The reason why happily married women cheat has nothing to do with their husbands.

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What makes a happily married woman cheat? Why would a woman in her forties – a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter – start having steamy sex in the back of a car with a man who’s not even her type? Why would she risk it all when she’s got so much to lose?

Esther Perel thinks she knows the answer. The sex therapist and author has been studying infidelity for years. In an article in The Atlantic, she takes a different look at the subject – from the perspective of the person doing the cheating, rather than the person who’s been cheated on.

Perel knows that she risks being labelled “pro-affair” with what she’s writing. But as a therapist, she doesn’t take betrayal lightly.

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Why do women in supposedly happy marriages cheat on their spouses? Image: Foxtel

“Not condemning does not mean condoning ... and there is a world of difference between understanding and justifying.”

Traditionally, it’s been accepted that people who cheat must be unhappy in their relationship. That’s certainly true, to some extent. People who describe their relationship as “not too happy” are three times more likely to cheat than people who describe their marriage as “very happy”. But even people who describe their marriage as “pretty happy” are twice as likely to cheat as those who describe their marriage as “very happy”.

It seems that being “pretty happy” just isn’t enough anymore.

LISTEN: Can you be a feminist and cheat on your wife? (Post continues after audio...)

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As Perel pointed out in a previous article in Slate, while divorce has become more common and more acceptable, the rate of infidelity has continued to rise.

“They are in that wonderful ambivalent state, too good to leave, too bad to stay,” Perel explained.

Women are making a big contribution to the rising infidelity rate. According to one survey, women today are 40 per cent more likely to cheat than they were a generation ago. That’s probably at least partly due to the higher number of women in the workforce, with around a third of people admitting to having an affair with a co- worker.

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So what’s it all about? Are these women in basically good relationships but just bored in the bedroom? A 2014 study of 100 women who used a dating site for married people seemed to suggest that. The majority claimed they just wanted to spice up their sex lives.

“Many even stated their overt love for their husbands, painting them in a positive light,” lead author Professor Eric Anderson said.

Perel goes beyond this. She gives the example of a woman she calls Priya, who’s happily married to a man she has no complaints about at all. He’s great at his job, good-looking and good in bed. But she’s having an affair with a truck driver. For Priya, her affair is about self-discovery. She’s looking for a new self. Having been “good” all her life, she wants to know what life is like for people who aren’t good.

“As she nears the mid-century mark, she is having her own belated adolescent rebellion,” Perel explains.

It’s a different way of seeing infidelity. It’s an affair that has nothing to do with the spouse or the marriage at all.

To many, it will sound shallow and selfish. But Perel argues that if people like Priya are willing to risk everything for an affair, the true reason behind it needs to be understood.

The question is, will understanding the reason for an affair make it easier to end it?

And if the husband does find out, will it make it easier for him to accept?

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