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Good people in good marriages are having affairs. More times than I can count, I have sat in my office and felt torn apart by the grief, rage, and remorse of the people I counsel as they try to cope with the repercussions of their infidelity or their partner's betrayal. In two-thirds of the couples I've treated in my clinical practice over the past twenty years, either the husband, the wife, or both were unfaithful. Broken promises and shattered expectations have become part of our cultural landscape, and more people who need help in dealing with them appear in my office every day.
Surprisingly, the infidelity that I'm seeing these days is of a new sort. It's not between people who are intentionally seeking thrills, as is commonly believed. The new infidelity is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing that they've crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love. Eighty-two percent of the 210 unfaithful partners I've treated have had an affair with someone who was, at first, "just a friend." Well-intentioned people who had not planned to stray are betraying not only their partners but also their own beliefs and moral values, provoking inner crises as well as marital ones.
This is the essence of the new crisis of infidelity: Friendships, work relationships, and Internet liaisons have become the latest threat to marriages. As these opportunities for intimate relationships increase, the boundary between platonic and romantic feelings blurs and becomes easier to cross.
Today's workplace has become the new danger zone of romantic attraction and opportunity. More women are having affairs than ever before. Today's woman is more sexually experienced and more likely to be working in what used to be male-dominated occupations. Many of their affairs begin at work. From 1982 to 1990, 38 percent of unfaithful wives in my clinical practice were involved with someone from work. From 1991 to 2000, the number of women's work affairs increased to 50 percent. Men also are having most of their affairs with people from their workplace. Among the 350 couples I have treated, approximately 62 percent of unfaithful men met their affair partners at work.
The significant news about these new affairs -- and what is different from the affairs of previous generations -- is that they originate as peer relationships. People who truly are initially just friends or just friendly colleagues slowly move onto the slippery slope of infidelity. In the new infidelity, secret emotional intimacy is the first warning sign of impending betrayal. Yet, most people don't recognize it as such or see what they've gotten themselves into until they've become physically intimate.
Most people mistakenly think it is possible to prevent affairs by being loving and dedicated to one's partner. I call this the Prevention Myth, because there is no evidence to support it. My experience as a marital therapist and infidelity researcher has shown me that simply being a loving partner does not ensure your marriage against affairs. You also have to exercise awareness of the appropriate boundaries at work and in your friendships. This book will help you learn to observe boundaries or set them up where you need to. It will tell you the warning signals and red flags you need to pay attention to in your own friendships and in your partner's.
Most people also mistakenly think that infidelity isn't really infidelity unless there's sexual contact. Whereas women tend to regard any sexual intimacy as infidelity, men are more likely to deny infidelity unless sexual intercourse has occurred. In the new infidelity, however, affairs do not have to be sexual. Some, such as Internet affairs, are primarily emotional. The most devastating extramarital involvements engage heart, mind, and body. And this is the kind of affair that is becoming more common. Today's affairs are more frequent and more serious than they used to be because more men are getting emotionally involved and more women are getting sexually involved.
Consider this surprising statistic: At least one or both parties in 50 percent of all couples, married and living together, straight and gay, will break their vows of sexual or emotional exclusivity during the lifetime of the relationship. It has been difficult for researchers to arrive at this absolute figure because of the many variations in how research has been conducted, in sample characteristics, and in how extramarital involvements have been defined. After reviewing twenty-five studies, however, I concluded that 25 percent of wives and 44 percent of husbands have had extramarital intercourse. This is startling news indeed.
Vast numbers of Americans are preoccupied by an actual or potential betrayal of an intimate relationship. Their anxiety is not confined to a particular class, occupation, or age. Infidelity can occur in any household, not just in situations where partners are promiscuous or rich and powerful. No marriage is immune.
There are, however, steps you can take to keep your relationship or marriage safe. There are also steps you can take to repair your relationship after emotional or sexual infidelity has rocked it. And there are things you can do to help yourself through the trauma of betrayal. And you'll learn them all in NOT "Just Friends."
A Word about Where I'm Coming From
I was prompted to write this book first by my natural desire as a therapist to offer help and comfort to more people. Every time my work on infidelity has been featured in the media, I have received an outpouring from desperate people who say that I've helped them survive their partner's betrayal, rebuild their marriage, and get on with their lives. I have also given relationship advice on the Internet, which has connected me to a large number of people mired in the pain of infidelity and looking for a way out. Although I'm gratified to know that I've helped many people personally through these venues, I am hoping that I can reach many more through this book.
Second, I wanted to bring a new, fact-based, scientifically and therapeutically responsible approach to the guidance that couples receive. Frankly, there are no generally accepted standards for therapists and counselors who treat infidelity. As a result, people often receive bad advice from professional helpers as well as from well-intentioned friends and family members. Many of our cultural beliefs about the behavior of others come from projections of our own attitudes and personal experiences. Unfortunately, these personal biases also affect the work and recommendations of many counselors. In this book, I draw from research and documented evidence to give you solid predictors about who tends to be unfaithful and why, as well as proven recovery strategies for healing your relationship.
Some of the research on which I draw is my own. Twenty-five years ago, my first research project on infidelity grew out of a challenge to my traditional beliefs. At that time, I, like many others, believed that infidelity could occur only in an unhappy, unloving marriage. Then I learned that an acquaintance, an elderly man who had an exceptionally loving marriage, had been having sexual flings for many decades without his wife's ever knowing. Until the day he died, his wife believed that she was deeply and exclusively loved. After this revelation that an affair could indeed happen in a loving marriage, I felt compelled to search the psychological literature on relationships to learn more, but found very little that shed light on this seeming contradiction. The lack of research indicated a void that needed to be filled and I wanted to be the one to do it. So I pursued my investigations into extramarital relationships as a doctoral student at Catholic University of America. As you might imagine, that raised a few eyebrows.
What I discovered from the study I conducted forced me to revise many of my own beliefs about infidelity, which naturally had been limited by my own experience as a conservative young woman who had married at the age of nineteen. Over the years, I've done several other major studies on infidelity that have formed the foundation of my research-based approach to understanding and treating infidelity. My commitment to this field and method is so strong that I am currently writing a book for professionals, The Trauma of Infidelity: Research and Treatment.
Here's a brief overview of some of my professional work, so that you'll see the kind of factual information on which I'm basing this book's guidance for you and your relationship. Some of my discoveries are counterintuitive and definitely go against the grain of popular opinion.
Psychology Today Study (1977). This is the study I was inspired to do by the elderly philanderer. It compares the marital satisfaction of people who had affairs early in marriage with those who had them later. At first, I had no idea where I would find subjects for such a study. I ended up calling Bob Athanasiou, one of the authors of a sex questionnaire in Psychology Today, who offered to give me the data on the responses of 20,000 people. When I analyzed the data, I found that infidelity in young marriages either meant dissatisfaction or was a predictor of divorce. In addition, I found some very interesting differences between the sexes that piqued my curiosity: In long-term marriages, unfaithful men were as satisfied as faithful men, but unfaithful women were the most distressed subgroup of all. I speculated at the time that the reason for these differences was that women's affairs were more emotional and men's more sexual. Today, however, in the new infidelity, both sexes are citing emotional reasons for their affairs.
The Airport Sample (1980). This dissertation research was designed to explore further the sex differences I had found in the Psychology Today study regarding reasons for having affairs. I handed out 1,000 questionnaires to people at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport and at a downtown office park in Baltimore. Over 300 mailed them back to me anonymously. I discovered that women's infidelities were about unhappy marriages and falling in love with somebody else, and men's infidelities were more about the desire for sexual excitement than because of an unhappy marriage. An unexpected finding revealed that the most threatening kind of infidelity combined a deep emotional attachment with sexual intercourse.
My Clinical Sample (1982-2000). In this recent analysis, the 350 couples I treated alone and in cotherapy with my partner in practice, Dr. Tom Wright, completed the same questionnaires that I used in my dissertation research. These couples exhibit some of the same differences between the sexes in their attitudes toward marriage and infidelity as my previous studies. But it is obvious that in this new crisis of infidelity, an increased number of unfaithful husbands have deep emotional connections to their affair partner.
Therapist Survey (1992-2001). In this study, I switched focus and surveyed 465 therapists at thirteen conferences regarding their beliefs about the meaning and treatment of infidelity. The results demonstrate that there is very little consensus among couple therapists about why infidelity happens and how people should be treated in its aftermath.
You'll learn other surprising truths about infidelity, too, from my clinical experience with individuals and couples struggling with infidelity, from my own research into extramarital affairs, and from other research I've conducted in conjunction with Dr. Wright. I also borrow from the collective wisdom of other respected clinicians and researchers. Throughout the book, I use this research to document the concepts and interventions I am discussing, so that you will be comfortable listening to and accepting the guidance I give for protecting your marriage and for getting through your own wrenching experience of infidelity.
I also recount stories of couples that demonstrate how troublesome triangles develop out of friendship. These show the different reasons people break their commitments to each other and what you can do to ease your own pain and suffering. Perhaps you'll recognize a life experience similar to your own in these stories and see a communication technique that could work for your marriage. The stories bring to life the bare-bones statistics on infidelity and demonstrate how this distressing sociological reality intrudes into too many marriages. I've altered all descriptive details in the case examples to protect the couples and maintain their confidentiality, but the actual interpersonal and individual issues are based on factual accounts. For the sake of brevity, some stories are composites of more than one individual or couple. I hope that their stories of breakdowns and breakthroughs will show you that you are not alone and encourage you in your attempt to recover from infidelity.
The Need for a New Outlook
Just because infidelity is increasingly common doesn't mean that most people understand it. So much of the advice on television shows and in popular books about how to affair-proof your marriage is misleading. In fact, much of the conventional wisdom about what causes affairs and how to repair relationships is misguided.
An August 2000 column by the late Ann Landers illustrates this point beautifully -- and startlingly. A woman wrote that her husband had casually confessed to a one-time affair and said that it was over. He also said he regretted it, that it had happened only once with a woman she didn't know, and he wanted to come clean and "get it off his conscience." He pleaded with his wife to forgive him. A few days later she came across several bills covering four years that indicated the affair had been ongoing over that period. The wife writes:
I want to know who the home-wrecker is. I told him the only way to prove his love for me is to tell me her name. He refused. I have asked him every day since, saying the only way I can trust him is to know the whole story. Ann, with our marriage at stake, why won't he give me this information? I am worried that he cares more about this woman than he cares about me. What should I do?
Dear San Diego,
You should stop pressuring him to name the woman and be relieved that she is a thing of the past. Most men would identify her in order to get off the hot seat, but your husband refuses to do that. He may have some integrity after all. If you find it impossible to get past this, please consider seeking professional help.
I would have suggested a quite different response, something like this: "In order for your marriage to heal from the betrayal, your husband has to be willing to answer your questions. Until and unless you find out what you need to know, the affair will remain an open wound in your relationship. So far, the only integrity he is showing is to his affair partner. You have every reason to doubt him."
Popular thinking about infidelity -- and the therapy that deals with it -- is clouded by myths. The facts, which my research and clinical experience prove, are much more surprising and thought-provoking than unfounded popular and clinical assumptions. Here are a few truths that you will learn from this book:
Assumption: Affairs happen in unhappy or unloving marriages.
Fact: Affairs can happen in good marriages. Affairs are less about love and more about sliding across boundaries.
Assumption: Affairs occur mostly because of sexual attraction.
Fact: The lure of an affair is how the unfaithful partner is mirrored back through the adoring eyes of the new love. Another appeal is that individuals experience new roles and opportunities for growth in new relationships.
Assumption: A cheating partner almost always leaves clues, so a naÏve spouse must be burying his or her head in the sand.
Fact: The majority of affairs are never detected. Some individuals can successfully compartmentalize their lives or are such brilliant liars that their partner never finds out.
Assumption: A person having an affair shows less interest in sex at home.
Fact: The excitement of an affair can increase passion at home and make sex even more interesting.
Assumption: The person having an affair isn't "getting enough" at home.
Fact: The truth is that the unfaithful partner may not be giving enough. In fact, the spouse who gives too little is at greater risk than the spouse who gives too much because he or she is less invested.
Assumption: A straying partner finds fault with everything you do.
Fact: He or she may in fact become Mr. or Mrs. Wonderful in order to escape detection. Most likely, he or she will be alternately critical and devoted.
NOT "Just Friends" will give you a more complete understanding of what infidelity really is and how it happens. I will provide you with plenty of substantiated information that will help you make decisions about whether and how your marriage can be saved. The following facts, although counterintuitive, are a good place to start:
You can have an affair without having sex. Sometimes the greatest betrayals happen without touching. Infidelity is any emotional or sexual intimacy that violates trust.
Because child-centered families create conditions that increase the vulnerability for affairs, the children may ultimately be harmed.
People are more likely to cheat if their friends and family members have cheated.
When a woman has an affair, it is more often the result of long-term marital dissatisfaction, and the marriage is harder to repair.
Most people, including unfaithful partners, think that talking about an affair with the betrayed partner will only create more upset, but that is actually the way to rebuild intimacy. Trying to recover without discussing the betrayal is like waxing a dirty floor.
The aftermath of an affair can offer partners who are still committed to their marriage an opportunity to strengthen their bond. Exploring vulnerabilities often leads to a more intimate relationship.
Starting over with a new love does not necessarily lead to a life of eternal bliss. Seventy-five percent of all unfaithful individuals who marry the affair partner end up divorced.
More than 90 percent of married individuals believe that monogamy is important, but almost half of them admit to having had affairs.
Interesting, isn't it? And not what you'd expect. If you want to maintain your relationship, you need to learn how to prevent affairs and why so many people engage in behavior that goes against their professed values. Even so, knowledge alone is not enough. If you've slipped into an affair, or your partner has, you need a map for your journey to recovery. NOT "Just Friends" also gives you the detailed guidance and well-marked routes you need to follow.
Recovering from Betrayal
According to therapists who treat couples, infidelity is the second most difficult relationship problem, surpassed only by domestic violence.5 It takes years for people to come to terms with betrayal. Like comets, affairs leave a long trail behind them. When an infidelity is revealed, it precipitates a crisis for all three people in the extramarital triangle.
The revelation of infidelity is a traumatic event for the betrayed partner. Understanding it as traumatic has important implications for healing. People who have just found out about a partner's affair may react as if they have been viciously attacked. Where they formerly felt safe, they now feel threatened. In an instant, the betrayed spouse's assumptions about the world have been shattered. Commonly, betrayed spouses become obsessed with the details of the affair, have trouble eating and sleeping, and feel powerless to control their emotions, especially anxiety and grief, which can be overwhelming.
I have found that the most complete healing happens gradually, in stages. Because betrayal is so traumatic and recovery takes time, I use an interpersonal trauma recovery plan that parallels the ones recommended for victims of natural disasters, war, accidents, and violence. My clients are living evidence of its effectiveness in their individual healing and in the number of marriages saved with this approach.
Today more couples are willing to try to work through their difficulties in a sustained way. They want to make their marriages "even better than before." They want their suffering to mean something. They want their pain to lead them to insights and new behaviors that will strengthen them as individuals and as a couple. But most people need help learning how to change the bitterness of betrayal into fertile ground for growth. They need constructive ways to confront and understand what has happened to them and how, on a practical level, to repair the ruptures that are breaking their hearts and ruining their relationship.
One of the difficulties of recovering from the trauma of infidelity is that the unfaithful partner must become the healer. It's natural for the unfaithful partner to want to avoid the pained expression on the face of the person he or she has injured, especially when the betrayed partner insists on hearing the excruciating details. But it's important for the unfaithful partner to move toward that pain, offer comfort, and be open to answering any questions. The process of recovery is like steering a ship through a storm. Knowing where you are heading can keep you and your relationship from getting totally lost even when you find yourselves off course.
It is possible to emerge from betrayal with your marriage stronger. This book will show you how. You will also learn how to steer clear of such dangerous waters in the future -- if you both genuinely want to heal and are ready to do the serious work of repair.
Prevention Manual and Survival Guide
Many couples are conflicted about outside relationships that are viewed by one partner as too close and by the other as just friends. NOT "Just Friends" is for any man or woman in a committed relationship who interacts with interesting, attractive people. Love alone does not protect you or your partner from temptation. It's not always easy to recognize the thresholds that mark the passage from platonic friend to extramarital affair partner. This book can be a valuable resource for protecting any couple, straight or gay. It will be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about the complex dynamics of how people form and maintain committed relationships. It will help you better understand yourself and your partner.
NOT "Just Friends" does not focus specifically on individuals who intentionally pursue the excitement of extramarital sex. Philandering can be a sign of either entitlement or addiction. The unfaithful partner who engages in sexual affairs with almost no emotional attachment usually operates undetected unless something catastrophic happens that exposes the extramarital liaisons. In any case, I want you to know that recovering from multiple affairs follows the same pathway as that followed by people recovering from a single affair. If the involved partners are genuinely remorseful and committed to remaining faithful in the future, this book can help them too.
NOT "Just Friends" speaks directly to the betrayed partner, the involved partner, and the affair partner at every stage of infidelity. Each individual in this painful situation will find insight and guidance as we chart the course of affairs from their beginning to their end. Here is a summary of how an affair unfolds:
In the beginning, there is a cup of coffee, a working lunch, a check-up call on the cell phone -- all of these contacts are innocent enough and add vitality and interest to our days. But when secrecy and lies become methods of furthering the relationship, it has become an emotional affair. When the affair is discovered, the involved partner is torn between two competing allegiances, and the betrayed partner develops the alarming mental and physical symptoms of obsession and flashbacks. Both partners are frightened, fragile, and confused. On their own, they may not know how to cope.
If both decide to stay and work on the relationship, first on the agenda has to be how to reestablish safety and foster goodwill. They may be conflicted about how much to discuss the affair because it's hard to know how much to say and when. It's also hard to know how to remain supportive when a partner is hysterical or depressed and how to live through daily obligations without doing further damage to themselves and each other. NOT "Just Friends" will help guide you through these rocky stages of your recovery.
Rebuilding trust is the cornerstone of the recovery process. Telling the full story and exploring the individual, relational, and social factors that made your marriage vulnerable to an affair is vital for healing and recovery. If you can see through each other's eyes and empathize with each other's pain, then you can be guided in how to co-construct your stories to help you understand the meaning of what has happened. But you need to do this in a healing environment with mutual empathy and understanding. An atmosphere of interrogation and defensiveness will derail your recovery. The technique in NOT "Just Friends" will keep you on track in this middle stage too.
After conscious, patient work, you can become strong enough to deal with the hundreds of difficult questions that keep coming up: Will my partner ever forgive me? How can I ever trust my partner again? How do we handle the Other Man or the Other Woman who keeps calling on the phone? Should I share my love letters? What shall we tell the children? How should we handle the moments of pain that continue to intrude months and years after these events are over? NOT "Just Friends" addresses all these problems and helps you figure out when it is appropriate to stop being so upset and move on. It also addresses whether to stay and try to work it out and how to know whether your marriage is a lost cause.
It's hard to believe that a marriage can be better after an affair, but it's true -- if you learn how to handle the nightmarish days after discovery, the traumatic reactions of the betrayed spouse, the revelation of details when the story is told, and the period of construction when the marriage is rebuilt, brick by brick. Even if you choose not to continue your marriage, you still have to recover from the trauma you've been through. The road to recovery can be a stimulus for growth whether you travel it with your partner or you make your way alone. It's a difficult road, but it is passable and well traveled for all its difficulties, and it's important to know that it is there for you and anyone who wants to follow it.
Walls and Windows
Throughout this book, I use the image of "walls and windows" to symbolize the levels of emotional intimacy within the marriage and within the affair. Many of my clients have told me that understanding where the symbolic walls and windows are in their relationship has helped them enormously in explaining the dynamics of their relationship and in articulating their feelings of alienation and jealousy. You can have intimacy in your relationship only when you are honest and open about the significant things in your life. When you withhold information and keep secrets, you create walls that act as barriers to the free flow of thoughts and feelings that invigorate your relationship. But when you open up to each other, the window between you allows you to know each other in unfiltered, intimate ways.
In a love affair, the unfaithful partner has built a wall to shut out the marriage partner and has opened a window to let in the affair partner. To reestablish a marriage that is intimate and trusting after an affair, the walls and windows must be reconstructed to conform to the safety code and keep the structure of the marriage sound so that it can withstand the test of time. You install a picture window between you and your marriage partner and construct a solid or opaque wall to block out contact with the affair partner. This arrangement of walls and windows nurtures your marriage and protects it from outside elements and interference.
To be healthy, every relationship needs this safety code: the appropriate placement of walls and windows. Just as the sharing that parents have with children should not surpass or replace confidences within the marriage, the boundaries in a platonic friendship should be solid. Identifying the position of walls and windows can help you discover whether a dangerous alliance has replaced a relationship that began as "just friends."
In the Afterword, you'll find a quick reference for recovering couples who want to do everything they can to safeguard their relationship against further betrayal. That section of the book is a summary of the successful strategies that make it possible for you to step back from the edge, reestablish boundaries, and commit once more to your primary relationship. It can also help couples who have not experienced infidelity and want to do everything they can to prevent it from happening in the first place.
The ultimate goal in committed relationships is to think of your marital partner as your best friend. Nonetheless, rich friendships outside the marriage are also important for a full life, and it is sad when those friendships have to be forsaken after boundaries that protect the marriage have been violated. This is another reason I wanted to write NOT "Just Friends": to give you ways to set appropriate boundaries that will preserve your friendships as well as your committed relationship.
My own life has afforded me the opportunity to nurture and enjoy deep friendships while respecting the sanctity of my marriage. For twenty-five years I have maintained an affectionate and stimulating professional partnership with Dr. Tom Wright, my cotherapist and research partner. Tom and I do not discuss personal matters about our marriages, and we are very much aware of avoiding compromising situations. My marriage to my high school sweetheart, Barry, has lasted over forty years and we regard ourselves as best friends.
Good friendships and a loving marriage: This is what is possible when you value and preserve the differences between them. You can learn how to keep your commitment strong and your friendships safe, so that you will stay in the safety zone and remain "just friends." Otherwise, you can easily cross into the danger zone where infidelity begins, when you are not "just friends" anymore. If this has already happened to you or your partner, however, please keep reading.
Copyright © 2003 by Shirley P. Glass, Ph.D.