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.

A spate of recent infidelity scandals – from Tiger Woods to Gov. Mark Sanford – might make it seem as if America is well-versed in the moral and emotional ambiguities of adultery. It isn't.
Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Americans have a more idealized view of marriage than people in most other countries.

Brian Bercht cheated on his wife, Anne, 10 years ago. It was a full-blown affair, with clandestine lunch meetings and a growing emotional attachment to the other woman. It wasn't that Brian didn't love his wife of 18 years, he says. But he felt empty and vulnerable. And he was unprepared for the attraction he felt toward the co-worker who would become his lover. "I didn't think it would ever happen to me," he says.

For her part, Anne Bercht remembers the pain. She describes how she did not sleep or eat for months. "If we had been fighting, if we had had a bad sex life – if we had been struggling – maybe I would have been able to accept it," she says. "But all of that increased my level of devastation and shock. I couldn't think straight."

Not only was she grappling with the pain coming from her marriage, Anne says, she felt that she was facing a world packed with stereotypes and snide jokes, but very little practical advice. In some ways infidelity was everywhere – on television and in songs, in grocery checkout magazines and whispered water-cooler conversations, but it was also nowhere. People might allude to others having affairs, but nobody talked about it in the first person. It was never about them.

If a society's approach to infidelity and marriage shows a lot about that culture, then it's not a stretch to assume that the United States is one confused place.

A spate of recent public scandals – from Tiger Woods to David Letterman, from Sen. John Ensign to Gov. Mark Sanford, to the suspected shenanigans of Jon Gosselin of reality TV's Jon and Kate – might make it seem as if this is a country well versed in the moral and emotional ambiguities of infidelity. But Anne Bercht's experience, say therapists and researchers who work with couples, is far more typical.

Despite all their exposure to and snickering about infidelity, Americans are becoming increasingly conservative about marital transgressions. At the same time, however, they are more likely to accept infidelity in their own relationships – and, with the help of a cottage industry of therapists, counselors, and gurus, more likely to confront it directly.

The explanation for this dichotomy – Americans maintaining a uniquely idealistic view of "I do" while seeming to accept a new strain of realism – is rooted in fundamental changes in notions of morality and marriage. And it is all amplified by that modern-day tempter and confession booth: the Internet.

* * *

The moral crosscurrents Americans feel about infidelity are reflected in the arithmetic. According to the National Science Foundation's longitudinal General Social Survey, Americans say they are becoming more intolerant of extramarital relationships: In 2006, 80.6 percent of Americans said that infidelity is always wrong – up from 73.4 percent in 1991. (Another 14.6 percent in 2006 said that infidelity is "almost always wrong.") In the 2008 Gallup Values and Beliefs poll, Americans as a group found extramarital affairs morally worse than polygamy, human cloning, and suicide.

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.

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.

"For thousands of years, fidelity was not one of the highest expectations of love," says Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and the director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families.

Patriarchal societies built rules about women's sexual practices because they wanted to ensure bloodlines and property rights, she says. Until the modern era, the Bible notwithstanding, there was little attention paid to male adultery.

"There was a lot of concern that a woman would be unfaithful and introduce a foreigner into the bloodline," she says. "But infidelity was a practical affair, not an emotional one. It's not until the late 18th century that love becomes a primary reason for marriage as opposed to a lucky side benefit."

Still, over the next 130 years, women were so dependent on men that they simply looked the other way when it came to infidelity, she says. In the 19th century, women were considered "too pure" to enjoy sex; well-bred men went to prostitutes and mistresses to avoid "contaminating" their wives with their urges. Even in the "Mad Men" era of the 1950s and '60s, Ms. Coontz says, the discreet businessman affair was often just accepted.

"The men who supported women sort of thought of it as their perk," she says. "And the women who were supported by them took the 'don't ask, don't tell' [approach]. Nobody wanted to be hit over the head with it, nobody wanted their husbands to fall in love with another person, but they shut their eyes."

During the women's liberation movement of the '60s and '70s, the attitude about infidelity shifted. Women demanded that their husbands be as faithful as they were expected to be; or they suggested that they, too, be able to sleep around. About the same time, conservative Christian authors started publishing advice books about sex – an effort to keep both genders from straying. Still, the divorce rate rose.

The American inclination today to both abhor and accept infidelity is likely a reaction to that time period, Coontz and other scholars say. It is also a testament to our relationship with the institution of marriage itself.

* * *

Americans revere marriage. Historian Nancy Cott, a professor at Harvard University, has written about how our approach to marriage is hard-wired into our DNA. From the earliest days of the US, the Founding Fathers supported the sort of marriage where a benevolent husband was chosen, and then obeyed, by a loyal and loving wife. It was the husband's job to lead and make rational decisions; the wife's, to support him but also act as a check on his unbecoming urges. In some ways, this relationship reflected the political ideals the Founders envisioned for the young nation.

The country's views of marriage are also rooted in its early Christianity. A prohibition against adultery, of course, is one of the Ten Commandments – although most historians say that at the time of Moses, the concept of adultery was much more permissive for men than women. Many early settlers were adherents of the Protestant Reformation and of later religious reformers who emphasized the importance of marriage and the sacrilege of immorality. Martin Luther, for one, decreed there is no more "charming relationship" than a good marriage.

To this day, marriage is still intertwined with the country's mores and laws. Everything from tax law to health insurance is affected by one's marital status. Unlike in many European countries, where unmarried couples live and raise children together, marriage in the US is considered a more serious, valued, and adult relationship than other sorts of partnerships. Unlike in most developed countries, too, the US government has spent more than $100 million on promoting marriage.

At the same time, however, we want to be happy, which can lead to conflicts. "We have a schizophrenic culture about marriage in this country," says Johns Hopkins professor Andrew Cherlin, who wrote the book, "The Marriage-Go-Round," which explores the American habit of marriage "churning" – people divorcing and remarrying quickly. "We value marriage, but we also value thinking about ourselves – what makes us happy, what makes us most fulfilled. We think if we are not happy we have the right to end our relationships. And when we see the clash, we're surprised by it."

This tension is exacerbated by the increased pressure many scholars see Americans putting on marriage. In few other places does someone expect to form a lifetime bond with a soul mate who is safe, friendly, nurturing, financially stable, loving, and exciting all at the same time. "We have very high expectations for the love match," Coontz says, noting that Americans' expectations of their spouses has grown as other social networks – with friends, extended families, neighborhood groups – have broken down.

With the "you complete me" model of relationships, any errant display of emotion can be devastating. Many Americans, as a result, have a very low threshold for what constitutes a transgression. This is reflected in chat groups and therapy sessions, where people debate the definition of infidelity. Is it just sex with someone other than one's spouse? A close emotional relationship with someone of the opposite gender? Flirty text messages?

* * *

Four years after Darrell Harbin decided not to sleep with a female friend, he and his wife, Melanie, are still dealing with the aftermath of what they both term an "emotional affair."

It was a difficult time in their marriage when Darrell met a girlfriend of his sister's at a family Christmas party.

Melanie was depressed. Darrell's family did not seem to like her, and the relatives constantly criticized the way she reared their children.

Meanwhile, Darrell had escaped into work. He put in 24-hour rotations at the Tuscaloosa, Ala., Fire Department and then 16-hour shifts at the local Mercedes-Benz plant on his days off. Sex had become a distant memory for the couple.

"I'd see Mel crying, and I knew something was wrong, but she wouldn't talk about it," Darrell says.

At the Christmas party, Mel remembers being shaken when she saw the woman walk in with her sister-in-law. "I turned to him and said, 'She brought that girl here because of you.' "

A week later, the woman called Darrell at work. They began a phone relationship in which Darrell would talk about his emotions, his dreams, his problems at home. And one day, he says, he decided to make this connection physical.

"I made this plan to go to [the woman's] house, but then I hung up the phone," he says, grappling with the memory. "You go through this whole thing of, 'I can't do this – it's wrong. But I bet it would be fun.' "

All afternoon, he says, he vacillated between guilt and desire. Mostly guilt. At the last moment, he changed his mind. He wanted sex, but he loved his wife. It turned out that Mel knew something was wrong – when she confronted Darrell, he recalls, it was a relief. He confessed all of his feelings for the other woman.

"It totally crushed everything," he says. "Nothing I said mattered. Every time I left the house I knew what she was thinking."

Today, four years after Darrell did not have sex with another woman, Mel still looks devastated when they talk about it. When asked if she trusts her husband, she hesitates.

"Almost," she says.

* * *

This sort of lasting pain, and the sense of betrayal that accompanies it, is a particularly American response. "This outsize preoccupation with monogamy doesn't seem to do Americans much good," Ms. Druckerman writes. And "when Americans do cheat, it gets very messy. Despite the existence of our vast marriage-industrial complex, adultery crises in America last longer, cost more, and seem to inflict more emotional torture than they do in anyplace else."

The language that accompanies modern-day infidelity in the US points to this trauma – it tends to involve loaded words such as "betrayed spouse" and "D-Day," to describe the day a spouse discovers his or her partner's affair.

This raw language is in full, sometimes graphic, display at, one of the busiest infidelity support sites on the Internet. It has more than 27,000 registered members, 200,000 page views a day, and about 6,000 new posts daily in forums such as "Just Found Out," "Reconciliation," and "Divorce/Separation."

The creators of the site are a husband and wife in Texas who went through their own infidelity trauma a decade ago. They asked that they only be identified by the initials they use online, M.H. and D.S. Their story shows another aspect of modern-day American infidelity – the Internet.

D.S., the wife, was the one who cheated. Her affairs started in a chat room, only a year after she had married the friendly Web development co-worker who had won her heart. She started communicating online with other men, and soon the chats became sexual. E-mails turned into dates, which evolved into sex.

Although there is debate about the numbers, some researchers hypothesize that the Internet's ability to provide both pornography and clandestine access to other partners has helped raise the adultery rate among young couples in America. University of Washington researchers found that in 2006, about 20 percent of men and 15 percent of women under 35 said they had been unfaithful – up from 15 percent and 12 percent who said so in 1991.

"Most of the cheaters – myself included – would say the same thing," D.S. says. "It's very seductive. You feel attractive. People care enough to listen. Someone asks how your day was. Now, just because [M.H.] didn't ask how my day was and some other guy did doesn't validate me. I could have very easily gone to my husband and said, 'Yoo-hoo, I'm right here, and you haven't been looking at me and you haven't for a month.' I didn't give him any fair advantage to defend me or his marriage or himself."

When her husband discovered the e-mails, which she had been sending through their business server, he was devastated. When she denied any wrongdoing, he retrieved and printed out 10,000 electronic messages. And with that evidence in front of her, she says, she suddenly realized what she had been risking. She pleaded with him to stay.

"I begged," she says. "I literally begged. And I am confident that had I not shown that amount of remorse he would have walked."

Already comfortable with the online world, M.H. turned to the Web for answers. He found a support group for betrayed spouses, and soon invited D.S. to join the discussion. They repaired their marriage with the help of new, virtual friends. Later, they decided to create their own Internet support group.

"We really felt strongly that all of the support we got for free from the Internet, we really needed to repay this," D.S. says. She says the seven years of running has proved even more rewarding than she had expected.

"You watch people over the course of months go from the puddle on the floor to 'Oh, I got a job and I can pay the rent on my own now to 'I don't need him.' It's a powerful thing to watch."

And most people, she says, tend to reconcile. A husband and wife who want to be known only as John and Susan – because, they say, their children do not know about John's affair – are one such couple. They turned to a chat group for help after John cheated in 1999.

The couple was living in Austin, Texas, with their two young children and had decided to host a European exchange student for the academic year. At the time, Susan was busy with child rearing, and John was focused on building his start-up firm. He had also started consuming pornography online.

One night, John and the exchange student were watching a movie. They moved closer together on the couch, and neither pulled away. Soon, they were sleeping together regularly. Susan suspected something was amiss, but John denied having an affair with the girl. He says he felt terrible about lying.

"We are both Christian, we go to church, and this went against everything I believed was right," he says. "On the other hand, one of my biggest needs as a human being is affection and to feel desired and here was this person meeting that need."

After the exchange student returned to Europe, she sent Susan an e-mail telling her everything. Susan called John to her computer. "In the end, when everything was discovered and Susan kept asking, 'why? why? why?' I came to the conclusion that there was no reason why. My wife was looking for the logic in all this, but what I did wasn't born of logic."

Still, Susan decided she wanted to try to fix the marriage. John did, too. They found marriage counseling unhelpful, so they sought assistance through an online chat group. Today, they say, their relationship is strong and supportive.

This may be the most hopeful aspect of American infidelity today: With all the confusion and emotional trauma, there is still the optimistic hope of redemption and forgiveness, of second chances and new beginnings.

Anne and Brian Bercht see this in their efforts. So do the SurvivingInfidelity administrators. "It's not for wimps – it's hard work," Anne says. "But people can do it. And it can bring you so much closer."

Despite her difficult transition, Susan agrees. "Before the affair, we would be frustrated with each other and feel shortchanged," she says. "We didn't appreciate what we had in each other. And it wasn't until we had to join forces to get past what happened that we became a team."

Carmen K. Sisson in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Eilene Zimmerman in San Diego contributed to this report.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.