(Featuring Peggy Vaughan's Survey on Affairs)
How can you mend a broken vow?
By Karen S. Peterson
It sounds unnecessarily painful, like picking at a scab until it bleeds.
But according to a new online survey of more than 1,000 spouses whose partners have been unfaithful, the key to getting past an affair is talking about it at length, over time.
Couples who do are "more likely to stay married and more likely to recover personally," says Peggy Vaughan, author of Beyond Affairs and The Monogamy Myth.
"There is no such thing as the one talk," says Vaughan, who has studied extramarital affairs for 25 years. "There is no quick fix. It is a long-term process."
Her results, she says, show that marriages can survive affairs. About 86% of the couples who discussed the affair thoroughly were still married and living together, compared with 55% of those who talked very little about the affair and were no longer together. More than half (54%) of those who talked a lot felt mostly healed; only 35% of those who did not talk much felt that way.
The goal is "a new level of honesty," and a day when the affair has been discussed to the point that the couple no longer feels its sting. The healing process can take up to two years, she says.
"We are not talking about the marriage just surviving," Vaughan says. "It is important for them to hold on. But the process of talking it through helps them communicate about life in general.
"They never go back to sleepwalking through the marriage, the way most couples do. People grow apart because they no longer share."
About half of spouses found out about the affair less than one year before the survey. Most had been married a number of years: 43% of men and 38% of women had been married five to 15 years; 32% of men and 40% of women had been wed more than 15 years. One-third (33%) of both sexes said partners voluntarily told them about the affair.
Both men (60%) and women (62%) wanted to know all the details. The more specifics that are discussed, the less the aggrieved partner imagines on his or her own, Vaughan says. Only about one-third of either sex wanted to discover just general information.
Both spouses had trouble getting a partner to talk. About 54% of men and 48% of women finally were told what they wanted to know "after much pressure."
Both partners initially will experience strong emotions they need to acknowledge, Vaughan says. But if the spouse of the unfaithful partner " tries to punish or get revenge," he or she will not get what is wanted: information and resolution. "The normal reaction to being punished is to stop talking."
There is no foolproof path after an affair, however. More than half of men (56%) and women (55%) still carry the pain daily.
Other experts support talking, with caveats. "For the vast majority, talking things out is an absolute necessity," says Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Divorce Remedy. The problem comes when talking "doesn't swiftly solve the problem and the unfaithful person says this isn't working."
She cautions: "Not everyone who has been betrayed needs to talk about it. There is no universal rule. But for those who do need to talk, the reluctant spouse must put aside his or her needs and talk."
Most of those in Vaughan's survey did not find a marriage counselor helpful. More men (77%) than women (51%) said the marital therapy was mostly frustrating. Many of those who went to counseling said the therapist didn't center enough on the affair but wanted to just cover the highlights and move on to more generalized marital problems.
Vaughan's survey was conducted through www.dearpeggy.com, which offers information about overcoming affairs. Seventy-five percent of the 1,083 spouses who answered 35 questions were women.