Why Powerful Men Cheat (and Why They Think They Can Get Away With It)

News outlets are ablaze with the story of David Letterman’s recent tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey. The interview (scheduled to air January 7th) centers on the Late-Night host’s recent scandal – the public admission of several affairs with various female staff members, including assistant Stephanie Birkitt. The affairs resulted in a blackmail plot by a CBS producer, and on-air admission of infidelity, and countless questions from fans and media representatives throughout the country.

In the interview, David Letterman talks in detail about how the affairs have affected his marriage, blaming himself exclusively, and the work he’s put in to get things back on track with his wife.

From David Letterman and Tiger Woods to David Patraeus and Bill Clinton, the news reports an affair involving a powerful man on a fairly regular basis. It’s become less of a surprise in recent years, but why are these types of men drawn to infidelity, and why do they think they can get away with it?

When you get into the psychology of men in power, it isn’t so difficult to see the factors that make them so susceptible to infidelity, and to understand that they very same factors also lead to thinking that they can get away with it.

First, let’s address the basic need for companionship. While we can’t offer blanket forgiveness to these men, we can at least understand that, on a base level, human beings desire company – particularly in a romantic sense. Men in power, like presidents, celebrities, and the like, often spend weeks (and even months) away from their wives. Just as spending time together strengthens the bond of marriage, spending long periods of time apart weakens them.

This doesn’t entirely account for the phenomenon, however. Plenty of professions require husbands to spend time apart from their wives, and while this may put a strain on the marriage, we don’t see similarly high rates of infidelity.

The second major factor is temptation. Movie stars and professional athletes (among other types of powerful men) are often wealthy, in good shape, and live a relatively high profile lifestyle. These things can be very attractive to certain women, some of whom are willing to chase after these men in very direct and unscrupulous ways.

These temptations are coupled with the ego-boosting behaviors of the people on hand, from the assistants and staff who endorse/encourage adulterous behavior, to the fans and “yes men” that put the powerful man on a pedestal and feed his feelings of power. These elements can combine to create a psychological “snowball” that leads to feelings of invulnerability, disregard for consequences, and perhaps most dangerously, downright selfishness.

These last few risk factors are also why these men feel that they can “get away with it.” When given special and preferential treatment by those around them (both men and women), men in powerful positions will begin to see themselves as their supporters do – as untouchable, above consequence, and concerned only with their own desires.

At the root, powerful men cheat for the same reasons as anyone else – loneliness, seeking thrills, and selfishness – and while it is never excusable behavior, they are perhaps more inundated with the risks than any other population. Take note of these risk factors, and do everything in your power to avoid them – you don’t have to be rich and famous to be at risk.


Dr. Dana Fillmore and Amy Barnhart, co-Founders, StrongMarriageNow.com

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Shelly 11 years ago

Selfish behavior of gradification is really why men cheat! They never think about anyone else but themselves. These men tear families apart, memories, trust, hope, and futures without a single bat of an eye. For those in the path of such men--move on as these men are not worth anything!

Kelly 11 years ago

What can I do to save my marriage? My husband having an affair and I can not afford your program

Richard Tessier 11 years ago

Kelly, I have been married for 18 years and with my wife for 24 years. It wasn't until the past year that I was seriously considering having an affair. I was actually laying the groundwork for such a situation. My reason as may be the case with your husband is that my wife and I became disconnected. She never wants to know how my day is going, how is work, no sign of concern at all. I wasn't looking for the sex, I was looking for someone who would listen to me and care about how things were in my life. My wife does realize now that she is partly to blame for our current situation, but she is still not willing to go to therepy together. Try showing more interest in your husband's life and be really attentive to what he is saying, it may just help bring him back around.

JOAN 11 years ago

I am beginning to agree with Shelley my husband of 33 years is still having an affair and he doesn't care about anyone else. After about trying for almost a year I am about ready to hit the road. It is going to be hard to start a new job since we work together and live in a new area.

Wayne 11 years ago

It's not just men. I am going thru the same turmoil in my marriage. When I ask my wife about getting help or working on our marriage, her response is, "I want a divorce." When asked if she cares how it negatively affects everyone around her, including our kids, she responds," I dont care. This is what I need."

Cal 11 years ago

Shelly, yes you are 100% correct. But that means you will be judge in the same manner. I have come to love the message that Jesus teaches in St. John 8: 1-11. We all need forgiveness in life, and the Father says if we want forgiven, we will have to forgive others. It is simple mathamatics. Forgiveness is not tolertation, it is wanting to be a friend again.

Matthew 11 years ago

Men cheat because sex is an extremely powerful need. - like eating. We don't ask why men eat or drink or breathe or seek shelter, do we? But that is the answer. Sometimes wives don't know this, but it is important.

jonathan 11 years ago

(I have a friend)who thinks he really loves his attractive wife but can not resist the temptation of a fling what do you think I should tell him to do please don't say tell him to stop because he can't

linda 11 years ago

I agree for non monogamous people is selfishness, lack of strong moral values, including commitment and lack of communication skills. My husband had an affair 6 years ago, and I thought he would really be truthful after talking about it and finding the causes. I did every thing in my power to be more attentive to his needs and I thought he would be more truthful after that. He has not been truthful in other aspects and I find trust very difficult. I guess he is in another relationship or he wants to start another relationship because he decided to ask for the divorce.I did not contest it because I did not want to fight with him in court and let the lawyers take the money for my children's college. Also because I do not want for him to be unhappy near me. Better he be happy away. Even as difficult as it is for me since I still love him.. He was not willing to go to therapy or counseling. I still love him however I am not in lust with him but if he was to really repent and decide to come back to be the husband and father he promised to be as a catholic I would accept him. Love is forgiveness, love is acceptance, love is patience. Some people say I do not have self love. I disagree at the opposite I am the happiest when we are together, I believe I have strong moral values and made a commitment for better or for worse until death do us part. I do not believe in divorce as a way to solve the marriage or family problems, yet California and other states are non fault divorce states, so there is nothing I could do. I had no choice other than to fight in court. I decided to come to an amicable divorce, to let him go and hope he can be happy.....He will find out sooner or later that I really love him, that is why I let him go to be "free". If he is really mine he will come back if not....I will have to move on and find some one else who will really love me and care for me until death. I will do the same.

maria 11 years ago

please help i dont know what to do im very confused, i had been married for 23 years now. two years ago i caught my husband cheating and he admitted, i had wanting to leave but im worried about my kids. please someone help me or tell me what to do. thanks.

ceu 11 years ago

My husband cheated on me few months ago and I agree to give the marriage another chance but it has been really difficult. He is still working where she works. ( yes it was a work affair) and just makes things impossible. We argue nearly everyday and he has not made up for he done and he's still very defensive. We had marriage problems before the affair but now its harder to deal with them on top of the cheating. I have not been able to forgive or forget, and I get very angry and can't trust him. Yesterday I done something that I was trying to avoid, I contacted the other woman by phone so we could meet, she was shocked to say the least and refused to talk to me. Just listening to her voice being young and sweet ( she's 25 and my husband 40!) also no care in the world about other people' s life's and feelings. It was stupid and didn't help my situation but I just needed to do it, can anyone understand? I feel trapped and stuck with these emotions, thoughts and doubts in my head. And having two young children doesn't help making any decisions. What to do?? Thank you!