DearPeggy.com


Article in REDBOOK Magazine - June 2000
(featuring Peggy Vaughan's survey on affairs)

WILL HE CHEAT? WILL YOU?
A surprising new study

By FRANCINE RUSSO

Not you. You'd never have an affair. And your mate would never even consider it, right? Well, actually, he might, and so might you: By some estimates, 60 percent of married men and women stray from the fold at least once. So whatever you hope and believe, it is possible an affair could shake your marriage.

And if it does, it won't be pretty. Just check out the Internet: It's full of sites offering help for people recovering from affairs. Both cheaters and cheated-on are begging for guidance in healing from infidelity, which they nearly universally describe as devastating to a marriage.

A new survey conducted at one of these sites (DearPeggy.com) offers surprising insights into what helps couples heal. Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego-based psychological consultant, polled more than 1,000 people between ages 30 and 50 whose spouses had had affairs (75 percent were women and 25 percent were men; their responses were analyzed by a statistician). Remarkably, the marriages that survived, and even thrived, were those in which the partners talked the most about the affair—often every day for months—and in which the cheaters revealed everything their mates asked to know, including explicit sexual details. Even more remarkably, a majority of the respondents who thoroughly dissected their affairs (59 percent) said that their marriages were actually better after the affair than before it. Exclusive interviews conducted by Redbook with couples whose marriages survived infidelity bear these findings out.

"Betrayal by a spouse turns your world upside down," says Vaughan. "What emerges most powerfully from this survey is the power of open, honest communication to heal a marriage." Vaughan knows this firsthand: After her husband confessed his infidelity more than 25 years ago, the couple painfully and painstakingly rebuilt their life together. She had suspected his unfaithfulness, but it was his willingness to confess—and to tell her everything she wanted to know—that helped them develop an honest, monogamous marriage again.

Vaughan insists that if one partner has an affair, it doesn't necessarily mean there are problems in a marriage. "Other things pull people into affairs—excitement or ego," she says. But if husband and wife aren't communicating openly in the first place, that pull will be much harder to resist.

*Couples' names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Jennifer;* a 28-year-old from New Jersey who has been married for eight years, feels certain it was lack of communication with her 30-year-old husband, Tom,* that drove her into an affair with the male half of the couple who were their best friends.

"Tom and I both did our own thing," she says. "We'd both had this fantasy of being married and didn't really get to know each other. We were too wrapped up in the parts we thought we needed to play. He was the tough guy, I was the tough girl; we never showed our feelings or weaknesses. I thought this other man was a real friend, but I never tried to be a friend to my husband."

SIXTY PERCENT OF SPOUSES ARE UNFAITHFUL AT LEAST ONCE. NEW RESEARCH PROVES THAT TALKING ABOUT THE INFIDELITY—EVEN SHARING THE GRISLY DETAILS—IS THE BEST WAY TO HELP COUPLES HEAL.

FIRST STEP TOWARD HEALING: TALK

A revelation of infidelity forces partners to talk—first about the affair itself, but ultimately about the marriage and their deepest selves. "The betrayed partner has so many questions that desperately need to be answered," says Don-David Lusterman, Ph.D., author of Infidelity: A Survival Guide. "'What is it that attracted you to this person? What was going on in our marriage that let this happen? What made you end the affair?"'

If the betrayer is willing to answer every question, the couple may find they are talking intimately for the first time in years, even for the first time ever. "If you've been cheated on, your partner's willingness to tell the details is more significant than the details themselves," explains Vaughan. "If the cheater won't tell you what you need to know, you'll wonder how you can ever trust this person to be fair and considerate in the future."

Marina* begged her husband, Hal,* for the facts after she discovered his affair with a co-worker. "I needed to know," she says, still visibly upset 18 months later, "because it's almost like you have to validate your sanity. While all this was going on, I was in the dark."

The Illinois couple, both 42, who had been married for eight years, had three kids and what Marina thought was a good marriage. So for months she'd dismissed her intuition that something wasn't right. Hal, uncharacteristically, suddenly needed to keep track of her whereabouts: Where would she be at such and such a time? Where was she going that day? Finally, Marina actually followed him after work one day—and found herself knocking on another woman's door while her husband sat inside, too ashamed to come out.

"Then everything made sense," she says. "I thought, I'm not going crazy."

In the aftermath, Marina pelted Hal with questions, and though he was reluctant to answer them, she didn't let up. She had to know: Where had he been on a particular afternoon? When he'd snatched a letter out of Marina's hands, had it been from her? Painfully, bit by bit, he told the truth. "Hearing the answers was very hurtful," Marina says. "I felt betrayed, angry, sad. I saw pictures of the two of them in my mind for at least a year." But, she says, Hal's willingness to tell her what she needed to know was crucial to rebuilding trust between them. Hal, too, feels that much of his faith in their marriage has been restored.

Withholding the details of an affair is harmful for another reason, says Debbie Layton-Tholl, a psychologist in Boca Raton, FL. "Maintaining the secrecy maintains the excitement," she says, "and can preserve an inflated view of the lover."

WHY YOU SHOULDN'T SPARE THE GRISLY DETAILS

Vaughan's most controversial finding is that revealing even graphic sexual details of the affair can help save a marriage. A majority of the cheated-on spouses—62 percent—said they'd wanted to know every detail of their partner's affair. And 55 percent of those whose spouses answered all their questions said they had healed somewhat. (In most cases, the wounds were still fresh: 47 percent of the affairs were revealed within the past year, and 38 percent within the past five years.) These findings run counter to the beliefs of many marital therapists, who advise against focusing on the affair and particularly against exposing the hurt partner to the gory details. (In one recent poll of therapists, 40 percent opposed such revelations.) This may explain why a majority of couples surveyed—57 percent—said that they found marital counseling more frustrating than helpful.

To the cheating spouse, filling in the details may feel like rubbing salt in both partners' wounds—and indeed, the cheated-on spouse may never be able to forget those graphic images. But Vaughan still insists that even this pain is preferable to being left in the dark. "Nothing is worse than not knowing," she says. "You'll have the images anyway. If you know what really happened, you'll only obsess about that song, that hotel, instead of about everything."

"Full disclosure is critical for healing—even of raw sexual minutiae, when necessary," agrees Baltimore psychologist Shirley Glass, Ph.D., a leading researcher on infidelity. Many betrayed spouses, she explains, experience symptoms similar to the post-traumatic stress suffered by rape or crime victims: hyperarousal, hypervigilance, obsessive ruminating, intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks. "What helps people recover from trauma," she explains, "is to reestablish safety, and one step is by going over the story of the trauma."

WHO GETS HURT WORSE—MEN OR WOMEN?

MEN AND WOMEN RESPONDED ALMOST IDENTICALLY TO MOST OF THE SURVEY QUESTIONS.

Overwhelmingly, both sexes wanted to know details of the affair. They healed and developed trust in the same proportions, and the same percentage (44%) felt their relationship had "improved" since the affair.

The differences? More men (77%) than women (51%) found counseling "mostly frustrating." More women (36%) than men (29%) reported they did not have a sense of forgiveness but still had "lots of anger and resentment."

If they divorced, men (30%) were more likely than women (23%) to be in a new "trusting" intimate relationship.

WHO STAYS MARRIED?
76% of both men and women stayed married after the affair. Of those who divorced after the revelation, men decided sooner—mostly within the first three months.

WHO KEEPS SECRETS?
24% of men said they had talked to no one at all about their mate's affair, compared with 11 percent of women who didn't tell their friends or families.

Jennifer feels she was lucky they went to a marriage counselor who persuaded her to answer all Tom's questions: "The counselor said the more Tom knew, the more control he would have and the more he would feel that no secrets remained."

It still wasn't easy. Jennifer hated answering Tom's questions, and he hated hearing the answers. "He asked exactly what we did, even the positions," she says, "and my feelings when we did them, like was I in love. He cried, he yelled. He walked out and said he didn't want to hear any more, then he walked back in and said, 'Tell me more."'

Yet there is such a thing as hearing too many details, and it can be as destructive as not hearing enough. "You have to figure out what it is you really need to know," says Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., author of After the Affair. "Ask yourself: Will this information help me or destroy me?"

When Ken* discovered over a year ago that his wife, Jeanne," had had an affair with her former boss, the Indiana couple, both 39, had been married 16 years and had two young children. Ken was beside himself with anger, rage, and disgust: "I lost 35 pounds and ended up in the hospital," he says. He demanded that Jeanne tell him what positions they used for lovemaking and whether she'd performed oral sex on her lover (she had); he even insisted on reading their torrid e-mail correspondence. The couple ended up staying together, but in this case, knowing the particulars made things harder. "I wanted to know everything in great detail," Ken says, "and now I'm sorry I did. I know the guy, I've been in his house, and it really tore me up. It was like being in the same room with them."

BACK UP HONESTY WITH ACTION

For a couple to move beyond this tortuous post-affair stage, says Vaughan, the hard-won honesty between them must be sacrosanct: Even the smallest lie from the unfaithful partner can shake the couple's new foundation.

When Hal had to take a business trip by car with a female associate, he avoided telling Marina until he came home. Then he confessed the evasion. "The lying really upset her," he says—enough so that they went back to see their marriage counselor. He realized then that lying was simply no longer an option—ever.

Roger,* 41, a sales representative from Louisiana, faced a similar dilemma. He and his wife, Lena,* 38, were recovering from a yearlong affair he'd ended several months before when his former lover called him at home late one night. Shocked and unsettled, he told Lena it was a telemarketer. "I couldn't sleep that night," Roger says, "and it bothered me all the next day. I'd made a promise never to deceive my wife again. As soon as I got home the next day, I told her the truth and she floored me: She thanked me for telling her. It was a sign to her that my mind was toward her and not the other woman."

A commitment to honesty, of course, is only one step toward healing. According to Spring, the unfaithful spouse must show compassion for the hurt he or she has caused and be willing to look deep within to find out why he or she strayed. The betrayer must also find ways to make the hurt partner feel safe and loved again.

"I slept on the floor by the foot of the bed for a month," says Hal. "I felt that's what I deserved, sleeping on the floor with the dog. I also shaved my beard for her—and I hate shaving—so she wouldn't have to look at the face that hurt her."

Jeanne also made dramatic sacrifices to help Ken heal. While he was trying to hold himself together, forced to drive past her lover's house every day to get to work, Jeanne found a new job and a new house in another town, giving up a job she loved so she and Ken could start over. "That was a sign of her commitment to a future with me," Ken says, "wanting to take me away from the painful memories."

Though Ken describes himself as "only 40 or 50 percent healed," he believes that the crisis triggered by Jeanne's affair has left their marriage stronger. "We learned more about each other in that first three months than in the previous 18 years," he says. "We learned not to mask feelings and not to walk away from arguments. I learned how, after all those years of doing things for me and the kids, she needed more time for herself. I learned that I wasn't affectionate enough and that I didn't value and take care of the marriage until I nearly lost it. Now I put away my male ego and do things to show her that I love her, send flowers and cards, do more around the house."

THE CASE FOR KISSING AND TELLING

WHAT CHEATED-ON SPOUSES WANT TO KNOW
62% say "everything about the affair, including sexual details" 31% say "general information" 7% do not want to know details

TALKING ABOUT THE AFFAIR HELPS A MARRIAGE HEAL...
54% of those who discussed the situation "a lot" healed somewhat 35% of those who talked "very little" healed somewhat

...AND EVEN MAKES A MARRIAGE BETTER THAN EVER
59% who discussed the affair "a lot" say their marriage is now better 43% who discussed it "a good bit" say their marriage is better 21% who discussed it "very little" say their marriage is better

YET THE SCARS REMAIN
50% say "I've healed somewhat but feel I will always carry a scar" 32% say they haven't healed and are "still in great pain" 19% say "I've mostly healed and actually grown in many ways"

AFFAIR-PROOF YOUR MARRIAGE

Obviously, an affair is a very costly—and risky—way to improve a marriage. Half of the people in Vaughan's survey said they would always carry a scar from the affair even though they had partly healed. Nearly a third were not that lucky: They described themselves as still in great pain.

How can you resist having an affair in the first place—or prevent your spouse from having one? Part of the answer is to admit to being tempted. "Being open about your attraction to other people is key," says Vaughan. "Say something like, 'Let's agree that when we're attracted to someone, we'll talk about it."'

Hal and Marina had promised before their marriage to tell each other if they felt attracted to other people, but neither did. "If I could only have told my wife I wasn't feeling good," says Hal, "if I could have told her 'Somebody rubbed up against me at work,' I think this could all have been avoided. If you have an urge, tell your loved one," he advises. "After nearly two years, I still think about the affair every day, and I think she does, too. If my story helps anyone, it will be a little victory for me...and I need my little victories."

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