Do married dads cheat on their wives because they feel "dethroned" by their kids? And is the rate of male infidelity higher among those families that invest the most emotional energy into their children? Though a new report suggests so, the real root of the problem may not be kids, but the entitlement complex of affluent husbands.
Park Slope is already infamous for its anxiety-ridden, helicoptering parents. It appears that all of that obsessiveness isn't just bad for the kids growing up around Prospect Park. It's also wreaking havoc on their parents' marriages. According to Ashley Madison –- the website devoted to enabling adultery — Brooklyn's most desirable community is home to more cheating spouses than any other neighborhood in New York City.
Ashley Madison CEO Noel Biderman insists that more women than ever are unfaithful to their spouses (a PR spokesperson claims that the site's fastest growing membership category is women aged 25-34) but notes that men and women cheat for different reasons. "For women, the more successful they are, the more likely they are to cheat. For men, we've found that infidelity usually comes into play when children come on to the scene."
It's not news that having kids can be bad for marital satisfaction. Several major studies have found that parents are more depressed than those who've never reproduced or adopted children. The evidence shows that marital satisfaction drops equally for both men and women after kids come into the picture. Yet according to Ashley Madison, dads are likelier than moms to sexualize that unhappiness outside of their marriages.
The "news" from Ashley Madison sits uncomfortably alongside the dominant media narrative about men's changing attitudes towards fatherhood. In December, the Census Bureau trumpeted the stunning news that one third of fathers with working wives regularly care for their children. That represented a 6% increase since 2002. Progress to be sure, but the fractions and percentages make clear an obvious point: moms, whether or not they work outside the home, still do the bulk of the parenting. And if Biderman is right about fatherhood increasing men's propensity to cheat, what it suggests is that too many husbands resent both the attention their wives give to their children and their own intense obligation to be dads. Presumably, this explains why New York City Ashley Madison membership is highest in the neighborhood most famous for single-minded dedication to perfection in parenting.
So why do dads cheat so much more often than moms? Is it that even the most affluent moms are simply too exhausted by the double-shift of career and child-care to be interested in an affair? Or is it that the experience of bringing children into a marriage is much more likely to upset men's sense of what they're entitled to, driving them to seek fulfillment in an affair? According to relationship coach LiYana Silver, men don't cheat because they're horny. They cheat, she told HuffPo in a short video presentation last week, because they no longer feel valued. Silver contends that for a guy, "acknowledgement and appreciation are like this very important kind of man food, and when he doesn't get it… he'll find someone he will feel appreciated with." Want your man to "stick around for the long haul?" Coach Silver suggests you need to become "the appreciator."
It's exasperating that Silver is blaming wives and girlfriends for male infidelity. But her advice isn't new; she's far from the first to suggest unappreciative wives who "don't understand" drive their poor misunderstood hubbies into the arms of women who do. So what does this tired trope of suggesting that women are responsible for affair-proofing their relationships have to do with the Ashley Madison report about the cheaters of Park Slope?
Though the evidence shows that marital happiness declines for both men and women after the birth of a child, men are more likely to sexualize their unhappiness and look for erotic comfort outside their relationship. Biderman's data suggest that two things increase men's propensity to cheat (or at least to use the Ashley Madison service): money and children. Affluence is associated with lower ethical behavior. Children, on the other hand, are often correlated with a shifting of women's attention away from their husbands or boyfriends. That's hardly the fault of new moms; babies demand a colossal level of attention. And while more and more fathers are actively parenting, plenty more may resent being displaced as the number one focus of a new mom's energy. To use Silver's execrable phrase, doting moms deprive husbands of the essential "man food" they crave – and the embittered and dethroned dads then sign up for Ashley Madison.
If the wealth of Park Slope's residents enables cheating by reducing moral inhibitions, the notoriously perfectionistic parenting ethos of the community elevates child-rearing to the sine qua non of marriage. In her novel Prospect Park West, Amy Sohn describes the Slope as a place where "marriage is a vehicle for procreation" and little more. "It's a very undersexed neighborhood," she claimed in an interview. Ashley Madison begs to differ. Park Slope may not be home to much in the way of marital fucking, but it is the City's most fertile habitat for philanderers.
Whether Ashley Madison's statistics are scientifically sound or total bullshit, the evidence is that entitlement drives male infidelity. Madison CEO Biderman opines that men start cheating after they become fathers because "they spend so much time working for others, they now want something for themselves." This is the classic middle-class male martyr complex, in which men imagine themselves as helpless, hapless servants to the demands of bosses, children, and spouses. Cheating becomes justified compensation for a lifetime of labor to make other people happy. In that sense, the more conspicuous the care that's lavished on the children, the greater the opportunity to rationalize stepping out on the marriage. (This sets the the kids up for one hell of a guilt trip when they grow up and learn that daddy stepped out on mommy because all his noble focus on their needs deprived pops of a chance to get his much-needed man food. Congrats, pumpkin, it's all your fault.)
The news here is not that people cheat. The news is that we can see more clearly than ever that male infidelity is correlated with the conjunction of affluence and hyper-competitive parenting. The blame here doesn't lie with cosseted kids or man-food withholding wives. The blame lies with privileged men who confuse their own choices with the chains of obligation, and who use their own sense of self-sacrificing heroism to excuse the inexcusable.