“As surprising as it is, infidelity is very common during the first year of marriage,” says Dr Bonnie Eaker Weil, author of Adultery: The Forgivable Sin. US researchers who analysed data on infidelity found that roughly 20% of men and 15% of women under age 35 admitted to cheating on their spouses in 2006 (the latest figures available).
This is up from 15 and 12%, respectively, 15 years earlier.
What gives? Part of the problem, says Cape Town-based psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Mary Ovenstone, are the constant messages of excitement and instant emotional gratification fed to us by the media – a far cry from what our parents’ generation experienced: “A slower lifestyle in which they were able to sustain interest in the home through thick and thin.”
“Also, newlyweds have this sense about cheating that if you’re going to do it, do it now,” says infidelity expert Gary Neuman. “Men may feel that if the marriage was a mistake, it’s better to figure it out before things get even more entangled with kids and families.”
A 2011 survey conducted among the UK members of AshleyMadison.com, a dating site that unapologetically caters to married people looking to stray, not only showed infidelity among newlyweds to be on the rise, but highlighted a “seven-month itch”: more than two-thirds of cheaters had done so shortly after seven months of marriage.
But there are ways to protect your fledgling marriage. The key is to be proactive – don’t assume that uttering “I do” ensures fidelity. Here, the top reasons experts say newlywed men stray and how to take action to make sure your guy doesn’t.
Reason no 1
You’ve played house for years
There was a time when being a newlywed meant finally getting to share a roof. Not so today. More couples than ever are shacking up – 3.6 million in 2011, compared with fewer than a million 30 years ago, according to South African Census statistics. Add the time you’ve lived together to the average 17-month engagement, and it’s a good bet the attraction is less electric by the time you walk down the aisle.
Research shows that infidelity rates are much higher among cohabiting couples than married people who don’t live together first. One possible reason: “It’s about commitment,” says Anthony Hawthorn, training manager at FAMSA. “With couples who choose to live together, the core feeling is that there’s always an out.” And if that’s the attitude, it won’t necessarily change simply because you get married.
Reason no 2
The web makes cheating easy
It’s simpler than ever to find an affair online – and the people searching for one aren’t always those you’d suspect. Of Ashley Madison.com’s 18 million users worldwide, roughly 15% are newlyweds, according to the site’s president, Noel Biderman. The site launched in South Africa in 2012.
“The erotic, exotic and forbidden are what attract people,” sexologist Elna McIntosh explains. “This might mean experimenting cross-culturally, up or down the socio-economic ladder, or cheating while married.” Offices are a hotbed for affairs, she adds, since many South African men in their thirties are burning the candle at both ends, working late hours and travelling for business. “With instant messaging, it’s easy to flirt, even while you’re in a meeting.”
Reason no 3
Marriage hits guys harder
Compared with dating and an engagement, marriage is serious business. It can seem like a drag, especially to men. Ovenstone partly attributes this to the spirit of our times: as young people, we’re no longer trained to see our lives in terms of responsibilities, she believes. “The focus is on having great experiences, instead of foregoing short-term pleasure for longterm gains in the home and family.” Also, when a man is suddenly responsible for making money to provide for his wife during the child-bearing years, “it can feel scary and daunting,” says Ovenstone.
Reason no 4
The sex has become stale
Around the two-year mark, the romantic high fuelled by novelty and attraction dies down. As Ovenstone explains, this calmer phase can lead to a deepening of love – but in the bedroom, diminished passion can simply feel like “boring marital sex”.
Reason no 5
Marriage didn’t fix him
You’d think commitment-phobes would avoid the altar, but often they go through with marriage thinking that it will “cure” them. When it doesn’t, they feel trapped.
Men who’ve cheated may have commitment issues that hark back to insufficient bonding with their mothers during childhood, explains Ovenstone.
The 2011 survey run by AshleyMadison.com showed that men who stray before they get married are far more likely to have an affair once they’ve taken their vows. Of male respondents, 76% had cheated before marrying and cite having “always been unfaithful” as their main reason for continuing to cheat. (Only 21% of female respondents had cheated before their marriage, and realising they “made a mistake” in their choice of husband was their main motive for straying.)
Ovenstone offers these warning signs: an extremely active sex life, a lot of female friends, a lot of male friends who cheat and a mother or father who cheated.
This is an edited version of this article. The full version, with advice on how to cope, can be found in the Women’s Health “All Stars Issue” (May issue, now on sale).