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Shattered Vows: Getting Beyond Betrayal
an interview with Dr. Shirley Glass
Hold on to your wedding ring: It is difficult, but not impossible, to repair the damage caused by infidelity. Increasingly, that’s what couples want—likely the White House occupants, too. But let go of most of your assumptions; In an interview with Editor at Large Hara Estroff Marano, our leading expert Dr. Shirley Glass challenges just about everything you think you know about the most explosive subject of the year.
Q: What is the single most important thing you want people to know about infidelity?
Dr. G: Boundaries. That it is possible to love somebody else, to be attracted to somebody else, even if you have a good marriage. In this collegial world where we work together, you have to conduct yourself by being aware of appropriate boundaries, by not creating opportunities, particularly at a time when you might be vulnerable. That means that if you travel together, you never invite someone for a drink in the room; if you just had a fight with your spouse, you don’t discuss it with a person who could be a potential partner. You can have a friendship, but you have to be careful who you share your deepest feelings with. Although women share their deep feelings with lots of people, particularly other women, men are usually most comfortable sharing their feelings in a love relationship. As a result, when a relationship becomes intimate and emotional, men tend to sexualize it. -
Q: Infidelity appears to be the topic of the year. What has struck you most about the reaction to what may or may not be some kind of infidelity in high places?
Dr. G: Whatever horror or dismay people have about it, they’re able to separate the way the President is performing in office and the way he appears to be performing in his marriage. That’s especially interesting because it seems to reflect the split in his life. We don’t know for sure, but he apparently is very much involved in his family life. He’s not an absentee father or absentee husband. Whatever it is that they share—and they do share a lot, publicly and privately— he has a compartment in which he is attracted to young women, and it is separate from his primary relationships.
Q: Is this compartmentalizing characteristic of people who get into affairs?
Dr. G: It’s much more characteristic of men. Most women believe that if you love your partner, you wouldn’t even be in an affair; therefore, if someone has an affair, it means that they didn’t love their partner and they do love the person that they had the affair with. But my research has shown that there are many men who do love their partners, who enjoy good sex at home, who nevertheless never turn down an opportunity for extramarital sex. In fact, 56 percent of the men I sampled who had extramarital intercourse said that their marriages were happy, versus 34 percent of the women. That’s how I got into this.
Dr. G: Being a woman, I believed that if a man had an affair, it meant that he had a terrible marriage, and that he probably wasn’t getting it at home—the old keep-your-husband-happy-so-he-won’t-stray idea. That puts too much of a burden on the woman. I found that she could be everything wonderful, and he might still stray, if that’s in his value system, his family background, or his psycho dynamic structure. I was in graduate school when I heard that a man I knew, married for over 40 years, had recently died and his wife was so bereaved because they had had the most wonderful marriage. He had been her lover, her friend, her support system. She missed him immensely. I thought that was a beautiful story. When I told my husband about it, he got a funny look that made me ask, What do you know? He proceeded to tell me that one night when he took the kids out for dinner to an out of the way restaurant, owned by one of his clients, that very man walked in with a young, blonde woman. When he saw my husband, his face got red, and he walked out.
Q: How did that influence you?
Dr. G: I wondered what that meant. Did he fool his wife all those years and really not love her? How is it possible to be married for over 40 years and think you have a good marriage? It occurred to me that an affair could mean something different than I believe. Another belief that was an early casualty was the hydraulic pump theory—that you only have so much energy for something. By this belief, if your partner is getting sex outside, you would know it, because your partner wouldn’t be wanting sex at home. However, some people are even more passionate at home when they are having extramarital sex. I was stunned to hear a man tell me that when he left his affair partner and came home he found himself desiring his wife more than he had in a long time, because he was so sexually aroused by his affair. That made me question the hydraulic pump theory. Many of our beliefs about the behavior of others come from how we see things for ourselves. A man who usually associates sneaking around with having sex will, if his wife is sneaking around, find it very hard to believe that she could be emotionally involved without being sexually involved. On the other hand, a woman usually can not believe that her husband could be sexually involved and not be emotionally involved. We put the same meaning on it for our partner that it would have for us. I call that the error of assumed similarity.
Q: What research have you done on infidelity?
Dr. G: My first research study was actually based on a sex questionnaire in Psychology Today, in the Seventies. I analyzed the data looking at the relationship of extramarital sex, length of marriage, and gender difference on marital satisfaction and romanticism. I found enormous gender differences: that men in long term marriages who had affairs had very high marital satisfaction—and that women in long-term marriages having affairs had the lowest marital satisfaction of all. Everybody’s marital satisfaction went down the longer they were married, except the men who had affairs. But in early marriages, men who had affairs were significantly less happy. An affair is more serious if it happens earlier in the marriage. Explaining these gender differences was the basis of my dissertation. I theorized that the men were having sexual affairs and the women emotional affairs.
Q: Are affairs about sex?
Dr. G: Sometimes infidelity is just about sex. That is often more true for men. In my research, 44 percent of men who said they had extramarital sex said they had slight or no emotional involvement; only 11 percent of women said that. Oral sex is certainly about sex. Some spouses are more upset if the partner had oral sex with an affaire than if they had intercourse; it just seems so much more intimate.
Q: What is the infidelity?
Dr. G: The infidelity is that you took something that was supposed to be mine, which is sexual or emotional intimacy, and you gave it to somebody else. I thought that we had a special relationship, and now you have contaminated it; it doesn’t feel special any more, because you shared something that was very precious to us with someone else. There are gender differences. Men feel more betrayed by their wives having sex with someone else; women feel more betrayed by their husbands being emotionally involved with someone else. What really tears men apart is to visualize their partner being sexual with somebody else. Women certainly don’t want their husbands having sex with somebody else, but if it’s an impersonal one-night fling, they may be able to deal with that better than if their husband was involved in a long-term relationship sharing all kinds of loving ways with somebody else.
Q: Why are affairs so deeply wounding?
Dr. G: Because you have certain assumptions about your marriage. That I chose someone, and the other person chose me; we have the same values; we have both decided to have an exclusive relationship, even though we may have some problems. We love each other and therefore I am safe. When you find out your partner has been unfaithful, then everything you believe is totally shattered. And you have to rebuild the world. The fact that you weren’t expecting it, that it wasn’t part of your assumption about how a relationship operates, causes traumatic reactions.
Q: And it is deeply traumatic.
Dr. G: It’s terrible—unless you cheated on each other during your engagement, or you or your partner came from a family where everybody cheated on everybody, or you come from certain cultures where the women don’t take it that much to heart, because that’s the way men are thought to be. The wounding results because —and I’ve heard this so many times—I finally thought I met somebody I could trust.
Q: It violates that hope or expectation that you can be who you really are with another person?
Dr. G: Yes. Affairs really aren’t about sex; they’re about betrayal. Imagine if you were married to somebody very patriotic and then found out your partner is a Russian spy. Someone having a long-term affair is leading a double life. Then you find out all that was going on in your partner’s life that you knew nothing about: Gifts that were exchanged, poems and letters that were written, trips you thought were taken for a specific reason were actually taken to meet the affair partner. To find out about all the intrigue and deception that occurred while you were operating under a different assumption is totally shattering and disorienting. That’s why people then have to get out their calendars and go back over the dates to put all the missing pieces together: when you were going to the drugstore that night and you said your car broke down and you didn’t come home for three hours, what was really happening?
Q: This is necessary?
Dr. G: In order to heal. Because any time somebody suffers from a trauma, part of the recovery is telling the story. The tornado victim will go over and over the story—"when the storm came I was in my room…"—trying to understand what happened, and how it happened. Didn’t we see the black clouds? How come we didn’t know?"
Q: And so they repeat the story until it no longer creates an unmanageable level of arousal.
Dr. G: Yes. In fact, sometimes people are more devastated if everything was wonderful before they found out. When a betrayed spouse who suspected something says, "I don’t know if I can ever trust my partner again," it is reassuring is to tell them that they can trust their own instincts the next time they have those storm warnings. When things feel okay, they can trust that things are okay. But if somebody thought everything was wonderful, how would they ever know if it happened again? It’s frightening.
Q: You mentioned to me that one question people these days are asking you is, is oral sex really infidelity?
Dr. G: The question they ask is, is oral sex really adultery? And that’s a different question, because adultery is a legal term. It is also a Biblical term. I don’t know what the answer is legally. In the Old Testament, adultery was when a man had intercourse with another man’s wife. If the woman was single, it was not adultery even if he was married. Because women were possessions, and you’re not supposed to take something that belongs to somebody else.
Q: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.
Dr. G: Or his ox. The real issue is, is oral sex infidelity? You don’t need to ask a psychologist that question—just ask any spouse: Would you feel that it was an infidelity for your partner to engage in that type of behavior?
Q: Would women answer that differently from men?
Dr. G: It is not necessarily a function of gender. People might answer it differently for themselves than for their partners. Some people maintain a kind of technical virginity, by not having intercourse. That was often true of premarital sexual behavior in more conservative times. However, even kissing in a romantic, passionate way is an infidelity. People know when they cross that line from friendship to affair.
Q: So you don’t have to have intercourse to have an affair?
Dr. G: Absolutely. There can be an affair without any kind of touching at all. People have affairs on the Internet.
Q: What is the sine qua non of an affair?
Dr. G: Three elements determine whether a relationship is an affair. One is secrecy. Suppose two people meet every morning at seven o’clock for coffee before work, and they never tell their partners. Even though it might be in a public place, their partner is not going to be happy about it. It is going to feel like a betrayal, a terrible deception. Emotional intimacy is the second element. When someone starts confiding things to another person that they are reluctant to confide to their partner, and the emotional intimacy is greater in the friendship than in the marriage, that’s very threatening. One common pathway to affairs occurs when somebody starts confiding negative things about their marriage to a person of the opposite sex. What they’re doing is signaling: "I’m vulnerable; I may even be available." The third element is sexual chemistry. That can occur even if two people don’t touch. If one says, "I’m really attracted to you," or "I had a dream about you last night, but, of course, I’m married, so we won’t do anything about that," that tremendously increases the sexual tension by creating forbidden fruit in the relationship.
Q: Another interesting question you told me people now ask is, "Are you a liar if you lie about an affair?" How do you answer that?
Dr. G: Lying goes with the territory. If you’re not lying, you have an open marriage. There may be lies of omission or lies of commission. The lie of omission is, "I had to stop at the gym on my way home." Or, "I had to go to the library." There is the element of truth, but the omission of what was really happening: "I left there after 15 minutes and spent the next 45 minutes at someone’s apartment." The lies of commission are the elaborate deceptions people create. The more deception and the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is to rebuild trust and honesty in the wake of an affair.
Q: The deception makes a tremendous psychological difference to the betrayed spouse. What about to the person who constructed the deception?
Dr. G: Once the affair’s been discovered, the involved partner could have a sense of relief, if they hate lying and don’t see themself as having that kind of moral character. They’ll say, "I can’t understand how I could have done a thing like this, this is not the kind of person I am." Some people thrive on the game. For them, part of the passion and excitement of an affair is the lying and getting away with something forbidden. Often, since childhood, they’ve had a whole history of sneaking around. In the marriage, one partner may be fairly parental and judgmental while the other avoids conflict by not being open about things. The affair is an extension of a preexisting pattern. There are some people who have characterological problems, and the affair may be a symptom of that. Such people lie on their taxes and about their accomplishments; they are fraudulent in business. When it’s characterological, I don’t know any way to rebuild trust; no one can ever be on sure footing with that person.
Q: So there is always moral compromise just by being in an affair.
Dr. G: Which is why some people, no matter how unhappy they are in their marriage, don’t have affairs. They can’t make the compromise. Or they feel they have such an open relationship with the spouse that they just could not do something like that without telling their partner about it.
Q: Do affairs ever serve a positive function—not to excuse any of the damage they do?
Dr. G: Affairs are often a chance for people to try out new behaviors, to dress in a different costume, to stretch and grow and assume a different role. In a long-term relationship, we often get frozen in our roles. When young couples begin at a certain level of success and go on to achieve all kinds of things, the new person sees them as they’ve become, while the old person sees them as they were. The unfortunate thing is that the way a person is different in the affair would, if incorporated into the marriage, probably make their spouse ecstatic. But they believe they’re stuck; they don’t know how to create that opportunity for change within the marriage. A woman who was sexually inhibited in marriage—perhaps she married young and had no prior partners—may find her sexuality in an affair, but her husband would probably be delighted to encounter that new self.
Q: How do you handle this?
Dr. G: After an affair, I do not ask the question you would expect. The spouse always wants to know about "him or her". "What did you see in her that you didn’t see in me?" Or, "what did you like about him better?" One man asked, "was it that he had a bigger penis?" I always ask about "you": "What did you like about yourself in that other relationship?" How were you different? And, of the way that you were in that other relationship, what would you like to bring back so that you can be the person you want to be in your primary relationship? How can we foster that part of you in this relationship?
Q: That’s a surprising question. How did you come to know that’s the question to ask?
Dr. G: There is an attraction in the affair, and I try to understand what it is. Part of it is the romantic projection: I like the way I look when I see myself in the other person’s eyes. There is positive mirroring. An affair holds up a vanity mirror, the kind with all the little bulbs around it; it gives a nice rosy glow to the way you see yourself. By contrast, the marriage offers a make-up mirror; it magnifies all your wrinkles and pores, every little flaw. When someone loves you despite the fact that they can see all your flaws, that is a reality-based love. In the stories of what happened during the affair, people seem to take on a different persona, and one of the things they liked best about being in that relationship was the person they had become. The man who wasn’t sensitive or expressive is now in a relationship where he is expressing his feelings and is supportive.
Q: Can those things be duplicated in the marriage?
Dr. G: That’s one of the goals, not to turn the betrayed spouse into the affair partner, but to free the unfaithful spouse to express all the parts of himself he was able to experience in the affair. I see a lot of men who are married to very competent women and having affairs with very weak women. They feel: "this person needs me." They put on their red cape and do a lot of rescuing. They feel very good about themselves. That makes me sad, because I know that even though their partner may be extremely competent, she wants to be stroked too. She wants a knight in shining armor. Perhaps she hasn’t known how to ask for it, or the ways she’s asked have pushed him away.
Q: Do people push their partners into affairs?
Dr. G: No. People can create a pattern in the marriage that is not enhancing, and the partner, instead of dealing with the dissatisfaction and trying to work on the relationship, escapes it and goes someplace else.
Q: That is the wrong way to solve the problem?
Dr. G: Yes. There are some gender differences in the ways partners handle problems, although everything we say about men can be true for some women, and everything we say about women can be true for some men. Generally when a woman is unhappy, she lets her partner know. She feels better afterwards because she’s gotten it off her chest. It doesn’t interfere with her love. She’s trying to improve the relationship: "If I tell him what makes me unhappy, then he will know how to please me; I am giving him a gift by telling him." Unfortunately, many men don’t see it as a gift. They feel criticized and put down. Instead of thinking, "she feels lonely; I will move toward her and make her feel secure," they think, "What is wrong with her? Didn’t I just do that?" They pull away. If they come in contact with somebody else who says to them, "oh, you’re wonderful," then they move toward that person. They aren’t engaged enough in the marriage to work things out. The partner keeps trying, and becomes more unpleasant because he’s not responding
Q: She becomes the pursuer, he the distancer.
Dr. G: When she withdraws, the marriage is much further down the road to dissolution, because she’s given up. Her husband, unfortunately, thinks things are so much better because she’s no longer complaining. He doesn’t recognize that she has detached and become emotionally available for an affair. The husband first notices it when she becomes disinterested in sex—or after she’s left! Then he’ll do anything to keep her. The tragedy is that is often too little too late.
Q: By then she is often committed to someone on the outside?
Dr. G: Yes, which is why when women have affairs, it’s so much more often a result of long-term marital dissatisfaction. Q. Can you predict which couples will get involved in affairs?
Dr. G: When we look at predictors, we’re really looking at them retrospectively. For example, we know that people who have had affairs have attitudes that are more endorsing of reasons for affairs—but did that attitude take root before or after the affair? Some research shows that women who have affairs previously talked to other women who had affairs, a way of getting permission. Social context is a predictor. If you’re in an occupational or social group where many people have affairs, and there’s a sexually permissive attitude, you’re more likely. Also if you come from a family where there’s a history of affairs—the most notorious are the Kennedys, where the men have a certain entitlement. Coming from one of the Mediterranean cultures, like the Greek, where the double standard is alive and well, is another predictor.
Q: What you’re saying is that an affair is not always about the marriage. There are often cultural pulls or contextual pulls into affairs. This seems to me very important information for women, because women blame themselves.
Dr. G: And society blames women.
Q: So affairs can happen in good marriages. Is the marriage really good?
Dr. G: Sometimes one person thinks the marriage is fine and the other doesn’t. That may be because the more dissatisfied person hasn’t communicated their dissatisfaction. Or they’ve communicated their dissatisfaction and the partner has discounted it. But after an affair, people often try to justify it by rewriting unhappiness into the marital history. They say. "I never really loved you," or "you never really acted like you loved me." That is just a way to make themselves feel that they didn’t do such a terrible thing.
Q: Why do some people in unhappy marriages have affairs and others do not?
Dr. G: Number one is opportunity. Number two is values. Some people do not think an affair is justified for any reason. Others think it’s okay if you’re not getting it at home, or if you "fall in love" with another person. Most surveys of attitudes simply ask people whether they approve of extramarital sex. Fully 85 to 90 percent of people say no. But asking more specific questions—such as, do you think it’s okay to have an affair for sexual excitement, or to get understanding or affection—greatly discriminates conditions under which affairs are justified. These break down according to gender. For women, the highest justification is for love; emotional intimacy is next. Sex is last on their list of justifications. It’s the opposite for men; sex scores the highest.
Q: Is infidelity in a longstanding marriage the same as in one of shorter duration?
Dr. G: It is potentially more threatening to the marriage when it happens earlier, and the chances of the marriage surviving are less, particularly where the woman is having an affair.
Q: Did she choose the wrong mate?
Dr. G: She thinks she did, especially if her affair partner is the opposite of her husband.
Q: From your perspective, what’s going on?
Dr. G: She’s growing and changing, and she chooses somebody she sees as more similar to herself. Usually it’s someone at work. Her husband may be working very hard in his profession, or going to school, and not paying much attention to her. She feels a little lonely, and then she gets involved. Or maybe her husband is very caring and the relationship is so supportive and stable that it doesn’t have a challenge for her. There is some evidence, from studies in the Sixties and Seventies, that infidelity is more likely early in the marriage among working-class couples. The men haven’t yet settled down. Among college educated professionals, affairs generally happen later in the marriage.
Q: The opportunities for affairs have changed radically in the past 20 years. Men and women are together all the time in the workplace, and workplaces are sexy places. You dress up, you are trying your best, there’s lots of energy in the air.
Dr. G: And you’re not cleaning up vomit or the hot water heater that just flooded the basement. And it’s not at the end of the day, when you’re exhausted. Also, you’re working together on something that has excitement and meaning. One of the major shifts is that more married women are having affairs than in the past. There are several reasons. Today’s woman has usually had more experience with premarital sex, so she’s not as inhibited about getting involved sexually with another man. She has more financial independence, so she’s not taking as great a risk. And she is working with men on a more equal level, so the men are very attractive to her.
Q: What do people seek in an affair partner?
Dr. G: Either we choose somebody very different from our partner, or we choose somebody like our partner used to be, a younger version. A woman married to a really sweet guy who helps with the dishes, who is very nurturing and very secure, may at some point see him as boring and get interested in the high-achieving, high-energy man who may even be a bit chauvinistic. But if she’s married to the man with the power and the status, then she’s interested in the guy who is sensitive and touchy-feely, who may not be as ambitious.
Q: Is this just the nature of attraction?
Dr. G: It has to do with the fact that people really want it all. Probably the only way to get it all is to be in more than one relationship at the same time. We have different parts of ourselves. The other flip-flop in choice of affair partner reflects the fact that the marriage often represents a healing of our family wounds. Somebody who lacked a secure attachment figure in their family of origin chooses a mate who provides security and stability. It’s a healthy, resilient part of ourselves that seeks that balancing. But after we’ve mastered that, we often want to go back and find somebody like that difficult parent and make that person love us. There is a correlation between the nature of the attachment figure and the affair partner; the person is trying to master incomplete business from childhood. As a result, some people will choose an affair partner who is difficult, temperamental, or unpredictable. Under those circumstances, the unfaithful partner is often caught in a triangle.
Q: What do you mean?
Dr. G: The person maintains the marriage, and can’t leave it, and maintains the affair, and can’t leave that either. Tension arises when either the affair partner or spouse applies pressure on them to get off the fence. The spouse gives them security and a sense of family. The affair partner provides excitement and passion. When the involved spouse says "I don’t know which person to be with," what they really want is to keep both.
Q: The challenge becomes, how, with busy lives, do people satisfy all of their needs within the marriage?.
Dr. G: It is a false belief that if I’m incomplete, I have to be completed by another person. You have to do it through your own life, your own work, for your own pleasure, through individual growth. The more fulfilled you are, in terms of things that you do separately that please you, the more individuated and more whole you are—and the more intimate you can be. Then you’re not expecting the other person to make you happy. You’re expecting the other person to share happiness with you, to join you in your happiness.
Q: Are more couples trying to survive affairs these days?
Dr. G: People are more willing to work through them. There is not the same kind of bitter resolution that people may have had in the past, when women would stay with an unfaithful husband because they had no place else to go. Staying together was more out of weakness; the marriage didn’t improve. Now people are saying, I’m willing to work this through, but we have to solve whatever problems we have, we have to get something out of this; our marriage has to be even better than it was before.
Q: Are men and women equally part of this willingness?
Dr. G: More men are calling to come in for therapy. That’s a very positive sign. The downside is, it’s often too late. By the time men are alarmed, the woman is too distanced from the marriage.
Q: What other changes do you see in affairs these days?
Dr. G: Cyber affairs are new. For some people the computer itself is very addictive. They get very caught up in it. It’s hiding out, escaping. And an affair is an escape—from the realities of everyday life. These two escapes are now paired. The other danger online is that people can disguise who they are. Think of the roles you can take on if you hide behind a computer screen. More so than in workplace affairs, you can project anything onto the other person. At the computer, with a screen in front of you; you can act out any fantasy you want. You can make this other person become anybody you want them to be. There’s a loosening up, because you’re not face to face with the person; the relationship begins in anonymity. Sometimes people send nude pictures back and forth.
Q: This attracts only a certain kind of person, doesn’t it?
Dr. G: We don’t know yet. Among the e-mail questions that I get are always a number from people who are concerned because their partner is having an online relationship with somebody. Or their partner had an affair with somebody they met online. It’s very prevalent, and it’s very dangerous. If you’re talking to somebody on the computer, and you begin to talk about your sexual fantasies, and you’re not talking to your partner about your sexual fantasies, which relationship now has more sexual chemistry? Which relationship has more emotional intimacy? Then your partner walks in the room and you switch screens. Now you’ve got a wall of secrecy. It has all the components of an affair. And it’s very easy. Technology has impacted affairs in another way, too. Many people have discovered their partner’s affair by getting the cellular phone bill, or by getting in the car and pushing redial on the car phone, or by taking their partner’s beeper and seeing who’s been calling. We’re leaving a whole new electronic trail.
Q: Has that changed the dynamics or the psychology of affairs in any way?
Dr. G: In the past, when someone was suspicious they could ask their partner: "Are you involved with somebody else?" Or "what’s going on? You seem distant lately." If the partner denied there was anything wrong, there wasn’t a whole lot somebody could do. Now there’s tangible evidence people can utilize to find out if their hunches are indeed true.
Q: There is a public conception of affairs as very glamorous, but as I’m hearing you tell it, the aftermath of affairs is pretty messy. How do we square these views?
Dr. G: They’re both true. In those captured moments, there is passion and romance. We’re in Stage One of relationship formation—idealizing the partner. Stage One can go on for years, as long as there’s a forbidden aspect. The admiration and positive mirroring can go on for a long time—until you get to a reality-based relationship. Which is why so many affairs end after the person leaves the marriage.
Q: How many affairs survive as enduring relationships?
Dr. G: Only 10 percent of people who leave their relationship for affairs end up with the affair partner. Once you can be with the person every day, and deal with all the little irritations in a relationship that make it less romantic, you’re into Stage Two—disillusionment. Several people have told me they wish the affair had never happened; they wish they had worked on their marriage instead. Once they got into an affair, it was too compelling. But now that the affair has settled into a reality based relationship, it is too late to go back to the marriage; they destroyed too much.
Q: How do most affairs get exposed or uncovered?
Dr. G: Sometimes the betrayed partner will just ask, "are you involved with somebody else?" Sometimes the affair partner, when it’s a women, does something to inform the wife—she sends a letter or a copy of an explicit greeting card, or calls, or even shows up on the doorstep. She asks, "do you know where your husband’s been?" Her motivation is not to be helpful but to break up the marriage. But often she’s the one that then gets left out. Sometimes people find out in horrible ways. They read about it in the newspaper or they get a sexually transmitted disease. Or the cell phone bill arrives. Or their partner gets arrested—if there is a sexual addiction, the partner may be caught with prostitutes. Sometimes somebody is suspicious and checks it out, by going to the hotel room to see whether their partner’s alone or by hiring detectives.
Q: Things must be at a pretty pass to bring in private detectives.
Dr. G: A newspaper article reported that when detectives were sent out to investigate an affair, the suspicions were founded in 95 percent of cases. When somebody gets to the point of hiring a detective, they’re usually right. Obviously if you have to hire a detective, rebuilding trust is going to be much more difficult than when you ask and a partner admits to an affair.
Q: Can all relationships be fixed after an affair?
Dr. G: No. What I look for is how the unfaithful partner shows empathy for the pain that they have caused when the betrayed spouse starts acting crazy.
Q: In what way do they act crazy?
Dr. G: They’re very emotional. They cry easily, their emotions flip-flop. They are hypervigilant. They want to look at the beeper. They have flashbacks. In the car they hear a country-western song and start crying, or accusing. They obsess over the details of the affair. Although these are common posttraumatic reactions to infidelity, their behavior is very erratic and upsetting to them and their partner. How much compassion the partner has for that is one of the benchmarks. Another sign of salvageability lies in how much responsibility the unfaithful partner is willing to take for the choice they made, regardless of problems that pre-existed in the marriage. (We definitely need to work on the weaknesses of the marriage, but not to justify the affair.) If the unfaithful partner says, "you made me do it," that’s not as predictive of a good outcome as when the partner says, "we should have gone to counseling before this happened to deal with the problems." Sometimes the unfaithful partner really doesn’t regret the affair, because it was very exciting. One of the big strains between the partners in the primary relationship is the way they perceive the affair partner.
Q: How so?
Dr. G: A lot of the anger and the rage the betrayed spouse feels is directed toward the affair partner rather than the marital partner: "that person doesn’t have any morals;" "that person was exploitative." "That person’s a home wrecker." To believe that of the marital partner would make it difficult to stay in the relationship. At the same time, the person who had the affair may still be idealizing the affair partner. The unfaithful spouse perceives the affair partner as an angel, whereas the betrayed person perceives an evil person. It’s important at some point in the healing process for the involved person to see some flaws in the affair partner, so that they can partly see what their partner, the betrayed spouse, is telling them. But it’s also important for the betrayed spouse to see the affair partner not as a cardboard character but as a human being who did some caring things.
Q: Is there anything else that helps you gauge the salvageability of a relationship after an affair?
Dr. G: Empathy, responsibility—and the degree of understanding of the vulnerabilities that made an affair possible.
Q: What vulnerabilities?
Dr. G: There are individual vulnerabilities, such as curiosity. Somebody gets invited for lunch, and they go to the house because they’re curious. They must learn that getting curious is a danger sign. Or they learn that if some damsel or guy in distress comes with a sad story, instead of becoming their confessor and their confidante, they give out the name of a great therapist. Knowing what these vulnerabilities are, and understanding them, allows a person to avoid them.
Q: Are there relationship vulnerabilities?
Dr. G: The biggest one I see these days is the child-centered marriage. I tell couples that if you really love your kids, the best gift you can give them is your own happy marriage. You can’t have a happy marriage if you never spend time alone. Your children need to see you going out together without them, or closing the bedroom door. That gives them a sense of security greater than they get by just by being loved. Today’s parents feel guilty because they don’t have enough time with their kids. They think they’re making it up to them by spending with them whatever leisure time they do have. They have family activities and family vacations. To help them rebuild the marriage I help them become more couple-centered, by building a cocoon around themselves as a couple.
Q: There has to be a separate layer of adult relationship?
Dr. G: The affair represents a man and a woman getting together in a dyad and just devoting themselves to each other. Very busy couples sometimes have to actually look at their calendars and find when they can spend time together. Sometimes it’s just a matter of better time management and better parental control. If a couple can unite to put the children to bed at eight o’clock, then they can have time together after that.
Q: Are there other vulnerabilities?.
Dr. G: One is: getting too intimate with people you work with. One way to guard against danger is, if there’s somebody you really like at work, then include them as part of a couple. Invite that person and their partner to come over, so that there isn’t a separate relationship with that person. That’s not a guarantee; people do have affairs with their best friend’s spouse. But walling that relationship off and making it separate from the primary relationship is dangerous.
Q: Can you tell whether someone is secretly continuing the affair?
Dr. G: Sometimes progress just feels frozen. I make suggestions to be more caring, to build the marriage, and nothing happens. It could be either person’s part. Perhaps the betrayed spouse is punishing the partner, or wants the partner to know how badly they are hurting, or having already given a lot in the relationship, is waiting to be given back to. Meanwhile the unfaithful spouse may not know what his or her own feelings are and avoids making a move toward the spouse for fear it will be misinterpreted as commitment. I try to find ways to foster caring, by giving them permission to act on momentary feelings of warmth for each other. A sign that the affair is continuing is when the unfaithful partner isn’t doing anything caring, and week after week makes excuses—"I don’t feel it yet," or, "it would be false if I did it now." Sometimes it feels disloyal to the affair partner to be too caring or to have sex in the marriage.
Q: Is it hard to get over an affair without a therapist?
Dr. G: It’s hard to do with a therapist. People can get over it, but I don’t know that they resolve the issues. Usually the unfaithful person wants to let it rest at "Hi hon, I’m back. Let’s get on with our lives. Why do we have to keep going back over the past?" The betrayed person wants to know the story with all the gory details. They may begin to feel they’re wrong to keep asking, and so may suppress their need to know because their partner doesn’t want to talk about it. They may stay together, but they really don’t learn anything and they don’t heal. Q. Can it ever be the same as it was before the affair? Dr.G. The affair creates a loss of innocence and some scar tissue. I tell couples things will never be the same. But the relationship may be stronger than it was before. If you break something and glue it back together with Super-Glue, it could be stronger than before—although you can see the cracks when you look closely.
Q: How do you rebuild trust?
Dr. G: Through honesty. First I have to build safety. It comes about by stopping all contact with the affair partner and sharing your whereabouts, by being willing to answer the questions from your partner, by handing over the beeper, even by creating a fund to hire a detective from time to time to check up at random. It also requires sharing information about any encounters with the affair partner before being asked; when you come home, you say, I saw him today, and he asked me how we’re doing, and I said I really don’t want to discuss that with you. That’s counterintuitive. People think that talking about it with the spouse will create upset, and they’ll have to go through the whole thing again. But it doesn’t. Instead of trying to put the affair in a vault and lock it up, if they’re willing to take it out and look at it, then the trust is rebuilt through that intimacy. The betrayed spouse may say, "I remember when such-and-such happened." If the unfaithful spouse can say, "yeah, I just recalled such-and-such," and they bring up things, or ask their partner, "how are you feeling? I see you’re looking down today, is that because you’re remembering?," trust can be rebuilt.
Q: Eventually the questioning and revealing assume a more normal level in the relationship?
Dr. G: Yes, but things will often pop up. Someone or something will prompt them to remember something that was said. What did you mean when you said that? Or, what were you doing when that happened? In the beginning, the betrayed partner wants details. Where, what, when. Did you tell them you love them? Did you give them gifts? Did they give you gifts? How often did you see them? How many times did you have sex? Did you have oral sex? Where did you have sex, was it in our house? Was it in the car? How much money did you spend. Those kinds of factual questions need to be answered. Eventually the questions develop more complexity. How did it go on so long if you knew that it was wrong? After that first time, did you feel guilty? At that point they’re in the final stages of trauma recovery, which is the search for meaning.
Q: And they have come to a joint understanding about what the affair meant?
Dr. G: By combining their stories and their perceptions. A couple builds trust by rewriting their history and including the story of the affair. Some couples do a beautiful job in trying to understand the affair together, and they co-create the story of what they’ve been through together. When couples really are healed, they may even tease each other with private little jokes about something that they know about the affair partner or about something that happened during the affair. You can see that they finally have some comfort with it. One of the signs that they are working in a much more united way is that their perception of the affair partner becomes more integrated—not all evil or all angel, but a human being who perhaps did manipulate and exploit but also was caring and offered something special.
Q: Some people, particularly men, are philanderers; they have repeated affairs. What’s going on with them?
Dr. G: First of all, there are different kinds of philanderers. Sometimes it’s easier to deal with this kind of infidelity, because there isn’t the emotional involvement; sometimes it’s harder because it’s such an established pattern. One question I explore with somebody who has had lots of sexual relationships is whether it’s an addiction or, in the case of men particularly, a sense of entitlement. There are some women now in positions of power who also seem to be treating sex in the same casual way and exploiting power in the same way as male philanderers. Nevertheless, in our culture, there is a sense of male privilege that not only condones but even encourages affairs. Some large corporations are notorious for supplying men with women to satisfy them sexually at conventions and conferences. Some men turn that down because it’s not in their personal value system; others never refuse a gift.
Q: How does entitlement affect matters?
Dr. G: If a man feels entitled, he experiences little guilt. Also, it is not necessarily a compulsive behavior; he has the ability to choose to stop it—if he changes his attitudes; if he sees what the consequences are; if he comes to believe that marriage means more than being a provider but being a loving father or a caring husband. Even if he doesn’t see anything wrong with philandering, if he can see the pain it causes someone he loves, he may really make the vow not only to his partner but to himself. A sexually addicted person usually uses sex the way others use drugs: They get anxious, say they’re not going to do it, but then they’re driven toward it. They get a momentary gratification, followed by remorse. They decide they’re not going to do it again, and then they do.
Q: There’s a compulsive quality.
Dr. G: There is also often remorse and guilt. If they get into therapy they may learn what addiction means in their life. Often there’s an emptiness that’s linked to a need for excitement. There may be an underlying depression. They then begin to deal with the underlying source of that compulsive behavior. There may be a history of incest or sexual abuse. Some women may be turning the tables by using their sexuality to control men rather than be controlled by them, or they may be using sex as a way to get affection, because they don’t believe that they can get it any other way. Some people may be acting out like rebellious adolescents against a spouse who is too parental. Q. What is happening in those relationships that are parental or in other ways not equal?
Dr. G: Sometimes there is an over-functioning spouse and an under-functioning spouse. One partner takes on a lot of responsibility—and then resents it. The more a person puts energy into something and tries to work on it, the more committed to the relationship that person is. The other partner, who is only semi-involved in the relationship, is freer to get involved in an affair, because they’re not as connected to the marriage. This is interesting because the popular notion is that the person who has the affair wasn’t getting enough at home. The reality is that they weren’t giving enough at home. Q. How do you handle that? Dr.G. In rebuilding that relationship, more equity has to be created. The issue isn’t what can the betrayed spouse do to make the partner happy—it’s what can the unfaithful spouse do to make their partner happy. In research and in practice, my colleague Tom Wright, Ph.D., and I have observed that when you compare who does more, who is more understanding, who is more romantic, who enjoys sex more—the affair is almost always more equitable than the marriage. Usually, the person was giving more—more time, more attention, more compliments—in the affair than in the marriage. If they can come back and invest in the marriage what they were doing in the affair, then they’ll feel more. There is some research showing that people are more satisfied in equitable relationships. When relationships are not equitable, even the over-benefitted partners are not as satisfied as those in equitable relationships. Certainly the under-benefited partners are not satisfied. Q. You seem to be constantly reversing the conventional wisdom about affairs.
Dr. G: I’ve noticed that when younger women get involved in affairs early in the marriage and then leave, often they have not been invested in the marriage. They’re working hard, climbing some ladder, accomplishing, and the husband is the one who is making dinner while she’s working late. He is the devastated one, because he is really committed and has given a lot. But he is peripheral in her life. I’ve seen several couples who had a plan they agreed on, to build a house, or for one partner to go back to school. The person who had the responsibility for carrying out the plan was totally engrossed in it, believing they were doing it for the relationship, while the other person felt so neglected that they then had a affair. The betrayed person felt terribly betrayed, because he or she thought that he was working for their future. But he didn’t necessarily listen to signs of distress, and was too focused on the plan A relationship is like a fire. You can let it go down, but you can’t let it go out. Even though you’re in another part of the house, you have to go back every once in a while to stoke the coals.
Q: Do you ever counsel people directly to leave a relationship?
Dr. G: I would support a betrayed spouse ending the relationship if a period of time has gone by in which they have tried to work on the relationship but the affair continues secretly. I always say that we can give you either a better marriage or a better divorce. Because if you can be happy in your marriage, that’s a much better solution for everybody. When someone decides to leave a marriage, it should not be for an affair.
Dr. G: You should leave the marriage because you have decided that regardless of what happens with the affair, you know you can not be happy with the marriage. That starts the affair off much cleaner. Then I didn’t leave my spouse for you, which is a terrible burden for a new relationship; plus, there is no leftover business from the marriage. It is hard for people to do, because they make comparisons, although it is ridiculously unfair to compare a long-term relationship with a romance still in Stage One. If you end this marriage on its own merits and the affair doesn’t work out, you can look back with no regrets, knowing that you and your partner did everything possible to optimize the marriage but the gap between you was still too great. Leaving a bad marriage without trying to repair it first is like buying high and selling low. Better to see how good you can make it, then look at it and ask: is this good enough?
Q: What percentage of couples make it?
Dr. G: Those who stay in therapy and have stopped the affair have a real good chance of making it. If the affair continues for a long time after therapy has started, the chances are less. It’s certainly common that after an affair is first uncovered and the involved person vows to stop it, it usually doesn’t stop right away. That would be coitus interruptus; there has to be some kind of closure. There will be secret meetings to say good bye, or to make sure that you can really let go. But that should happen in the first few weeks or months. If it is still continuing after eight months and the marriage isn’t progressing, then I might suggest a separation.
Q: Are some occupations or settings particularly conducive to affairs?
Dr. G: I don’t know any where the risk is low. When I was doing research for my dissertation, I went to the Baltimore-Washington airport and to an office park and gave out questionnaires. Originally I was looking for people in marriages of more than 12 years. I’d go up to the men, quite imposing in their pinstripe suits and starched collars, and ask if they’d be willing to complete an anonymous research questionnaire on marriage. I was stunned when the forms came back; so many of the men who had looked so conservative had engaged in extramarital sex. It is now known that, while we suspect the liberals, conservatives men are actually more likely to be having extramarital affairs—because they split sex and affection. There are the nice girls that you marry, then there are the wild girls you have sex with.
Q: The double standard is alive and well.
Dr. G: There is an older study that found that men who score high on traits of authoritarianism are more likely to separate sex and affection than men who are low in authoritarianism. Military officers fall into this category. People in high-drama professions—among doctors, those in the ER, the trauma surgeons, the cardiologists—engage in a certain amount of living on the edge that is associated with affairs. The Black Diamond skiers. Also there are people who are good at beginnings but not at middles. They go from career to career, or job to job, because they love starting things, but lose interest when it gets to the middle. This is not gender -specific. This is not a matter of occupations but of style. Certainly being in the entertainment business is a risk, because there’s a lot of glamour and people are away from home a lot. Often you’re in a make-believe world with another person.
Q: To hear that someone can be happily married and having an affair. That is surprising.
Dr. G: I often get asked, how can women stay with men who have repeated affairs. Many people believe that the Clintons have some kind of an arrangement. I don’t know anything about their marriage, but I do know that it’s more comfortable for people to believe they have an arrangement. When something bad happens to others, we want to distance ourselves from it, to find an explanation that couldn’t possibly apply to us.
Q: Is there ever a need to tell children about an affair?
Dr. G: I believe that the younger the children are, the less you talk about it. Parents have private adult things not to be shared with children. If the children have heard things and are asking questions, then you may need to be more open. It is always worse for children to be around secrecy. But if they don’t have any idea about it, it may not be necessary to tell them, even if they are adolescents or young adults. Where the parents are separating, they need to decide together what the story is going to be and tell the children together, sitting together on the same sofa. The children need to know that even though their parents are separating, they can deal with the children together. I suggest that the unfaithful person say, for example, "I didn’t love your father any more the way that married people should love each other." That’s truthful, it implies there may be somebody else, but it’s not slapping the children in the face with it.
Q: You use the metaphor of walls and windows in talking about affairs.
Dr. G: There is almost always a wall of secrecy around the affair; the primary partner does not know what’s going on on the other side of that wall. In the affair, there is often a window into the marriage, like a one-way mirror. To reconstruct the marriage, you have to reverse the walls and windows, put up a wall with the affair partner, and put up a window inside the marriage. Answering a spouse’s questions about what happened in the affair is a way to reverse the process. It’s a matter of who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside? Sometimes people will open windows but not put up walls. Sometimes they put up walls but don’t open the windows. Unless you do both, you can not rebuild safety and trust in the marriage.