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Vows: Getting Beyond Betrayal By
Personality of the Unfaithful by
Shattered Vows: Getting Beyond
By Shirley Glass, Ph.D.
Psychology Today/ July-August 1998
Hold on to your wedding ring: It is
difficult, but not impossible, to repair the damage caused by
infidelity. Increasingly, thatís what couples want; likely the White
House occupants, too. But let go of most of your assumptions; In an
interview with Editor at Large Hara Estroff Marano, leading expert
Dr. Shirley Glass challenges just about everything you think you know
about the most explosive subject of the year.
Q: What is the single most important thing you want people to
know about infidelity?
Dr. G. Boundaries. That it is possible to love somebody else, to
be attracted to somebody else, even if you have a good marriage. In
this collegial world where we work together, you have to conduct
yourself by being aware of appropriate boundaries, by not creating
opportunities, particularly at a time when you might be vulnerable.
That means that if you travel together, you never invite someone
for a drink in the room; if you just had a fight with your spouse, you
donít discuss it with a person who could be a potential partner.
You can have a friendship, but you have to be careful who you
share your deepest feelings with. Although women share their deep
feelings with lots of people, particularly other women, men are
usually most comfortable sharing their feelings in a love
relationship. As a result, when a relationship becomes intimate and
emotional, men tend to sexualize it. -
Q: Infidelity appears to be the topic of the year. What has
struck you most about the reaction to what may or may not be some kind
of infidelity in high places?
Dr. G. Whatever horror or dismay people have about it, theyíre
able to separate the way the President is performing in office and the
way he appears to be performing in his marriage. Thatís especially
interesting because it seems to reflect the split in his life. We
donít know for sure, but he apparently is very much involved in his
family life. Heís not an absentee father or absentee husband.
Whatever it is that they share and they do share a lot, publicly and
privately he has a compartment in which he is attracted to young
women, and it is separate from his primary relationships.
Q: Is this compartmentalizing characteristic of people who get
Dr. G. Itís much more characteristic of men. Most women
believe that if you love your partner, you wouldnít even be in an
affair; therefore, if someone has an affair, it means that they
didnít love their partner and they do love the person that they had
the affair with. But my research has shown that there are many men who
do love their partners, who enjoy good sex at home, who nevertheless
never turn down an opportunity for extramarital sex. In fact, 56
percent of the men I sampled who had extramarital intercourse said
that their marriages were happy, versus 34 percent of the women.
Thatís how I got into this.
Dr. G. Being a woman, I believed that if a man had an affair, it
meant that he had a terrible marriage, and that he probably wasnít
getting it at home the old keep-your-husband-happy-so-he-wonít-stray
idea. That puts too much of a burden on the woman. I found that she
could be everything wonderful, and he might still stray, if thatís
in his value system, his family background, or his psycho dynamic
I was in graduate school when I heard that a man I knew, married
for over 40 years, had recently died and his wife was so bereaved
because they had had the most wonderful marriage. He had been her
lover, her friend, her support system. She missed him immensely. I
thought that was a beautiful story. When I told my husband about it,
he got a funny look that made me ask, What do you know? He proceeded
to tell me that one night when he took the kids out for dinner to an
out of the way restaurant, owned by one of his clients, that very man
walked in with a young, blonde woman. When he saw my husband, his face
got red, and he walked out.
Q: How did that influence you?
Dr. G. I wondered what that meant. Did he fool his wife all
those years and really not love her? How is it possible to be married
for over 40 years and think you have a good marriage? It occurred to
me that an affair could mean something different than I believe.
Another belief that was an early casualty was the hydraulic pump
theory that you only have so much energy for something. By this
belief, if your partner is getting sex outside, you would know it,
because your partner wouldnít be wanting sex at home. However, some
people are even more passionate at home when they are having
extramarital sex. I was stunned to hear a man tell me that when he
left his affair partner and came home he found himself desiring his
wife more than he had in a long time, because he was so sexually
aroused by his affair. That made me question the hydraulic pump
Many of our beliefs about the behavior of others come from how
we see things for ourselves. A man who usually associates sneaking
around with having sex will, if his wife is sneaking around, find it
very hard to believe that she could be emotionally involved without
being sexually involved. On the other hand, a woman usually can not
believe that her husband could be sexually involved and not be
emotionally involved. We put the same meaning on it for our partner
that it would have for us. I call that the error of assumed
Q: What research have you done on infidelity?
Dr. G. My first research study was actually based on a sex
questionnaire in Psychology Today, in the Seventies. I analyzed the
data looking at the relationship of extramarital sex, length of
marriage, and gender difference on marital satisfaction and
I found enormous gender differences: that men in long term
marriages who had affairs had very high marital satisfaction and that
women in long-term marriages having affairs had the lowest marital
satisfaction of all. Everybodyís marital satisfaction went down the
longer they were married, except the men who had affairs. But in early
marriages, men who had affairs were significantly less happy. An
affair is more serious if it happens earlier in the marriage.
Explaining these gender differences was the basis of my
dissertation. I theorized that the men were having sexual affairs and
the women emotional affairs.
Q: Are affairs about sex?
Dr. G. Sometimes infidelity is just about sex. That is often
more true for men. In my research, 44 percent of men who said they had
extramarital sex said they had slight or no emotional involvement;
only 11 percent of women said that. Oral sex is certainly about sex.
Some spouses are more upset if the partner had oral sex with an
affaire than if they had intercourse; it just seems so much more
Q: What is the infidelity?
Dr. G. The infidelity is that you took something that was
supposed to be mine, which is sexual or emotional intimacy, and you
gave it to somebody else. I thought that we had a special
relationship, and now you have contaminated it; it doesnít feel
special any more, because you shared something that was very precious
to us with someone else.
There are gender differences. Men feel more betrayed by their
wives having sex with someone else; women feel more betrayed by their
husbands being emotionally involved with someone else. What really
tears men apart is to visualize their partner being sexual with
Women certainly donít want their husbands having sex with
somebody else, but if itís an impersonal one-night fling, they may
be able to deal with that better than if their husband was involved in
a long-term relationship sharing all kinds of loving ways with
Q: Why are affairs so deeply wounding?
Dr. G. Because you have certain assumptions about your marriage.
That I chose someone, and the other person chose me; we have the same
values; we have both decided to have an exclusive relationship, even
though we may have some problems. We love each other and therefore I
When you find out your partner has been unfaithful, then
everything you believe is totally shattered. And you have to rebuild
the world. The fact that you werenít expecting it, that it wasnít
part of your assumption about how a relationship operates, causes
Q: And it is deeply traumatic.
Dr. G. Itís terrible unless you cheated on each other during
your engagement, or you or your partner came from a family where
everybody cheated on everybody, or you come from certain cultures
where the women donít take it that much to heart, because thatís
the way men are thought to be.
The wounding results because and Iíve heard this so many times
I finally thought I met somebody I could trust.
Q: It violates that hope or expectation that you can be who you
really are with another person?
Dr. G. Yes. Affairs really arenít about sex; theyíre about
betrayal. Imagine if you were married to somebody very patriotic and
then found out your partner is a Russian spy. Someone having a
long-term affair is leading a double life. Then you find out all that
was going on in your partnerís life that you knew nothing about:
Gifts that were exchanged, poems and letters that were written, trips
you thought were taken for a specific reason were actually taken to
meet the affair partner.
To find out about all the intrigue and deception that occurred
while you were operating under a different assumption is totally
shattering and disorienting. Thatís why people then have to get out
their calendars and go back over the dates to put all the missing
pieces together: when you were going to the drugstore that night and
you said your car broke down and you didnít come home for three
hours, what was really happening?
Q: This is necessary?
Dr. G. In order to heal. Because any time somebody suffers from
a trauma, part of the recovery is telling the story. The tornado
victim will go over and over the story, "when the storm came I was
in my roomÖ"trying to understand what happened, and how it
happened. Didnít we see the black clouds? How come we didnít
Q: And so they repeat the story until it no longer creates an
unmanageable level of arousal.
Dr. G. Yes. In fact, sometimes people are more devastated if
everything was wonderful before they found out. When a betrayed spouse
who suspected something says, "I donít know if I can ever trust
my partner again," it is reassuring is to tell them that they can
trust their own instincts the next time they have those storm
warnings. When things feel okay, they can trust that things are okay.
But if somebody thought everything was wonderful, how would they ever
know if it happened again? Itís frightening.
Q: You mentioned to me that one question people these days are
asking you is, is oral sex really infidelity?
Dr. G. The question they ask is, is oral sex really adultery?
And thatís a different question, because adultery is a legal term.
It is also a Biblical term.
I donít know what the answer is legally. In the Old Testament,
adultery was when a man had intercourse with another manís wife. If
the woman was single, it was not adultery even if he was married.
Because women were possessions, and youíre not supposed to take
something that belongs to somebody else.
Q: Thou shalt not covet thy neighborís wife.
Dr. G. Or his ox. The real issue is, is oral sex infidelity? You
donít need to ask a psychologist that question- just ask any spouse:
Would you feel that it was an infidelity for your partner to engage in
that type of behavior?
Q: Would women answer that differently from men?
Dr. G. It is not necessarily a function of gender. People might
answer it differently for themselves than for their partners. Some
people maintain a kind of technical virginity, by not having
intercourse. That was often true of premarital sexual behavior in more
conservative times. However, even kissing in a romantic, passionate
way is an infidelity. People know when they cross that line from
friendship to affair.
Q: So you donít have to have intercourse to have an affair?
Dr. G. Absolutely. There can be an affair without any kind of
touching at all. People have affairs on the Internet.
Q: What is the sine qua non of an affair?
Dr. G. Three elements determine whether a relationship is an
One is secrecy. Suppose two people meet every morning at seven
oíclock for coffee before work, and they never tell their partners.
Even though it might be in a public place, their partner is not going
to be happy about it. It is going to feel like a betrayal, a terrible
Emotional intimacy is the second element. When someone starts
confiding things to another person that they are reluctant to confide
to their partner, and the emotional intimacy is greater in the
friendship than in the marriage, thatís very threatening. One common
pathway to affairs occurs when somebody starts confiding negative
things about their marriage to a person of the opposite sex. What
theyíre doing is signaling: "Iím vulnerable; I may even be
The third element is sexual chemistry. That can occur even if
two people donít touch. If one says, "Iím really attracted to
you," or "I had a dream about you last night, but, of
course, Iím married, so we wonít do anything about that,"
that tremendously increases the sexual tension by creating forbidden
fruit in the relationship.
Q: Another interesting question you told me people now ask is,
"Are you a liar if you lie about an affair?" How do you
Dr. G. Lying goes with the territory. If youíre not lying, you
have an open marriage.
There may be lies of omission or lies of commission. The lie of
omission is, "I had to stop at the gym on my way home." Or,
"I had to go to the library." There is the element of truth,
but the omission of what was really happening: "I left there
after 15 minutes and spent the next 45 minutes at someoneís
The lies of commission are the elaborate deceptions people
create. The more deception and the longer it goes on, the more
difficult it is to rebuild trust and honesty in the wake of an affair.
Q: The deception makes a tremendous psychological difference to
the betrayed spouse. What about to the person who constructed the
Dr. G. Once the affairís been discovered, the involved partner
could have a sense of relief, if they hate lying and donít see his/
herself as having that kind of moral character. Theyíll say, "I
canít understand how I could have done a thing like this, this is
not the kind of person I am."
Some people thrive on the game. For them, part of the passion
and excitement of an affair is the lying and getting away with
something forbidden. Often, since childhood, theyíve had a whole
history of sneaking around. In the marriage, one partner may be fairly
parental and judgmental while the other avoids conflict by not being
open about things. The affair is an extension of a preexisting
There are some people who have characterological problems, and
the affair may be a symptom of that. Such people lie on their taxes
and about their accomplishments; they are fraudulent in business. When
itís characterological, I donít know any way to rebuild trust; no
one can ever be on sure footing with that person.
Q: So there is always moral compromise just by being in an
Dr. G. Which is why some people, no matter how unhappy they are
in their marriage, donít have affairs. They canít make the
compromise. Or they feel they have such an open relationship with the
spouse that they just could not do something like that without telling
their partner about it.
Q: Do affairs ever serve a positive function not to excuse any
of the damage they do?
Dr. G. Affairs are often a chance for people to try out new
behaviors, to dress in a different costume, to stretch and grow and
assume a different role. In a long-term relationship, we often get
frozen in our roles. When young couples begin at a certain level of
success and go on to achieve all kinds of things, the new person sees
them as theyíve become, while the old person sees them as they were.
The unfortunate thing is that the way a person is different in
the affair would, if incorporated into the marriage, probably make
their spouse ecstatic. But they believe theyíre stuck; they donít
know how to create that opportunity for change within the marriage. A
woman who was sexually inhibited in marriage - perhaps she married
young and had no prior partners may find her sexuality in an affair,
but her husband would probably be delighted to encounter that new
Q: How do you handle this?
Dr. G. After an affair, I do not ask the question you would
expect. The spouse always wants to know about "him or her".
"What did you see in her that you didnít see in me?" Or,
"what did you like about him better?" One man asked,
"was it that he had a bigger penis?"
I always ask about "you": "What did you like
about yourself in that other relationship?"
How were you different? And, of the way that you were in that
other relationship, what would you like to bring back so that you can
be the person you want to be in your primary relationship? How can we
foster that part of you in this relationship?
Q: Thatís a surprising question. How did you come to know
thatís the question to ask?
Dr. G. There is an attraction in the affair, and I try to
understand what it is. Part of it is the romantic projection: I like
the way I look when I see myself in the other personís eyes. There
is positive mirroring. An affair holds up a vanity mirror, the kind
with all the little bulbs around it; it gives a nice rosy glow to the
way you see yourself. By contrast, the marriage offers a make-up
mirror; it magnifies all your wrinkles and pores, every little flaw.
When someone loves you despite the fact that they can see all your
flaws, that is a reality-based love.
In the stories of what happened during the affair, people seem
to take on a different persona, and one of the things they liked best
about being in that relationship was the person they had become. The
man who wasnít sensitive or expressive is now in a relationship
where he is expressing his feelings and is supportive.
Q: Can those things be duplicated in the marriage?
Dr. G. Thatís one of the goals, not to turn the betrayed
spouse into the affair partner, but to free the unfaithful spouse to
express all the parts of himself he was able to experience in the
I see a lot of men who are married to very competent women and
having affairs with very weak women. They feel: "this person
needs me." They put on their red cape and do a lot of rescuing.
They feel very good about themselves. That makes me sad, because I
know that even though their partner may be extremely competent, she
wants to be stroked too. She wants a knight in shining armor. Perhaps
she hasnít known how to ask for it, or the ways sheís asked have
pushed him away.
Q: Do people push their partners into affairs?
Dr. G. No. People can create a pattern in the marriage that is
not enhancing, and the partner, instead of dealing with the
dissatisfaction and trying to work on the relationship, escapes it and
goes someplace else.
Q: That is the wrong way to solve the problem?
Dr. G. Yes. There are some gender differences in the ways
partners handle problems, although everything we say about men can be
true for some women, and everything we say about women can be true for
some men. Generally when a woman is unhappy, she lets her partner
know. She feels better afterwards because sheís gotten it off her
chest. It doesnít interfere with her love. Sheís trying to improve
the relationship: "If I tell him what makes me unhappy, then he
will know how to please me; I am giving him a gift by telling
Unfortunately, many men donít see it as a gift. They feel
criticized and put down. Instead of thinking, "she feels lonely;
I will move toward her and make her feel secure," they think,
"What is wrong with her? Didnít I just do that?" They pull
away. If they come in contact with somebody else who says to them,
"oh, youíre wonderful," then they move toward that person.
They arenít engaged enough in the marriage to work things out. The
partner keeps trying, and becomes more unpleasant because heís not
Q: She becomes the pursuer, he the
Dr. G. When she withdraws, the marriage is much further down the
road to dissolution, because sheís given up. Her husband,
unfortunately, thinks things are so much better because sheís no
longer complaining. He doesnít recognize that she has detached and
become emotionally available for an affair. The husband first notices
it when she becomes disinterested in sex, or after sheís left! Then
heíll do anything to keep her. The tragedy is that is often too
little too late.
Q: By then she is often committed to someone on the outside?
Dr. G. Yes, which is why when women have affairs, itís so much
more often a result of long-term marital dissatisfaction.
Q. Can you predict which couples will get involved in affairs?
Dr. G. When we look at predictors, weíre really looking at
them retrospectively. For example, we know that people who have had
affairs have attitudes that are more endorsing of reasons for affairs
but did that attitude take root before or after the affair? Some
research shows that women who have affairs previously talked to other
women who had affairs, a way of getting permission.
Social context is a predictor. If youíre in an occupational or
social group where many people have affairs, and thereís a sexually
permissive attitude, youíre more likely. Also if you come from a
family where thereís a history of affairs. The most notorious are
the Kennedys, where the men have a certain entitlement. Coming from
one of the Mediterranean cultures, like the Greek, where the double
standard is alive and well, is another predictor.
Q: What youíre saying is that an affair is not always about
the marriage. There are often cultural pulls or contextual pulls into
affairs. This seems to me very important information for women,
because women blame themselves.
Dr. G. And society blames women.
Q: So affairs can happen in good marriages. Is the marriage
Dr. G. Sometimes one person thinks the marriage is fine and the
other doesnít. That may be because the more dissatisfied person
hasnít communicated their dissatisfaction. Or theyíve communicated
their dissatisfaction and the partner has discounted it.
But after an affair, people often try to justify it by rewriting
unhappiness into the marital history. They say. "I never really
loved you," or "you never really acted like you loved
me." That is just a way to make themselves feel that they
didnít do such a terrible thing.
Q: Why do some people in unhappy marriages have affairs and
others do not?
Dr. G. Number one is opportunity. Number two is values. Some
people do not think an affair is justified for any reason. Others
think itís okay if youíre not getting it at home, or if you
"fall in love" with another person.
Most surveys of attitudes simply ask people whether they approve
of extramarital sex. Fully 85 to 90 percent of people say no. But
asking more specific questions such as, do you think itís okay to
have an affair for sexual excitement, or to get understanding or
affection greatly discriminates conditions under which affairs are
These break down according to gender. For women, the highest
justification is for love; emotional intimacy is next. Sex is last on
their list of justifications. Itís the opposite for men; sex scores
Q: Is infidelity in a longstanding marriage the same as in one
of shorter duration?
Dr. G. It is potentially more threatening to the marriage when
it happens earlier, and the chances of the marriage surviving are
less, particularly where the woman is having an affair.
Q: Did she choose the wrong mate?
Dr. G. She thinks she did, especially if her affair partner is
the opposite of her husband.
Q: From your perspective, whatís going on?
Dr. G. Sheís growing and changing, and she chooses somebody
she sees as more similar to herself. Usually itís someone at work.
Her husband may be working very hard in his profession, or going to
school, and not paying much attention to her. She feels a little
lonely, and then she gets involved. Or maybe her husband is very
caring and the relationship is so supportive and stable that it
doesnít have a challenge for her.
There is some evidence, from studies in the Sixties and
Seventies, that infidelity is more likely early in the marriage among
working-class couples. The men havenít yet settled down. Among
college educated professionals, affairs generally happen later in the
Q: The opportunities for affairs have changed radically in the
past 20 years. Men and women are together all the time in the
workplace, and workplaces are sexy places. You dress up, you are
trying your best, thereís lots of energy in the air.
Dr. G. And youíre not cleaning up vomit or the hot water
heater that just flooded the basement. And itís not at the end of
the day, when youíre exhausted. Also, youíre working together on
something that has excitement and meaning.
One of the major shifts is that more married women are having
affairs than in the past. There are several reasons. Todayís woman
has usually had more experience with premarital sex, so sheís not as
inhibited about getting involved sexually with another man. She has
more financial independence, so sheís not taking as great a risk.
And she is working with men on a more equal level, so the men are very
attractive to her.
Q: What do people seek in an affair partner?
Dr. G. Either we choose somebody very different from our
partner, or we choose somebody like our partner used to be, a younger
version. A woman married to a really sweet guy who helps with the
dishes, who is very nurturing and very secure, may at some point see
him as boring and get interested in the high-achieving, high-energy
man who may even be a bit chauvinistic. But if sheís married to the
man with the power and the status, then sheís interested in the guy
who is sensitive and touchy-feely, who may not be as ambitious.
Q: Is this just the nature of attraction?
Dr. G. It has to do with the fact that people really want it
all. Probably the only way to get it all is to be in more than one
relationship at the same time. We have different parts of ourselves.
The other flip-flop in choice of affair partner reflects the
fact that the marriage often represents a healing of our family
wounds. Somebody who lacked a secure attachment figure in their family
of origin chooses a mate who provides security and stability. Itís a
healthy, resilient part of ourselves that seeks that balancing.
But after weíve mastered that, we often want to go back and
find somebody like that difficult parent and make that person love us.
There is a correlation between the nature of the attachment figure and
the affair partner; the person is trying to master incomplete business
from childhood. As a result, some people will choose an affair partner
who is difficult, temperamental, or unpredictable. Under those
circumstances, the unfaithful partner is often caught in a triangle.
Q: What do you mean?
Dr. G. The person maintains the marriage, and canít leave it,
and maintains the affair, and canít leave that either. Tension
arises when either the affair partner or spouse applies pressure on
them to get off the fence. The spouse gives them security and a sense
of family. The affair partner provides excitement and passion. When
the involved spouse says "I donít know which person to be
with," what they really want is to keep both.
Q: The challenge becomes, how, with busy lives, do people
satisfy all of their needs within the marriage?.
Dr. G. It is a false belief that if Iím incomplete, I have to
be completed by another person. You have to do it through your own
life, your own work, for your own pleasure, through individual growth.
The more fulfilled you are, in terms of things that you do separately
that please you, the more individuated and more whole you are and the
more intimate you can be. Then youíre not expecting the other person
to make you happy. Youíre expecting the other person to share
happiness with you, to join you in your happiness.
Q: Are more couples trying to survive affairs these days?
Dr. G. People are more willing to work through them. There is
not the same kind of bitter resolution that people may have had in the
past, when women would stay with an unfaithful husband because they
had no place else to go. Staying together was more out of weakness;
the marriage didnít improve. Now people are saying, Iím willing to
work this through, but we have to solve whatever problems we have, we
have to get something out of this; our marriage has to be even better
than it was before.
Q: Are men and women equally part of this willingness?
Dr. G. More men are calling to come in for therapy. Thatís a
very positive sign. The downside is, itís often too late. By the
time men are alarmed, the woman is too distanced from the marriage.
Q: What other changes do you see in affairs these days?
Dr. G.: Cyber affairs are new. For some people the computer
itself is very addictive. They get very caught up in it. Itís hiding
out, escaping. And an affair is an escape from the realities of
everyday life. These two escapes are now paired.
The other danger online is that people can disguise who they
are. Think of the roles you can take on if you hide behind a computer
screen. More so than in workplace affairs, you can project anything
onto the other person.
At the computer, with a screen in front of you; you can act out
any fantasy you want. You can make this other person become anybody
you want them to be. Thereís a loosening up, because youíre not
face to face with the person; the relationship begins in anonymity.
Sometimes people send nude pictures back and forth.
Q: This attracts only a certain kind of person, doesnít it?
Dr. G. We donít know yet. Among the e-mail questions that I
get are always a number from people who are concerned because their
partner is having an online relationship with somebody. Or their
partner had an affair with somebody they met online. Itís very
prevalent, and itís very dangerous.
If youíre talking to somebody on the computer, and you begin
to talk about your sexual fantasies, and youíre not talking to your
partner about your sexual fantasies, which relationship now has more
sexual chemistry? Which relationship has more emotional intimacy? Then
your partner walks in the room and you switch screens. Now youíve
got a wall of secrecy. It has all the components of an affair. And
itís very easy.
Technology has impacted affairs in another way, too. Many people
have discovered their partnerís affair by getting the cellular phone
bill, or by getting in the car and pushing redial on the car phone, or
by taking their partnerís beeper and seeing whoís been calling.
Weíre leaving a whole new electronic trail.
Q: Has that changed the dynamics or the psychology of affairs in
Dr. G. In the past, when someone was suspicious they could ask
their partner: "Are you involved with somebody else?" Or
"whatís going on? You seem distant lately." If the partner
denied there was anything wrong, there wasnít a whole lot somebody
could do. Now thereís tangible evidence people can utilize to find
out if their hunches are indeed true.
Q: There is a public conception of affairs as very glamorous,
but as Iím hearing you tell it, the aftermath of affairs is pretty
messy. How do we square these views?
Dr. G. Theyíre both true. In those captured moments, there is
passion and romance. Weíre in Stage One of relationship formation
idealizing the partner. Stage One can go on for years, as long as
thereís a forbidden aspect. The admiration and positive mirroring
can go on for a long time until you get to a reality-based
relationship. Which is why so many affairs end after the person leaves
Q: How many affairs survive as enduring relationships?
Dr. G. Only 10 percent of people who leave their relationship
for affairs end up with the affair partner. Once you can be with the
person every day, and deal with all the little irritations in a
relationship that make it less romantic, youíre into Stage Two,
Several people have told me they wish the affair had never
happened; they wish they had worked on their marriage instead. Once
they got into an affair, it was too compelling. But now that the
affair has settled into a reality based relationship, it is too late
to go back to the marriage; they destroyed too much.
Q: How do most affairs get exposed or uncovered?
Dr. G. Sometimes the betrayed partner will just ask, "are
you involved with somebody else?" Sometimes the affair partner,
when itís a women, does something to inform the wife. She sends a
letter or a copy of an explicit greeting card, or calls, or even shows
up on the doorstep. She asks, "do you know where your husbandís
been?" Her motivation is not to be helpful but to break up the
marriage. But often sheís the one that then gets left out.
Sometimes people find out in horrible ways. They read about it
in the newspaper or they get a sexually transmitted disease. Or the
cell phone bill arrives. Or their partner gets arrested if there is a
sexual addiction, the partner may be caught with prostitutes.
Sometimes somebody is suspicious and checks it out, by going to the
hotel room to see whether their partnerís alone or by hiring
Q: Things must be at a pretty pass to bring in private
Dr. G. A newspaper article reported that when detectives were
sent out to investigate an affair, the suspicions were founded in 95
percent of cases. When somebody gets to the point of hiring a
detective, theyíre usually right. Obviously if you have to hire a
detective, rebuilding trust is going to be much more difficult than
when you ask and a partner admits to an affair.
Q: Can all relationships be fixed after an affair?
Dr. G. No. What I look for is how the unfaithful partner shows
empathy for the pain that they have caused when the betrayed spouse
starts acting crazy.
Q: In what way do they act crazy?
Dr. G. Theyíre very emotional. They cry easily, their emotions
flip-flop. They are hypervigilant. They want to look at the beeper.
They have flashbacks. In the car they hear a country-western song and
start crying, or accusing. They obsess over the details of the affair.
Although these are common posttraumatic reactions to infidelity, their
behavior is very erratic and upsetting to them and their partner. How
much compassion the partner has for that is one of the benchmarks.
Another sign of salvageability lies in how much responsibility
the unfaithful partner is willing to take for the choice they made,
regardless of problems that pre-existed in the marriage. (We
definitely need to work on the weaknesses of the marriage, but not to
justify the affair.) If the unfaithful partner says, "you made me
do it," thatís not as predictive of a good outcome as when the
partner says, "we should have gone to counseling before this
happened to deal with the problems." Sometimes the unfaithful
partner really doesnít regret the affair, because it was very
One of the big strains between the partners in the primary
relationship is the way they perceive the affair partner.
Q: How so?
Dr. G. A lot of the anger and the rage the betrayed spouse feels
is directed toward the affair partner rather than the marital partner:
"that person doesnít have any morals;" "that person
was exploitative." "That personís a home wrecker." To
believe that of the marital partner would make it difficult to stay in
At the same time, the person who had the affair may still be
idealizing the affair partner. The unfaithful spouse perceives the
affair partner as an angel, whereas the betrayed person perceives an
Itís important at some point in the healing process for the
involved person to see some flaws in the affair partner, so that they
can partly see what their partner, the betrayed spouse, is telling
them. But itís also important for the betrayed spouse to see the
affair partner not as a cardboard character but as a human being who
did some caring things.
Q: Is there anything else that helps you gauge the
salvageability of a relationship after an affair?
Dr. G. Empathy, responsibility and the degree of understanding
of the vulnerabilities that made an affair possible.
Q: What vulnerabilities?
Dr. G. There are individual vulnerabilities, such as curiosity.
Somebody gets invited for lunch, and they go to the house because
theyíre curious. They must learn that getting curious is a danger
sign. Or they learn that if some damsel or guy in distress comes with
a sad story, instead of becoming their confessor and their confidante,
they give out the name of a great therapist. Knowing what these
vulnerabilities are, and understanding them, allows a person to avoid
Q: Are there relationship vulnerabilities?
Dr. G. The biggest one I see these days is the child-centered
marriage. I tell couples that if you really love your kids, the best
gift you can give them is your own happy marriage. You canít have a
happy marriage if you never spend time alone. Your children need to
see you going out together without them, or closing the bedroom door.
That gives them a sense of security greater than they get by just by
Todayís parents feel guilty because they donít have enough
time with their kids. They think theyíre making it up to them by
spending with them whatever leisure time they do have. They have
family activities and family vacations. To help them rebuild the
marriage I help them become more couple-centered, by building a cocoon
around themselves as a couple.
Q: There has to be a separate layer of adult relationship?
Dr. G. The affair represents a man and a woman getting together
in a dyad and just devoting themselves to each other. Very busy
couples sometimes have to actually look at their calendars and find
when they can spend time together. Sometimes itís just a matter of
better time management and better parental control. If a couple can
unite to put the children to bed at eight oíclock, then they can
have time together after that.
Q: Are there other vulnerabilities?.
Dr. G. One is: getting too intimate with people you work with.
One way to guard against danger is, if thereís somebody you really
like at work, then include them as part of a couple. Invite that
person and their partner to come over, so that there isnít a
separate relationship with that person. Thatís not a guarantee;
people do have affairs with their best friendís spouse. But walling
that relationship off and making it separate from the primary
relationship is dangerous.
Q: Can you tell whether someone is secretly continuing the
Dr. G. Sometimes progress just feels frozen. I make suggestions
to be more caring, to build the marriage, and nothing happens. It
could be either personís part. Perhaps the betrayed spouse is
punishing the partner, or wants the partner to know how badly they are
hurting, or having already given a lot in the relationship, is waiting
to be given back to. Meanwhile the unfaithful spouse may not know what
his or her own feelings are and avoids making a move toward the spouse
for fear it will be misinterpreted as commitment. I try to find ways
to foster caring, by giving them permission to act on momentary
feelings of warmth for each other.
A sign that the affair is continuing is when the unfaithful
partner isnít doing anything caring, and week after week makes
excuses "I donít feel it yet," or, "it would be false
if I did it now." Sometimes it feels disloyal to the affair
partner to be too caring or to have sex in the marriage.
Q: Is it hard to get over an affair without a therapist?
Dr. G. Itís hard to do with a therapist. People can get over
it, but I donít know that they resolve the issues. Usually the
unfaithful person wants to let it rest at "Hi hon, Iím back.
Letís get on with our lives. Why do we have to keep going back over
the past?" The betrayed person wants to know the story with all
the gory details. They may begin to feel theyíre wrong to keep
asking, and so may suppress their need to know because their partner
doesnít want to talk about it. They may stay together, but they
really donít learn anything and they donít heal.
Q. Can it ever be the same as it was before the affair?
Dr. G.: The affair creates a loss of innocence and some scar
tissue. I tell couples things will never be the same. But the
relationship may be stronger than it was before. If you break
something and glue it back together with Super-Glue, it could be
stronger than before, although you can see the cracks when you look
Q: How do you rebuild trust?
Dr. G. Through honesty. First I have to build safety. It comes
about by stopping all contact with the affair partner and sharing your
whereabouts, by being willing to answer the questions from your
partner, by handing over the beeper, even by creating a fund to hire a
detective from time to time to check up at random.
It also requires sharing information about any encounters with
the affair partner before being asked; when you come home, you say, I
saw him today, and he asked me how weíre doing, and I said I really
donít want to discuss that with you.
Thatís counterintuitive. People think that talking about it
with the spouse will create upset, and theyíll have to go through
the whole thing again. But it doesnít. Instead of trying to put the
affair in a vault and lock it up, if theyíre willing to take it out
and look at it, then the trust is rebuilt through that intimacy. The
betrayed spouse may say, "I remember when such-and-such
happened." If the unfaithful spouse can say, "yeah, I just
recalled such-and-such," and they bring up things, or ask their
partner, "how are you feeling? I see youíre looking down today,
is that because youíre remembering?," trust can be rebuilt.
Q: Eventually the questioning and revealing assume a more normal
level in the relationship?
Dr. G. Yes, but things will often pop up. Someone or something
will prompt them to remember something that was said. What did you
mean when you said that? Or, what were you doing when that happened?
In the beginning, the betrayed partner wants details. Where,
what, when. Did you tell them you love them? Did you give them gifts?
Did they give you gifts? How often did you see them? How many times
did you have sex? Did you have oral sex? Where did you have sex, was
it in our house? Was it in the car? How much money did you spend.
Those kinds of factual questions need to be answered.
Eventually the questions develop more complexity. How did it go
on so long if you knew that it was wrong? After that first time, did
you feel guilty? At that point theyíre in the final stages of trauma
recovery, which is the search for meaning.
Q: And they have come to a joint understanding about what the
Dr. G. By combining their stories and their perceptions. A
couple builds trust by rewriting their history and including the story
of the affair. Some couples do a beautiful job in trying to understand
the affair together, and they co-create the story of what theyíve
been through together. When couples really are healed, they may even
tease each other with private little jokes about something that they
know about the affair partner or about something that happened during
the affair. You can see that they finally have some comfort with it.
One of the signs that they are working in a much more united way
is that their perception of the affair partner becomes more integrated
not all evil or all angel, but a human being who perhaps did
manipulate and exploit but also was caring and offered something
Q: Some people, particularly men, are philanderers; they have
repeated affairs. Whatís going on with them?
Dr. G. First of all, there are different kinds of philanderers.
Sometimes itís easier to deal with this kind of infidelity, because
there isnít the emotional involvement; sometimes itís harder
because itís such an established pattern.
One question I explore with somebody who has had lots of sexual
relationships is whether itís an addiction or, in the case of men
particularly, a sense of entitlement. There are some women now in
positions of power who also seem to be treating sex in the same casual
way and exploiting power in the same way as male philanderers.
Nevertheless, in our culture, there is a sense of male privilege that
not only condones but even encourages affairs. Some large corporations
are notorious for supplying men with women to satisfy them sexually at
conventions and conferences. Some men turn that down because itís
not in their personal value system; others never refuse a gift.
Q: How does entitlement affect matters?
Dr. G. If a man feels entitled, he experiences little guilt.
Also, it is not necessarily a compulsive behavior; he has the ability
to choose to stop it if he changes his attitudes; if he sees what the
consequences are; if he comes to believe that marriage means more than
being a provider but being a loving father or a caring husband. Even
if he doesnít see anything wrong with philandering, if he can see
the pain it causes someone he loves, he may really make the vow not
only to his partner but to himself.
A sexually addicted person usually uses sex the way others use
drugs: They get anxious, say theyíre not going to do it, but then
theyíre driven toward it. They get a momentary gratification,
followed by remorse. They decide theyíre not going to do it again,
and then they do.
Q: Thereís a compulsive quality.
Dr. G. There is also often remorse and guilt. If they get into
therapy they may learn what addiction means in their life. Often
thereís an emptiness thatís linked to a need for excitement. There
may be an underlying depression. They then begin to deal with the
underlying source of that compulsive behavior.
There may be a history of incest or sexual abuse. Some women may
be turning the tables by using their sexuality to control men rather
than be controlled by them, or they may be using sex as a way to get
affection, because they donít believe that they can get it any other
way. Some people may be acting out like rebellious adolescents against
a spouse who is too parental.
Q. What is happening in those relationships that are parental or
in other ways not equal?
Dr. G. Sometimes there is an over-functioning spouse and an
under-functioning spouse. One partner takes on a lot of responsibility
and then resents it. The more a person puts energy into something and
tries to work on it, the more committed to the relationship that
person is. The other partner, who is only semi-involved in the
relationship, is freer to get involved in an affair, because theyíre
not as connected to the marriage.
This is interesting because the popular notion is that the
person who has the affair wasnít getting enough at home. The reality
is that they werenít giving enough at home.
Q. How do you handle that?
Dr. G. In rebuilding that relationship, more equity has to be
created. The issue isnít what can the betrayed spouse do to make the
partner happy, itís what can the unfaithful spouse do to make their
partner happy. In research and in practice, my colleague Tom Wright,
Ph.D., and I have observed that when you compare who does more, who is
more understanding, who is more romantic, who enjoys sex more, the
affair is almost always more equitable than the marriage. Usually, the
person was giving more time, more attention, more compliments in the
affair than in the marriage. If they can come back and invest in the
marriage what they were doing in the affair, then theyíll feel more.
There is some research showing that people are more satisfied in
equitable relationships. When relationships are not equitable, even
the over-benefitted partners are not as satisfied as those in
equitable relationships. Certainly the under-benefited partners are
Q. You seem to be constantly reversing the conventional wisdom
Dr. G. Iíve noticed that when younger women get involved in
affairs early in the marriage and then leave, often they have not been
invested in the marriage. Theyíre working hard, climbing some
ladder, accomplishing, and the husband is the one who is making dinner
while sheís working late. He is the devastated one, because he is
really committed and has given a lot. But he is peripheral in her
Iíve seen several couples who had a plan they agreed on, to
build a house, or for one partner to go back to school. The person who
had the responsibility for carrying out the plan was totally engrossed
in it, believing they were doing it for the relationship, while the
other person felt so neglected that they then had a affair. The
betrayed person felt terribly betrayed, because he or she thought that
he was working for their future. But he didnít necessarily listen to
signs of distress, and was too focused on the plan.
A relationship is like a fire. You can let it go down, but you
canít let it go out. Even though youíre in another part of the
house, you have to go back every once in a while to stoke the coals.
Q: Do you ever counsel people directly to leave a relationship?
Dr. G. I would support a betrayed spouse ending the relationship
if a period of time has gone by in which they have tried to work on
the relationship but the affair continues secretly.
I always say that we can give you either a better marriage or a
better divorce. Because if you can be happy in your marriage, thatís
a much better solution for everybody. When someone decides to leave a
marriage, it should not be for an affair.
Dr. G. You should leave the marriage because you have decided
that regardless of what happens with the affair, you know you can not
be happy with the marriage.
That starts the affair off much cleaner. Then I didnít leave
my spouse for you, which is a terrible burden for a new relationship;
plus, there is no leftover business from the marriage. It is hard for
people to do, because they make comparisons, although it is
ridiculously unfair to compare a long-term relationship with a romance
still in Stage One.
If you end this marriage on its own merits and the affair
doesnít work out, you can look back with no regrets, knowing that
you and your partner did everything possible to optimize the marriage
but the gap between you was still too great. Leaving a bad marriage
without trying to repair it first is like buying high and selling low.
Better to see how good you can make it, then look at it and ask: is
this good enough?
Q: What percentage of couples make it?
Dr. G. Those who stay in therapy and have stopped the affair
have a real good chance of making it. If the affair continues for a
long time after therapy has started, the chances are less. Itís
certainly common that after an affair is first uncovered and the
involved person vows to stop it, it usually doesnít stop right away.
That would be coitus interruptus; there has to be some kind of
closure. There will be secret meetings to say good bye, or to make
sure that you can really let go. But that should happen in the first
few weeks or months. If it is still continuing after eight months and
the marriage isnít progressing, then I might suggest a separation.
Q: Are some occupations or settings particularly conducive to
Dr. G. I donít know any where the risk is low. When I was
doing research for my dissertation, I went to the Baltimore-Washington
airport and to an office park and gave out questionnaires. Originally
I was looking for people in marriages of more than 12 years. Iíd go
up to the men, quite imposing in their pinstripe suits and starched
collars, and ask if theyíd be willing to complete an anonymous
research questionnaire on marriage.
I was stunned when the forms came back; so many of the men who
had looked so conservative had engaged in extramarital sex. It is now
known that, while we suspect the liberals, conservatives men are
actually more likely to be having extramarital affairs because they
split sex and affection. There are the nice girls that you marry, then
there are the wild girls you have sex with.
Q: The double standard is alive and well.
Dr. G. There is an older study that found that men who score
high on traits of authoritarianism are more likely to separate sex and
affection than men who are low in authoritarianism. Military officers
fall into this category.
People in high-drama professions among doctors, those in the ER,
the trauma surgeons, the cardiologists engage in a certain amount of
living on the edge that is associated with affairs. The Black Diamond
Also there are people who are good at beginnings but not at
middles. They go from career to career, or job to job, because they
love starting things, but lose interest when it gets to the middle.
This is not gender -specific. This is not a matter of occupations but
Certainly being in the entertainment business is a risk, because
thereís a lot of glamour and people are away from home a lot. Often
youíre in a make-believe world with another person.
Q: To hear that someone can be happily married and having an
affair. That is surprising.
Dr. G. I often get asked, how can women stay with men who have
repeated affairs. Many people believe that the Clintons have some kind
of an arrangement.
I donít know anything about their marriage, but I do know that
itís more comfortable for people to believe they have an
arrangement. When something bad happens to others, we want to distance
ourselves from it, to find an explanation that couldnít possibly
apply to us.
Q: Is there ever a need to tell children about an affair?
Dr. G. I believe that the younger the children are, the less you
talk about it. Parents have private adult things not to be shared with
children. If the children have heard things and are asking questions,
then you may need to be more open. It is always worse for children to
be around secrecy. But if they donít have any idea about it, it may
not be necessary to tell them, even if they are adolescents or young
Where the parents are separating, they need to decide together
what the story is going to be and tell the children together, sitting
together on the same sofa. The children need to know that even though
their parents are separating, they can deal with the children
I suggest that the unfaithful person say, for example, "I
didnít love your father any more the way that married people should
love each other." Thatís truthful, it implies there may be
somebody else, but itís not slapping the children in the face with
Q: You use the metaphor of walls and windows in talking about
Dr. G. There is almost always a wall of secrecy around the
affair; the primary partner does not know whatís going on on the
other side of that wall. In the affair, there is often a window into
the marriage, like a one-way mirror.
To reconstruct the marriage, you have to reverse the walls and
windows, put up a wall with the affair partner, and put up a window
inside the marriage. Answering a spouseís questions about what
happened in the affair is a way to reverse the process. Itís a
matter of whoís on the inside and whoís on the outside? Sometimes
people will open windows but not put up walls. Sometimes they put up
walls but donít open the windows. Unless you do both, you can not
rebuild safety and trust in the marriage.
Glass go to her website at www.shirleyglass.com