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Gannett News Service Article
Including comments by Peggy Vaughan

Relationships can survive--even thrive--despite adultery

By Greg Barrett
Gannett News Service
August 19, 1998

The Clintons are far from alone in trying to save a marriage after an adulterous affair.

Estimates of infidelity in the United States vary wildy -- from fewer than 10 percent of marriages to as many as 80 percent -- largely because people "lie about it, like Clinton," Howard Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, said Wednesday.

And it can happen to anyone.

If you have hormones, you are susceptible to infidelity. No wall of willpower, no marriage, no relationship, is completely safe from adultery's seduction. And more of us act on it than we'd like to believe.

"It's not limited to an isolated group of weak people," said San Diego's Peggy Vaughan, author of "The Monogamy Myth" (Newmarket Press, $ 14.95) and America Online's extramarital affairs expert. "If I had a dollar for every hour I've spent on the phone trying to help people, I'd be a millionaire."

But adultery doesn't have to end in divorce. Like the Clintons must do, couples need to decide if their relationship is worth fixing, Markman said. If so, recovery can actually strengthen the bond, much like a healed bone rarely breaks twice in the same spot.

Some marital therapists praise first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton for staying by Clinton's side, despite his admission of an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

New Jersey clinical psychologist Patricia A. Farrell calls Hillary a pragmatist, a woman with a lot invested in her husband and his career: "To leave him right now would be a major blot on his presidency, and she wouldn't want to do that."

Washington family therapist Diane Sollee compares her to former President Gerald Ford who has stuck by his wife, Betty, through alcoholism: "We don't think Gerald Ford was weak when he loved his wife despite her problems."

Markman calls the first lady "incredibly strong," and he considers the scandal a hidden blessing:

"What they both are doing -- fighting for their marriage -- is a positive message to give to the American people. It's still possible for them to not only save their marriage, but to have a great marriage."

Even repeated transgressions by the same spouse should not always pronounce a marriage dead. "Is there an end to love?" asked Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a Washington-based group of family and marriage therapists.

"If someone keeps doing something, it certainly tries one's patience, it tries our best efforts, but I don't think there is ever a point where you say a person can't change."

But change requires several years of devoted work by both spouses. Brush quickly over the incident, said Vaughan, who worked for six years on her own damaged marriage, and the affair is buried alive, and only on the surface.

"I would have never chosen to go through this, but our marriage is better for it," said Vaughan, whose husband of 43 years, James, admitted in 1974 to more than a dozen extramarital affairs. "It's not better because of the affairs, per se, but it's better because we learned the importance of honesty."

Retrouvaille, an international marital retreat for troubled couples, uses personal letters to fan communication. Spouses expound on their feelings alone, in private, away from face-to-face communication where body language can be stifling.

"In sharing our feelings this way, we not only learn better who we are but we learn who our spouses are," said Peg Zwaan, an international coordinator for Retrouvaille, which began in Quebec, Canada, in 1977, and now has retreats in the United States, Mexico, Ireland, Cuba and the Philippines.

When we first meet and first get married, we are starry-eyed and all we can do is talk and our share dreams," Zwaan says. "Then kids come along, we have homes and cars and pressures from the job. We drift away from each other. ... This is dangerous for the relationship."

Adultery, however, does not indicate a character flaw, Sollee says, rather it reveals a flaw in communication: "Faithfulness is not a virtue, it is a skill. It's no different than someone who is an overeater who goes to Weight Watchers and learns how to say 'no' to that extra slice of chocolate cake." Vaughan said blunt talk between mates about extramarital temptations weaken the affair's lure. Secrecy only empowers temptation by allowing it to evolve into titillating fantasy. "We think it is too risky to talk about attractions with your spouse, but that is denying the reality that attractions are normal," she said. "Actually it is too dangerous to NOT talk about it."

The cheating spouse, however, is not alone in examination, said Farrell, a former researcher for New York City's Mt. Sinai Medical Center. Chances are the relationship is lacking significant elements on both sides.

"Not just love, but is the respect and appreciation and friendship there?" she said. "People forget that marriage needs to include the element of friend. This is the person that when everyone else fails you, you can come to them, you can always depend on them."

Philanderers must come clean about more than the transgression, she says, they must become open books, full of frank, honest talk: "You may have been operating under a false impression in your marriage. Is your mate happy? Are you happy? Or are you just settling?"

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