Infidelity: Shattered Vows (Part 1)
Source: Psychology Today, originally published 1998.
Rebuild your relationship by rebuilding trust. Then open “windows” in the relationship.
Hold on to your wedding ring. It’s difficult, but possible, to repair the damage caused by infidelity. Increasingly, that’s what couples want. But let go of assumptions. In an interview with Hara Estroff Marano, a leading expert (Dr Shirley Glass) challenges everything you think you know about [infidelity].
Hara Marano: Infidelity appears to be the topic of the year. What has struck you most about the reaction to [the Clinton affair]?
Shirley Glass: Whatever horror or dismay people have about it, they’re able to separate the way the President Clinton was performing in office and the way he appeared to be performing in his marriage. That’s especially interesting because it seemed 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 husband. Whatever it is that they share — and they 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.
HM: Is this compartmentalizing characteristic of people who get into affairs?
SG: It’s much more characteristic of men. Most women believe that if you love your partner, you wouldn’t even be interested in an affair; therefore, if someone has an affair, it means that they don’t love their partner and they do love the person they had the affair with. But my research shows 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.
SG: 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 psychodynamic 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, that very man walked in with a young blonde woman. When he saw my husband, he walked out.
HM: How did that influence you?
SG: 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 believed.
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 pump theory.
Many of our beliefs about the behavior of others come from how we see things for ourselves. A man who 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 cannot 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.
HM: What infidelity research have you done?
SG: My first [infidelity] research study was actually based on a sex questionnaire in Psychology Today in the ’70s. I analyzed the data, looking at the effect of extra-marital sex, length of marriage, and gender difference on marital satisfaction and romanticism. I found enormous gender differences.
Men in long-term marriages who had affairs had very high marital satisfaction — and women in long-term marriages having affairs had the lowest 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 men were having sexual affairs and women emotional affairs.
HM: Are affairs about sex?
SG: 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 than if they had intercourse; it just seems so much more intimate.
HM: What is the infidelity in infidelity?
SG: 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 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 they may be able to deal with an impersonal one-night fling better than a long-term relationship in which their husband was sharing all kinds of loving ways with somebody else.
HM: Why are affairs so deeply wounding?
SG: 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.
HM: And it is deeply traumatic.
SG: It’s terrible. The wounding results because — and I’ve heard this so many times — I finally thought I met somebody I could trust.
HM: It violates that hope or expectation that you can be who you really are with another person?
SG: Yes. Affairs really aren’t about sex; they’re about betrayal. Imagine you are married to somebody very patriotic and then find 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 that 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 went to the drugstore that night and said your car broke down and didn’t come home for three hours, what was really happening?”
HM: This is necessary?
SG: 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?”
HM: And so they repeat the story until it no longer creates unmanageable arousal?
SG: 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 to tell them that they can trust their own instincts the next time they have those storm warnings. But if somebody thought everything was wonderful, how would they ever know if it happened again? It’s frightening.
HM: One question people these days are asking you is, ‘Is oral sex really infidelity’?
SG: 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. The real issue is, Is oral sex infidelity? You don’t need to ask a psychologist that — just ask any spouse: “Would you feel that it was an infidelity for your partner to engage in that type of behavior?”
HM: Would women answer that differently from men?
SG: 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. However, even kissing in a romantic, passionate way is an infidelity. People know when they cross that line from friendship to affair.
HM: So you don’t have to have intercourse to have an affair?
SG: Absolutely. There can be an affair without any kind of touching at all. People have affairs on the Internet.
HM: What is the sine qua non of an affair?
SG: 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. 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.
HM: Another question you told me people now ask is, “Are you a liar if you lie about an affair?” How do you answer?
SG: 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.” There is the element of truth, but the omission of what was really happening: “I left 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 in the wake of an affair.
HM: The deception makes a tremendous psychological difference to the betrayed spouse. What about to the person who constructed the deception?
SG: Once the affair’s been discovered, the involved partner could have a sense of relief, if they hate lying and don’t see themselves 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.
There are some people who have characterological problems, and the affair may be a symptom of that. Such people lie 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.
HM: So there is always moral compromise just by being in an affair?
SG: 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.
HM: Do affairs ever serve a positive function — not to excuse any of the damage they do?
SG: 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 one level of success and go on to many achievements, 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 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 thrilled to encounter that new self.
HM: How do you handle this?
SG: 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?” 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?”
HM: That’s a surprise. How did you come to know that’s the question to ask?
SG: 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 rosy glow to the way you see yourself. By contrast, the marriage offers a makeup mirror; it magnifies every little flaw. When someone loves you despite seeing 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.
HM: Can those things be duplicated in the marriage?
SG: 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.
HM: Do people push partners into affairs?
SG: 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.
HM: That is the wrong way to solve the problem?
SG: Yes. Generally when a woman is unhappy, she lets her partner know. She feels better 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.
HM: She becomes a pursuer, and he becomes the distancer.
SG: 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. That is often too little too late.
HM: By then she is often committed to someone on the outside?
SG: Yes, which is why when women have affairs, it’s much more often a result of long-term marital dissatisfaction.
HM: Can you predict which couples will get involved in affairs?
SG: 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.
HM: You’re saying that an affair is not always about the marriage. There are often cultural or contextual pulls into affairs. This is important information for women, because women blame themselves.
SG: And society blames women.
HM: So affairs can happen in good marriages. Is the marriage really good?
SG: 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 it 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.
HM: Why do some people in unhappy marriages have affairs and others do not?
SG: 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.
Surveys show that 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.
HM: Is infidelity in a long-standing marriage the same as in one of shorter duration?
SG: 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.
HM: Did she choose the wrong mate?
SG: She thinks so, especially if her affair partner is the opposite of her husband.
HM: From your perspective, what’s going on?
SG: 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.
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’re trying your best, there’s energy in the air.
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.
HM: What do people seek in an affair partner?
SG: Either we choose somebody very different from our partner, or we choose somebody like our partner used to be, but 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 touchyfeely, who may not be as ambitious.
HM: Is this just the nature of attraction?
SG: 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 healthy to seek 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.
HM: What do you mean?
SG: 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 provides security and a sense of family, the affair partner 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.
HM: The challenge is, how do people satisfy all of their needs within the marriage?
SG: 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 join you in your happiness.