Including comments by Peggy Vaughan
Immunized against infidelity
By Shirley Barnes
With much of the nation focused on the rogue's gallery of famous straying spouses who've pranced through the headlines in recent years, Dr. Frank Pittman thinks it's time to turn our attention elsewhere: to the adultery that wreaks havoc in average American homes. "Infidelity is the sine qua non of divorce," says Pittman, who has seen plenty of it in his 39 years as an Atlanta psychiatrist, family therapist and author. "Grow Up" (Golden Books, $14) is his latest book on the topic.
He recites his scorecard. Out of 7,000 cases in 39 years, "I've seen only five established first marriages ending in divorce without somebody being unfaithful. Every year I think I've seen the sixth, but I wait and sure enough the other man or woman surfaces even though they deny and deny and deny. I saw nine cases of infidelity just today, kind of a typical day," he says in a telephone interview from his Atlanta home.
Marital therapists spend much of their time trying to fix marriages already broken by affairs. But Pittman advocates a more positive approach: teaching couples how to inoculate their marriages against infidelity before it happens.
He was one of several experts to tackle the topic at the recent Smart Marriages conference in Washington, D.C., put on by the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, an influential, growing group of researchers, counselors and therapists who champion skills-based marriage education to stem the country's divorce epidemic.
Most starry-eyed newlyweds ignore the threat of infidelity even though research shows it's most apt to occur in the first three years of marriage, says Barry McCarthy, a certified marriage and sex therapist with the Washington Psychological Center in Washington, D.C.
To boost couples' chances of sidestepping affairs, "You can't be so naive as to think you won't be attracted to other people (after marriage)," says Baltimore researcher and psychologist Shirley Glass.
According to Glass, married people have to consciously put up "certain kinds of walls in relationships to people who are attractive (to them)." Most people don't realize "it's a bigger leap from a platonic relationship to the first romantic kiss than from a kiss to sexual intercourse," she says.
At the Smart Marriages conference, Glass released her latest study, indicating 73 percent of men and 42 percent of women meet their extramarital affair partners at work. Such statistics are a warning to be wary of office relationships that step over the line from healthy friendships to strong emotional bonds that can ruin marriages. Some couples are getting the idea. Stung by his first wife's infidelity, Arthur Ross of Chicago was determined it wouldn't happen again. Joy, his second wife, whom he met and courted on the Internet, agrees. "We have decided we aren't going to have that in our marriage," she says. Even before they met in person, Arthur sent Joy a book on how to build an affair-proof marriage. To Joy, who moved to Chicago from her home in the Bahamas, the key is "to keep our relationship solid and make sure there's not something missing." This is her first marriage. "Obviously it's not true" that married people are never attracted to others, says Arthur, an electrical engineer turned computer consultant. "But I deal with it by not putting myself into a position that I'm not going to be able to get myself out of." He doesn't go out to lunch with unattached female business associates. The Rosses also enrolled in a PAIRS marriage education course to reinforce their commitment.
Author Peggy Vaughan describes the essential ingredient in faithful marriages as "honest communication so you're so much in touch with each other you can't deceive each other." Vaughan's first book, "The Monogamy Myth" (Newmarket Press, $14.95), says "More couples stay together (after an affair) than people realize," she says.
As America Online's infidelity expert, Vaughan spends weekdays answering queries at the Web site she shares with her husband (dearpeggy.com), from people skewered by each corner of extramarital triangles. The site averages 18,000 hits a day.
"Preventing affairs is not like having a one-time inoculation - or even getting occasional booster shots. It's more like taking a pill every day for the rest of your life," she says. At the Washington, D.C., conference, she warned of a new spawning ground for infidelity: the Internet. Vaughan reported that her Web site is full of tales from stay-at-home moms, among others, whose chat room visits become a hazard to their marriage when they discover a cyberspace soulmate. The honesty that's absent in their marriage is spilled out on the screen to a total stranger.
To track the role honesty plays in preventing affairs and in patching up marriages damaged by them, Vaughan this fall will release the results of an on-line survey she's conducting in cooperation with long-time marriage researcher John Gottman of the University of Washington. "People like to think that there's some way to affair-proof your marriage, some one-time event or promise or set of values and beliefs that will last, no matter what. But the issue of affairs is never settled once and for all; it requires honest discussions about the normal attractions to others and how as a couple you will handle these attractions," Vaughan says. "Don't wait for a crisis. Don't wait until you are attracted or tempted," she says.
Couples have to figure out before it happens "how to make it safe to tell each other if they're attracted to other people," says Paul Gerlach, an Oak Park family life educator who heads the Stepfamily Association of Illinois. "And how to tell each other that they're not satisfied" when things are not working in the marriage.
It takes self-awareness and courage to avoid affairs, Gerlach says. Whether it's a secretary making eyes at you or the guy in the next office, "You have to stop to realize, 'Wow, I am aware I am feeling attracted. I think I'd better get square with what's going on inside of me.' "
"All things flow from that awareness," Gerlach says, suggesting that infidelity is often due to the fact that one or both marriage partners are not aware "their relationship has a hole in it. They need to realize either something is not balanced inside of me, or inside of us." Trying to ignore the attraction doesn't work, Gerlach says, "if you go to bed with lusty, guilty thoughts and give off signals the next day to the secretary.
"You need to go home and talk to your wife (or husband) about the yellow light that's going on," he says, something that's much easier to do if the couple has already agreed that such a topic is not taboo.
"People think it's too scary to talk about attractions, but in fact it's the safest thing to do," Vaughan says. She thinks talking openly in a marriage about the threat of potential attractions may be easier for couples today because "marriages are more egalitarian. Men are more aware that women are also having affairs. Supposedly women weren't attracted to men (in years past), but now you hear them talking about such things as a guy's butt."
It makes it easier to talk about possible attractions when both parties know it could be mutual, she says.
Barry McCarthy urges husbands and wives to take a realistic look at their vulnerability and attitudes toward the different kinds of adultery.
Although more men are susceptible to the short-lived high opportunity/low involvement tryst or the same-time-next-month ongoing affair, women tend to gravitate to entangling "comparison affairs" with the neighbor or office colleague. These liaisons are most apt to lead to divorce because "more emotional and sexual needs are met in the affair than in the marriage," McCarthy says. The wronged spouse feels betrayed because the lover "knows so much about you and us."
"I don't know if you can prevent affairs for the philandering types, or the entitled types or people who are very unhappy in their marriage. But there are a whole bunch of other people who are pretty satisfied with good relationships. They love their spouses, and then they sort of slide into an affair because they are not aware of their boundaries" Glass says. "This is happening more and more as men and women are working together in collegial situations."
"The No. 1 cause for the breakdown in marriages today is the same issue that causes infidelity. Couples aren't prioritizing their marriage," says Michele Weiner-Davis, a Woodstock marriage and family therapist and author of "Divorce Busting" (Fireside, $12). Weiner-Davis' Web site's message board (divorcebusting.com) is full of personal struggles with infidelity.
"People spend time on their careers, their kids, community affairs, hobbies, sports. But they take their spouses for granted. It just doesn't work that way," she says. Overstressed couples need to "remember what was so great about the beginning of their relationship, when they used to laugh at each other's jokes, compliment each other, use pet names," Weiner-Davis says, adding that it's a good way to safeguard marriages. "Those little things mean so much. They make people feel sexy, attractive, smart, valued."