myself. It’s the moment I stop believing in who I am and that I have something to give. Without that, all the love in the world can’t save me.

“Jack,” a 33-year-old history professor from Seattle, WA, had it all. He met his wife in law school and later they bought a house together in burbs. “I look back at those early years of marriage and I felt just I was living at face value. I was in the relationship but I felt like I couldn’t really share my fears and insecurities with her,” he says. “I felt like I had to be ‘the man’ and never be weak. And after awhile, it just seemed like I was playing a role. I stopped being real. The only way to shake myself out of it was to cheat. I had to make it unfixable in order to fix it. But, of course, looking back on it, I should’ve found another way.”

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Obviously, Jack felt he’d lost who he thought he was. There was something about marriage where he felt he had to hide something about himself. And once the authenticity goes, so does the passion. Jack was out of ideas — and since men don’t know how to fix emotional problems very well, one of the easiest ways to restore power is to have a perfectly strange women tell him that he’s still got it. But what’s the “it”? Even he doesn’t know. Maybe it’s what he had all along.

No excuses, of course. Men have to figure out how to find themselves without exchanging saliva. We need to stop and ask ourselves why we can’t find another way to shake things up when they’re stagnant. The temporary high of the illicit affair is often an illusion. It usually consists of two people telling each other what they want to hear. The man who cheats is a man who is constantly disappointed by his expectations—whether they are about being single or being married.

If I could tell a young groom anything today about staying faithful in marriage, it would be it would be the following Zen proverb: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I would hope he’d understand.

Jod Kaftan’s long career as a dater and scoundrel has finally been replaced with the happily married life. He has contributed to Rolling Stone, Salon and The New York Times. Follow him on or his LA Times technology blog at

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