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Life Crises: Extramarital Affairs—and Cancer
Peggy Vaughan

"Life is difficult" is the first sentence of M. Scott Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled. This might be called a blinding glimpse of the obvious; but when we face something "difficult" in life, we tend to react as if it "shouldn’t" have happened. Anyone who lives long enough eventually faces a life crisis—maybe many crises. We can be better prepared to face a crisis if we’ve done some careful thinking about life in advance.

James and I have spent many years developing a "life-planning" process (which we call Life-Design) to help prepare people to deal with all aspects of life by getting clarity about their values and priorities. We’ve seen the benefit of this work in the lives of many people—but nowhere has this been more dramatic than in our own lives. While this kind of work can be important when things are going well, it’s absolutely essential when "life is difficult."

For instance, I’ve had a couple of especially "difficult" times that illustrate how this kind of preparation can make a difference. One was in dealing with Extramarital Affairs and the other was in dealing with Cancer. While at first glance, these may seem to be two quite unrelated kinds of experiences, I personally found a great deal of similarity in the issues to be faced and overcome.

In 1974, my husband told me he had been having affairs for the previous 7 years. During that period I had suspected, but hadn’t actually "known." I was filled with anxiety and fear. After finding out for sure, I felt my life would "never be the same." It took a lot of time and effort to think of myself as a whole person without filtering everything in my life through the fact that my husband had had affairs.

In 1992, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This time I did not experience the anxiety and fear that is so common to receiving this news. I also quickly became able to think of myself as a whole person without filtering everything in my life through the fact that I had cancer. At the time, I couldn’t quite explain why I hadn’t had the same problems in dealing with cancer that I’d had in dealing with affairs. In hindsight, I think there are two primary reasons.

First, I had learned from the "affair" experience that I could, in fact, recover from a serious setback and use it to become even stronger. In fact, one book reviewer (who did a quite positive review of "The Monogamy Myth") commented: "When some women's husbands have affairs, they get a divorce. Others stay married, but suffer in silence. Peggy Vaughan's husband had affairs—and she made a career out of it!"

I had to laugh because in a way it was true. I had taken my experience and turned it into something positive—a career of helping others gain the information, understanding and perspective about affairs that could help them recover from this experience. I used this same attitude when it came to cancer. I learned everything possible about breast cancer and passed my understandings on to others.

In dealing with both affairs and cancer, the secrecy surrounding them often makes it even more difficult. So I did the opposite with both issues. I wrote Beyond Affairs (with my husband), describing our personal experience in dealing with affairs. When it came to cancer, I didn’t write a book, but I did a series of TV interviews talking about all aspects of it. In fact, in one instance while I was bald from undergoing chemotherapy, I was describing the kinds of turbans and wigs available—and I changed wigs on camera, exposing my bald head!

I gain strength from facing a problem head-on, not hiding or rationalizing or just wishing it hadn’t happened. Each person needs to make their own decisions about how to handle serious life crises, but this is what works for me. So my experience in dealing with affairs had prepared me to face the crisis of cancer in a special way.

The second reason I think my experience in dealing with affairs helped me deal more effectively with cancer is that I had spent 20 years following the process we describe in the Life-Planning Workbook. So my cancer was not the kind of "wake-up call" that it is for most people. As the subtitle to the workbook says, I had spent years "Living my life by choice instead of chance."

I already realized that whether or not you’re dealing with cancer, we all have a terminal condition—it’s called "life." (We’re all going to die. That’s not our problem. Our problem is learning how to "live" until we die.) Doing life-planning on an ongoing basis allowed me to be better prepared to face a crisis (whatever it might be) than had I not done this kind of thinking. So when a crisis hits (as with my cancer), there’s a better chance of being prepared to put it in perspective and deal with it in an effective way.

Finally, some tips that work—whether dealing with extramarital affairs or with cancer:
1. It helps if you have other responsibilities and activities to think about so you’re not just thinking about yourself all the time.
2. It helps if you coordinate your work on the issue with the rest of your life rather than letting everything in life accommodate to the issue.
3. It helps to talk to others about it. Since people may tend to feel uncomfortable or awkward in discussing either subject:
a. Don’t pause too soon for a response; keep talking so they have time to collect themselves.
b. Make it clear that you’re still the same person (since they may tend to feel "sorry for you").
c. Tell them precisely what you want them to do or not to do to be helpful or supportive of your efforts to deal with the issue.

I realize, of course, that there are no guarantees in life. I "survived" the affairs, and so far I’ve "survived" the cancer. However, even though I’ve now been married for 57 years and even though it’s now been 20 years since my cancer — none of us knows for sure what tomorrow brings. We can only do our best to do the kind of life-planning that will prepare us to face whatever comes.

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