Bryant case shines light on shadow of infidelity
By JANET ZIMMERMAN and MICHAEL FISHER
Kobe Bryant's recent confession puts him on a long and illustrious roster of admitted adulterers, from Michael Jordan and Frank Gifford to Bill Clinton and Gary Condit.
The list is just as lengthy for Joe and Jane Public, sociologists say.
"We've come to almost believe any celebrity or politician, especially sports figures, do it," said Peggy Vaughan, author of "The Monogamy Myth." "It's not unique to them. It's far more prevalent than the general population thinks."
Bryant said he had consensual sex with a 19-year-old woman who worked at the Eagle, Colo., resort where he was staying on June 30. Prosecutors say it was rape and have charged the basketball star with felony sexual assault. Bryant is expected Wednesday to make his first court appearance in the case.
While the majority of Americans remain steadfast in their opinion that adultery is wrong, studies show that almost one in five married people cheat. The incidence is probably much higher, therapists and sociologists say, because most people would not admit to fooling around, even as part of an anonymous survey.
"You have the very strong moral teachings against this. Adultery is on the short list of 'thou shalt nots,' right up there with murder and some other serious things," said Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey, a national study of Americans' sexual behavior and attitudes.
Many marriages withstand such deception, though it usually takes years to work through the pain, therapists say.
When a woman is the wrongdoer -- as studies show they increasingly are -- damage to a relationship is harder to repair. Many people believe that men have a biological need to stray, and therefore it is more acceptable.
When it's a celebrity who's involved in an affair, the fascination factor is ratcheted up several notches. The public may condemn the offender's actions but still respect the talents that made him or her famous, experts said.
Aftermath of infidelity
Vaughan's husband, James, had affairs for seven years of their 48-year marriage, according to the book they later wrote about it. He doesn't know for sure how many women there were, maybe a dozen.
"There were all kinds of clues and evidence and I refused to believe it because I thought, 'If it's true, I'll have to get a divorce.' I went through all the emotions -- contemplating suicide, wishing for amnesia," she said by telephone from her office in San Diego.
Suspecting was worse than knowing, Vaughan said. After the affairs began, her husband, a psychology professor who traveled frequently, gradually distanced himself from her. He grew defensive and critical.
James Vaughan writes in the couple's book, "Beyond Affairs," that he was tempted to stray because he had lost the connection with his wife and stopped viewing her as an individual.
She was relieved when he finally confessed to the infidelity in 1974.
The Vaughans spent the next two years rebuilding their relationship and are still married.
Peggy Vaughan, founder of a national support group called Beyond Affairs Network, insists that marriages don't have to end after infidelity.
Some have been critical of Bryant's wife, Vanessa, for standing by her husband and even appearing at his side during a tearful press conference where he admitted straying.
Bryant's wife "probably isn't even clear herself as to why she's hanging in," Vaughan said. "She (believes) he's not capable of sexual assault, and that gives her strength to hang in through the affair. Money or their child may play a part. Or she may simply still love the guy."
Appearing together in front of a critical public reconnects the couple emotionally in an "us versus them" way, Vaughan said.
There was little else Vanessa Bryant could do if she values her marriage and wants it to continue despite his betrayal, said Jack Balswick, a professor of Sociology and Family Development at Fuller Theological Seminary's School of Psychology in Pasadena.
"An affair is very damaging, but it doesn't mean the relationship won't survive and love is lost. For the resolute spouse, the anger, the sense of how do you really forgive, that could be a very long-term process," he said.
Sometimes, though, the damage can't be repaired, said Bill Maier, vice president and psychologist-in-residence at Focus on the Family.
"Marriage is about so much more than personal happiness. It's about trust, commitment, service and self-sacrifice. Adultery violates that commitment in the most profound ways, leaving the adulterer's spouse and children a permanent legacy of betrayal, anger and pain," he said by phone from the group's Colorado headquarters.
In the Inland area, a Corona woman said her husband of 4 1/2 years had an affair with a neighbor. She said she could have forgiven him for straying, but that he wasn't willing to stop seeing the woman or to work on their relationship.
"He told me this isn't something you get a divorce over," she said by phone. She said she became suspicious after he discouraged her from accompanying him on business trips and was often too tired to go out.
She said she and her teenage sons from another marriage have been in counseling. "I can't believe how loose our society is on not thinking that affairs affect the whole family," she said.
The woman and her husband are fighting over their property and spousal support in divorce court. He declined to comment because of the pending legal case.
Many a celebrity wife has stood by her husband, from Hillary Rodham Clinton to Kathy Lee Gifford, wife of former sportscaster Frank Gifford.
"Attitudes have changed. I think people are not as quick to say this is a deal breaker for my marriage or my relationship," said Constance R. Ahrons, author of "The Good Divorce" and a professor emeritus of sociology at University of Southern California.
However, when the woman is the adulterer, the damage appears to be more significant, and relationships have a greater chance of ending, Ahrons said.
"When women have affairs, they tend to be more serious, and they are in that way more threatening to a marriage," she said in a telephone interview.
But Balswick sees a softening in the double standard that seems to make adultery more accepted when committed by men.
"Sort of like when Kobe said, 'I am man,' and (the theory that) there is something in the makeup of men, genetic or biological or whatever, and so we can't hold men to the same standard that we hold women to. Many people would rightfully challenge it," said Balswick, who with his wife, Judy, wrote the 1999 book "Authentic Human Sexuality: An Integrated Christian Approach."
Feeding that change is society's evolving opinion that women can be the aggressor in sexual situations, a notion portrayed in popular culture, such as on the HBO show "Sex and the City," he said.
Recent surveys show that about 22 percent of husbands admit being unfaithful, compared with 15 percent of wives. That gap has shrunk over the past two decades as women increasingly entered the work force, experts say. The Internet has also played a role in making illicit relationships more accessible.
Women increasingly are having affairs because they feel entitled, as men do, said Susan Shapiro Barash, a gender studies professor at Marymount Manhattan College in New York and author of the newly released book "A Passion for More: Wives Reveal the Affairs That Make or Break Their Marriages." Most surprisingly, she said, is that women are cheating without guilt.
"Their lives are very complicated," Barash said by phone. "The lover is the fantasy. You don't talk about sick children and mortgage payments with your lover."
Ahrons said definitions of cheating have shifted over the years, especially in the wake of the scandalous 1998 affair between Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The president denied that their oral sex constituted sexual relations.
"Since Clinton, we have this new line that if it's not intercourse, it's not infidelity, and I don't agree with that at all . . . I think within couples, an act of infidelity is where your emotional or sexual intentions have gone elsewhere," she said.
The changing perceptions of adultery also likely reflect other shifts in society's moral basis, Balswick said.
"It may indicate a movement away from having a strong anchoring in moral values. In the past, people probably anchored their moral values in religious beliefs. The more we have moved to a secular society, the more people's moral values may be internally inconsistent," he said by phone.
Indeed, the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, shows that people are more accepting of premarital and homosexual sex than in previous years.
People expect athletes and other celebrities to face greater temptations and opportunity by virtue of their position in the limelight. While some find that as an excuse for immoral behavior, others argue that celebrities have an obligation to take more precautions.
When it comes to the famous, the public often separates the act of adultery from the offender's talents, Balswick said. "They said, 'I don't agree with their lifestyle there, but I don't negate their accomplishments in other areas.' "
The public's appetite for news about celebrity antics has also changed, said Douglas Huenergardt, a professor of marriage and family therapy at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
In past decades, stars like the late Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy kept their relationship secret, and the subject was almost considered off limits. Information about President John F. Kennedy's reported trysts were not considered newsworthy.
"We are really talking about a difference in era," Huenergardt said. "Maybe there is an element of a more lurid fascination, with look what so-and-so is up to, with almost a kind of jaded acceptance."
Vaughan of Beyond Affairs Network said people tend to treat news of cheating as gossip, whether the offender is a star or a neighbor. It's not taken seriously until it happens to them, she said.
Society's mixed messages about sex contribute to the problem, Vaughan said.
"We give lip service to monogamy, but in every way we undermine it," she said. Sex is used to sell everything from cars to alcohol, yet children are raised to not talk about sex.
"As teens, we learn to hide things. When married, we've already had experience at behaving in one way and lying about it," she said. "The idea of sex and secrecy being intertwined sets the scene."