Marital affairs: what happens after spouses cheat
Why Americans are getting more conservative about affairs, but seem willing to accept them in their own marriages.
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Yet many Americans cheat. Although numbers on adultery are notoriously difficult to pin down (in large part because people lie to researchers), many studies put lifetime infidelity rates around 30 percent for men, slightly lower for women. (There are various estimates, however, that range from 3 percent to 80 percent.) Americans are also more likely now than ever before to accept adultery as part of marriage. Only 50 or 60 percent of Americans say that adultery would be an automatic deal breaker for their marriage, says Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington who has written many books on sex, love, and relationships; a decade ago that number was closer to 90 percent.Skip to next paragraph
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In short, there is a substantial difference between what we say we should do and what we do.
"Every study I know shows 85 percent of people or more saying that nonmonogamy is wrong in every instance," Ms. Schwartz says. "But people also feel that you should eat three nutritious meals a day low in sugar and high in calcium."
Adding to the social confusion is the way public scandals send different pop culture messages on the subject. In recent months, for instance, the revelations of Woods's multiple affairs have derailed his contracts with some corporate sponsors. At the same time, his mistresses have graced the covers of almost every celebrity magazine since the story broke.
All of this, say therapists who work with couples in crisis, makes dealing with infidelity – regardless of one's role in the matter – excruciatingly difficult. "Everything is so open, so sexualized, people don't know what values to follow," says Donna Bellafiore, author of "Straight Talk About Betrayal: A Self-Help Guide for Couples." "It is extremely painful. In a lot of ways, it's much more difficult today."
By the time Anne and Brian rebuilt their relationship – Anne says it took two years before she decided that she would remain in the marriage – she was convinced that she needed to do something. She decided to write a book – "My Husband's Affair Became the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" – and she and Brian started holding weekend retreats for struggling couples.
"I would say this happens in 80 percent of marriages," Anne says. "As we healed, we looked at our journey and we thought, 'What is wrong with the world? This is like an epidemic, but nobody is talking about it in any healthy way.' "
A book written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Pamela Druckerman, "Lust in Translation," explores how different cultures approach infidelity. She writes about how in Russia, for instance, therapists sometimes suggest extramarital relationships as a path to happiness. In Japan, if a man pays for sex, it is usually not considered an affair.
"Societies have their own rules on who can cheat, and for what reason," she writes. "There are even scripts for something as private as forgiveness. Everyone seems to know the rules, even if they don't follow them."
What many Americans think of as infidelity dogma – that it is never acceptable to have an extramarital relationship, that a cheating spouse should confess and then reveal every detail of the affair, that a healing process will be long and painful, that complete honesty is critical – is actually quite specific not only to place, but to time.