Clinton Affair Resonates With Married Couples

At first, Janet Miller Wiseman wasn't sure exactly what was happening.

A licensed clinical social worker, who has worked with families and couples, Ms. Wiseman found her phone began ringing off the hook in mid-August. The callers were couples who were urgently asking for immediate appointments, without saying why.

She soon discovered the cause: the highly public playing out of the Clintons' marital distress, beginning with the president's steely acknowledgment on Aug. 17, had triggered emotional responses in couples who wanted help dealing with the impact of affairs on their marriages.

"The Clinton thing is bringing it out," says Wiseman, whose practice is based in Lexington, Mass. "It's created a quickening inside people in their own situations. If you have something unattended to inside, and there's something that big in the media everywhere around you, it's very hard [for it] not to resonate."

Other marriage counselors, ranging from mental-health professionals to religious lay people, say they, too, have witnessed escalating private reactions among couples to the very public national discourse about marriage and marital infidelity. Although it is spurred by the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky, other Washington officials have added fuel to the fire with their admissions of extramarital affairs.

"Public issues raise a mirror of self-examination," says Wayne Sotile, a therapist and author of "Supercouple Syndrome: How Overworked Couples Can Beat Stress Together." "They force the surfacing of a question that might not otherwise have been posed."

Bill Zwaan, of Retrouvai (French for "rediscover"), an international lay Roman Catholic group that works with couples of all denominations to save their marriages, says he also has noticed a grass-roots stirring. "People are beginning to say, 'I don't want to get [to the point the Clintons are at],' " he says.

Questions that are surfacing between husbands and wives - and the responses to them - vary widely. In Wiseman's practice, many women who had suspected their husbands of affairs in the past wanted to bring the issue into the open - both to find out the truth from their husbands and to forgive the past infidelity.

Other marriage counselors list a range of concerns being voiced, including spouses who are now wondering whether to confess to a past affair; partners who've cheated and want to deal with the problem, but are terrified they may face the same kind of humiliation experienced by the president; and parents who've had to face children who have watched the news and now want to know if their parents have done anything similar.

Because each case involves highly individual problems, those who work with couples say each case requires an individual solution. For example, they say, it may not always be best to bring up a past affair; easing one partner's guilty conscience through confession may cause the other partner unbearable anguish. In addition, frankness with children depends heavily on factors like the age of the children and whether or not marital strain has been openly discussed in the family.

Marriage advisers do agree, however, there is one truism that applies to most couples: An affair does not have to spell an end to the marriage.

"The discovery of an affair ... has the effect of drawing a line in the unfolding history of our lives, something that separates the way we used to be from the way we're going to be with each other from now on," says Mr. Sotile, whose practice is in Winston-Salem, N.C. "What you do next is what's crucial."

Sotile and others say that what comes next is work - hard work. Affairs, they say, are often just the symptom of deeper relationship problems, which may include a breakdown in communications, letting family priorities slip behind work priorities, or a profoundly misplaced sense of what brings true happiness.

"There's a difference between values and ideals," says Mr. Zwaan, who helps connect married couples who have successfully weathered infidelities with couples who need help. "You may have the ideal that you want a good marriage, but it only becomes a value when you decide to work at making that marriage work.

"It isn't going to happen just because you want it to," he says. "You have to work it out."

That work, Zwaan says, has a religious aspect: "We believe that we need to have God as the third party in our relationship. The closer couples come together, the closer they are to God and the closer they are to God, the closer they come together.

Marriage counselors warn husbands and wives who've been moved by the Clintons' problems against close identification with the nation's first couple. The nature of the president's behavior, they say, is far different from the average spouse who may stray once but not repeatedly. And the public trial the Clintons are going through is at odds with the intensely private, personal work that needs to be done to save a marriage.

Emily Brown, an Arlington, Va.-based couples therapist who organizes conferences on how to treat marital infidelity, says she is concerned by the example being set by the president. His repeated public apologies and requests for forgiveness aren't enough to resolve the problem, she says. "There's a lot of work that has to happen in order for an apology to even be appropriate.

"The person who has had an affair has a tendency to say, 'I'm sorry, let's move on,' " she says. "But forgiveness takes a while. It takes two people working at rebuilding their relationship."

For many couples, Sotile says, healing comes from doing something to manage a lifestyle that often "disconnects us and speeds us up, and blurs our awareness of a fundamental choice we face everyday, that being: 'Do I choose to be a safe space in my partner's life?' That is what healthy couples do. They are heroic in that regard."

The experts say that one of the good things that may come out of the Clinton spectacle is a more open debate in society on the causes, consequences, and treatment of marital infidelity.

"The focus should be, what can we learn from this? How can we help our leaders stay on track?" says Ms. Brown. "What resources do we offer, not just to our leaders, but to everyone? As a society we're not good about helping people [who are coping with the impact of] affairs. Affairs have been a taboo issue for years."

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