When word got out that Brad Pitt cheated on his wife Jennifer Aniston with Angelina Jolie, the world reacted in a typical way: It blamed his wife and his mistress instead of him. Pitt spoke out that he was “wasting his life” while married to Aniston, and those around him thought that Jolie brought out a spark in him. As such, it seemed Pitt gained sympathy for having a wife who didn’t make him happy because naturally, it’s her job to ensure that he is satisfied. In the end, Pitt walked away from the scandal unscathed, yet Aniston was blamed for not being exciting enough and Jolie was labeled as a home-wrecker.
Why wasn’t the finger pointed at Pitt? Because he’s a man.
Why Women Are Blamed
In general, it seems that women are labeled as responsible for the quality of a relationship because they are seen as the upholders of them. But why?
“Historically, most women were dependent upon men,” says family, marriage, and sex therapist Georgia Nickles. “There was a division of labor. Men were supposed to concentrate upon providing food and shelter, whereas women were supposed to uphold relationships, offer comfort, compassion, and sexual satisfaction, as well as care for their home and children. These stereotypical positions are deeply rooted into our modern-day thinking, even though there are changes in attitudes happening as the stereotypical roles are slowing evolving.”
And even though women work outside of the home now, raise children on their own, and have worked hard to be seen as “equals” with men, they are still unfairly blamed when things go awry in the relationship. Instead of blaming the person who strays, the world would rather try to figure out why the cheating happened and then place blame. Often, that blame is placed on the woman, even when it’s wrong.
“The blame never falls on one person in the relationship,” says Christopher K. Belous, PhD, a sexological researcher and professor of couple and family. “Often, infidelity is caused by both partners pulling away and distancing themselves from the relationship itself—and is a symptom of larger issues.”
He says that many people think that because a woman is supposed to “make her man happy,” that any infidelity her partner commits is her fault and that she did something wrong.
“This is absolutely untrue, and a myth of our culture,” he says. “Women are not the only people responsible for relationships, sex, and emotional connection.”
And yet, they are often still told they are.
What Women Are Blamed For
It’s safe to say that when a man cheats, he does so on his own accord. His wife or girlfriend doesn’t ask or force him to stray, but when he does, the woman is usually looked at as the guilty party. People want to know what she did to make him cheat, instead of figuring out what changed in him to make him want to stray.
And although this is far from fair, or the truth, it happens.
“Often, women are blamed for the choices that men make when they break the contract of fidelity in marriage,” says Nickels. “The blame usually centers around such reasons as the following: the women were not interested in providing enough sex for the man, the women were never interested in pursuing the man, the woman had become sexually boring, the woman had let herself go physically, the woman had lost interest in the husband in general, or that the woman had become hyper-focused upon children or other interests.”
In other words, women are accused of not having enough sex, not giving their partners enough attention, or spending too much time taking care of their children when their partner cheats. However, if a person is questioning why the affair happened, it’s important for them to take a look at their partner, not just themselves, says Hilary Phillips, licensed professional counselor and certified sex therapist.
“When there has been an affair it is important for both partners to take a long, honest look at the relationship dynamics and the personality/behavior styles of each partner,” she says. “It is possible that the person who cheated has characterological issues, such as narcissism or even sociopathy—these are the people who will most likely cheat again.”
The Real Reason Men Cheat
Besides having an uncontrollable attraction to someone they just can’t resist, men cheat for a variety of reasons. And some of the reasons have less to do with physicality and are more about emotion, or lack thereof.
“There are so many reasons that people cheat in a relationship; my experience is that it is very rarely just one reason behind an affair,” says Phillips. “Some common contributing factors are poor communication and feeling disconnected emotionally and physically from a partner. It is common for those who have cheated to say they felt hopeless that things would ever feel exciting and connected in the relationship again.”
They may also cheat because they have unrealistic expectations of the relationship and then feel disappointment as a result, says Nickels.
“They often do not have the communications skills to deal with their disappointing partners,” she says. “Additionally, men fail to see their own part in the marital disappointments. Also, men often have intimacy and sex confused, or they have unrealistic expectations of what women are supposed to do. Unable to deal with disappointment, men, many times, do an end-run around problems, which means finding an affair partner.”
What Women Often Do When He Cheats
Although women will typically blame their husbands or boyfriends for the affair, they also tend to place the blame on someone else: themselves. They tend to question what they did wrong, and then believe that if they had behaved differently, their partners would be satisfied and faithful. Most of the time, however, this is wrong.
“I think this is directly connected to that historical perspective and social belief that women are responsible for the relationship,” says Belous. “As such, and because they hold that belief (falsely), they end up blaming themselves for the infidelity—subconsciously saying to themselves, ‘If I had been good enough,’ or ‘If only I were better at sex,’ then their partner wouldn’t have left. Of course, this is also completely untrue.”
And in addition to themselves, women will also point at someone else other than their partners: the other woman.
You’ve likely seen the trashy talk shows in which the girlfriend and other woman attack each other once the affair has been discovered. Instead of throwing punches at the man, the woman who has been cheated on takes her anger out on the mistress, which further contributes to women taking the blame for infidelity. But why go after the other woman when your partner is the one who hurt you?
“Affairs are devastating and can rock the foundation of everything we know our life to be” says Phillips. “This can be so overwhelming that a common defense mechanism is to blame external factors. Often, with time, people can take an honest look at themselves and their relationship to truly understand why an affair happened.”
What They Should Do
If you do find yourself in the nightmare of learning your partner had an affair, the first thing you should do is avoid blaming yourself. Your partner has a mind of his own and you did not make him cheat, no matter what he or others say. And if you do find others pointing the finger at you, consider the source.
“I think any woman who is being blamed for the infidelity of her partner needs to check the people who are doing the blaming,” says Belous. “Are those people who are truly necessary or actually a good part of your life? I recommend to every couple that I’ve worked with who are going through a monogamous infidelity situation, to consider being more open and public about their situation and experience. Why should we shame ourselves for making a mistake?”
It is also important to understand that marriage has evolved from what it used to be. Along with working together to build a life, partners also expect their significant others to be their best friends, support systems, co-parents, and passionate lovers. That’s a whole lot of expectation for one person, says Phillips.
“With open, honest communication couples can learn to manage these high expectations and learn how to get some needs met from other sources—and create a monogamy agreement that works for them,” she says. “With a little less pressure on the relationship, we may see the prevalence of cheating, which can have devastating effects, come down.”
Dealing with your partner’s infidelity is difficult enough, but when you’re being blamed for the affair, you may face an impossible situation.
“When a partner cheats or breaks a contract, it is simply a maladaptive choice,” says Nickels. “It is very difficult to be the victim who gets blamed or shamed. Individual therapy can be very helpful in order to develop the ego strength needed to deal with that blame and/or shame.”
And it’s also helpful to realize that you are not to blame, no matter what anyone says and that you deserve to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t feel the need to stray.