A Tiger Woods lesson for the public: Infidelity hurts

The moral of the Tiger Woods story is that adultery leaves a trail of destruction. It can be avoided. 

The cascade of news about Tiger Woods since his Escalade escapade has largely been driven by the public’s interest in celebrity, mystery, and often pure salaciousness. Only lately has the negative fallout from his secret infidelity begun to hit home: lost corporate sponsors, a stunning golf career on hold, and most of all, a marriage and family in jeopardy.

Perhaps more than other recent cases of adultery by prominent figures, the case of Mr. Woods is a sober reminder of how unfaithfulness in matrimony can leave behind a swath of personal despair and destruction. If he can now reform himself and earn the forgiveness necessary to save his marriage, then this real-life script will offer a redemptive lesson for a society increasingly jaded to such dalliances.

Adultery should not be taken lightly, although Hollywood and other media often do so. It is not a comedy. Nor is it a game. As Jenny Sanford said so plainly and poignantly last week, “it hurt” when her husband, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, described his Argentine girlfriend as his “soul mate.” Ms. Sanford is filing for divorce after a failed attempt at reconciliation.

Among other things, 2009 may go down as the year of celebrity infidelity. But affairs also afflict the common man and woman. Various studies show a range in the number of married men who will cheat (15 to 40 percent) and of married women who will (5 to 25 percent).

Of those who get divorced in America, 40 percent cite infidelity. Marriage counsellors say betrayal from an affair is as traumatic a violation as rape, sometimes worse. It destroys trust, and if a couple has children, a rupture in parenting. Adultery can ruin a career, an institution, and perhaps even a sports industry. It forced a New York governor to resign and almost brought down a US president.

Opportunity for infidelity has multiplied with more women and men working together and as the Internet and wireless cellphones make stealth communication easier. Encouragingly, though, more than 90 percent of Americans still view “married men and women having an affair” as “morally wrong,” according to the Gallup organization. 

The disconnect between societal rejection of infidelity and the practice of it stems in part from the view that adultery happens to someone else. Marriage experts point, however, to a common path: unhappiness in a marriage and unwillingness to address it, then estrangement, then confiding in someone else and entering an affair with that person. Sexual drive, ego, and power can enter the picture.

Couples need to face their difficulties early on, and those who are considering an affair must reject any daydreams of passion and look at the huge human cost to others (and themselves). To walk away from temptation and to work on a marriage requires discipline, selflessness, and sometimes the humility to yield personal desires to a spiritual purpose. Individuals are capable of it, yet sometimes need help in achieving it.

And what can be done after a breach? Woods says he wants to focus on being “a better husband, father, and person.” For that alone, he now deserves the privacy he needs. It is possible to get beyond the initial grief and hurt, and many couples have done so. Not by sweeping this painful subject under the rug, but by examining reasons behind the behavior, then forgiving and committing to change.

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