How could a man leave his wife and children for
The advice column in my local paper recently had a
poignant letter, timed close to Father’s Day. It
alluded to several previous columns. The first had
consisted of letters from children whose fathers had
left the families for another woman. Another had
been from a woman who wanted to know why her
husband had sought a one-night sexual tryst with
another woman and had asked how a decent,
educated man who supposedly loved his wife could
do such an “unspeakable” thing.
I hadn’t seen the previous columns but I felt the pain
and bewilderment from this letter. A woman wanted
to know whether men had written to tell their stories.
The writer said she hoped that such letters would
help her understand her own abandonment.
Let me as a social psychologist take a stab at trying
to imagine what happens inside some of these men,
to prompt them to turn to other women. I want to
make very clear that none of this is designed to
excuse or justify immoral acts. This is intended as an
exercise in social science, not moralizing at all.
Indeed, as I wrote in my book Evil: Inside Human
Violence and Cruelty, if we want to understand
people who do things we disapprove, it is almost
essential to set aside our disapproval and other
moral judgments, at least temporarily, in order to try
to see how things look to them
What do we know about such men? Not much. They
are apparently quite common. Society condemns
them without much effort to understand them or
accommodate them. It doesn’t help that the advice
columns, relationship authorities, and moral
discourse are dominated by women. It is especially
hard to understand the perpetrators from the
Men who leave their wives and children for another
partner present a difficult problem for society. But let
us suspend our moralizing for a moment and try to
understand them. Possibly some of them are simply
immature and irresponsible and give not a thought
or care to the wife and little ones left behind. But
more likely many of these men agonize and suffer
over the loss of their family.
Society has not made it easy for men who desire sex.
Marriage demands an impossible promise, that he
will desire only his wife henceforth. Standing at the
altar reciting her wedding vows, the bride may be
utterly beautiful and sexy and desirable, and perhaps
he thinks he can desire only her forever. But then
what happens? She ages, gains weight, maybe loses
interest in sex. Research has found that most wives
are very well satisfied with the amount of sex in their
marriage, while most husbands wish for substantially
more than they get. The implication is that for many
men, marriage means years and years of sexual
The man is told to respect his wife’s wishes. When
she does not want sex, he should not push her to
engage in it. That sounds quite reasonable and
decent. Unfortunately, given the well documented
fact that women want sex less frequently than men,
he is condemned to countless nights of helpless
wishes for sex.
And that’s assuming that he desires her. What is he
supposed to feel when she becomes less attractive to
him? We have all heard endless and sympathetic
discussions about how hard it is for women to see
beautiful female models depicted in the media,
because ordinary women feel they cannot live up to
those idealized images. But what about how hard
those same images are on the men? How are they
supposed to continue desiring only their wives when
they constantly see countless images of slim and
gorgeous women all around?
Mandatory divorce laws pull men apart from their
families. If a man finds a woman who will have sex
with him and wants to form a relationship, society
puts obstacles in his path. He is told he cannot marry
the new woman unless he divorces his previous wife
first. One wife at a time, that’s the rule: If you want a
new one, you must first get rid of the previous one.
There is some ambiguity as to whether the
monogamy rule was designed for the benefit of men
or of women, but regardless of its intent, its function
is to force many men to choose between sex and
family. We should not be surprised (though we may
not approve) that some men choose sex.
Meanwhile, what’s to hold them back? It is hard for
me personally to imagine a man who does not love
his children deeply, though I suspect such men do
exist. Intuitively, my powers of empathy fail to make
the case of a man casually abandoning his children.
But I could imagine him deciding to leave them
anyway, especially if he is in the grip of passionate
love and sexual desire for someone other than his
wife, and when he sees society requires him to leave
his family in order to experience that love and sex.
Consider how hard the alternative choice must be for
some men. Imagine a man whose wife long ago
stopped wanting to have sex with him most of the
time. Perhaps his desire for her diminished as well,
as she stopped flirting with him or started nagging or
simply added pounds and wrinkles with the years. He
has found someone new, with whom the sex is great
and the emotional connection is blossoming into
love. We as a society ask him to turn his back on this
promise of love and sex, out of obligation to his wife
and children. He thinks he sees the opportunity to
have great sex every day with the new woman (it is
often thus in the beginning, and may well have been
that way long ago with his wife), and we ask him to
give that up forever. Some wives do not allow their
husbands to watch pornography or masturbate, so
choosing to stay with his family means giving up
most or all sexual pleasure for the rest of his life.
A man who gives up love and sex to remain with his
family might think he deserves credit and
appreciation for this difficult choice and sacrifice.
Sadly, he is not likely to get it in many cases. If he
had an affair, he may be made to feel guilty for
having it, rather than made to feel noble for electing
to stay with his family in the end. I don’t know
whether the men think of this when they are
pondering whether to stay or leave, but surely some
must expect that their wives will be inducing guilt
more than their lovers, for that is almost certainly
what is happening right during the period when he is
deciding. His wife may bring up the affair in future
years, and he will always have to suffer the guilt over
it. Or at least he may anticipate this even if it is not
What about fatherhood? What has our society,
including psychology, told him about it? This is part
of the tragedy. Our society wants men to accept
obligations of fatherhood, but they are not respected
for doing so. In the media, fathers are mostly
portrayed as clueless, hapless buffoons – or,
occasionally, as violent abusers. Social policy and
social science have affirmed for decades that it is
perfectly fine for a woman to raise children without a
husband or father. Possibly this message was initially
intended to encourage and support women who
found themselves in a single-parent situation, but
the men have all heard the message that fathers are
entirely unnecessary. If you take an honest, open-
minded look at what the social science publications
say about fathers, you can find plenty of support for
the view that there is no need to stay, that children
of single mothers do just fine, especially if the
departed father continues to send money. There are
other views here and there. But when our society
rushed to remove the stigma of single motherhood,
there was plenty of confident reporting of findings
that fatherlessness is not a handicap, especially if
one controls for money.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying I approve of
men abandoning their families. Moral judgments are
not implied here. The goal is simply to try to imagine
what could prompt a man to choose to leave his
Perhaps, then, we can begin to understand this
supposedly mysterious sort of man who although
“supposedly” loving his wife can desire sex with
another woman and might even at some point decide
to leave wife and child for her. Consider his decision
options. The option of having a bit of extra sex and
remaining with his family is perhaps not available to
him, though that might be what he most wants.
Society does not approve. His wife may not tolerate.
The law requires him to choose.
I am reminded of a character in a television skit I saw
as an impressionable teenager. The man said
marriage was harder than being in the army, because
the army gave him a furlough now and then. That’s
all he wanted. “I would come back,” he said. “I always
came back [from the furlough].”
On the one side, he sees sex and love. Society extols
love as one of the highest good things. Sex may not
enjoy quite as much official cultural prestige, but he
doesn’t need culture to tell him to want sex. He
already wants it from his core. The downside of this
choice is that he has to leave his wife and children.
But remember, he has been told over and over that
they do not really need him and will be OK without
him. Looking around, it seems, everybody’s doing it.
On the other side, he can stay with his family. He can
cling to his role of father, which society disrespects. It
is a familiar life that he knows well and may or may
not find pleasant. It means giving up sex for the most
part, perhaps almost a de facto vow of celibacy.
Certainly his dalliance with the other woman will not
have endeared him to his wife or made her seem
more sexually desirable to him. He will be reminded
of his affair and made to feel guilty on future
occasions. Sad to say, this choice, which the culture
would prefer him to make, may appear to him as
being a sucker.
Again, I’m not moralizing, just trying to understand.
But when you look at it from his point of view, we
should perhaps not be surprised that some men opt
It’s worth adding that men who leave their families
are often sorry later. The relationship with the new
woman may follow the same pattern, with great sex
and passion at first, but less over time. Perhaps the
man eventually finds himself in the same position he
was in with his previous wife. He thought it would be
great forever, but often things do not go that way.
One can see it as stupid or tragic that he causes
suffering in the pursuit of happiness but the
happiness eventually eludes him again. Still, at the
time he is making the choice, it is his expectation
that is decisive, even if the expectation may turn out
to be wrong.
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