Hold on to your wedding ring. It is difficult, but not impossible, to repair the damage caused by betrayal. Increasingly, that’s what couples want. But let go of most of your assumptions. In an interview with Editor at Large Hara Estroff Marano, leading expert Dr. Shirley Glass challenges just about everything you think you know about this explosive subject.
Q: What is the single most important thing you want people to know about infidelity?
Dr. Glass: Boundaries. That it’s possible to love somebody else, to be attracted to somebody else, even if you have a good marriage. In this collegial world where we work together, you have to conduct yourself by being aware of appropriate boundaries, by not creating opportunities, particularly at a time when you might be vulnerable.
That means that if you travel together, you never invite someone for a drink in the room; if you just had a fight with your spouse, you don’t discuss it with a person who could be a potential partner. You can have a friendship, but you have to be careful who you share your deepest feelings with. Although women share their deep feelings with lots of people, particularly other women, men are usually most comfortable sharing their feelings in a love relationship. As a result, when a relationship becomes intimate and emotional, men tend to sexualize it.
Q: Is compartmentalizing characteristic of people who get into affairs?
Dr. Glass: It’s much more characteristic of men. Most women believe that if you love your partner, you wouldn’t even be in an affair. Therefore, if someone has an affair, it means that they didn’t love their partner and they love the person that they had the affair with. But my research has shown that there are many men who do love their partners. They enjoy good sex at home, but nevertheless never turn down an opportunity for extramarital sex. In fact, 56% of the men I sampled who had extramarital intercourse said that their marriages were happy. This is in comparison to 34% of the women. That’s how I got into this.
Dr. Glass: Being a woman, I believed that if a man had an affair, it meant that he had a terrible marriage. I thought that he probably wasn’t getting it at home —the old keep-your-husband-happy-so-he-won’t-stray idea. That puts too much of a burden on the woman. I found that she could be everything wonderful, and he might still stray. That’s true if that’s in his value system, his family background, or his psycho dynamic structure.
I was in graduate school when I heard that a man I knew, married for over 40 years, had recently died and his wife was so bereaved because they’d had the most wonderful marriage. He had been her lover, her friend, her support system. She missed him immensely. I thought that was a beautiful story.
When I told my husband about it, he got a funny look that made me ask, “What do you know?” He proceeded to tell me that one night when he took the kids out for dinner to an out of the way restaurant, owned by one of his clients —that very man walked in with a young, blonde woman. When he saw my husband, his face got red, and he walked out.
Q: How did that influence you?
Dr. Glass: I wondered what that meant. Did he fool his wife all those years and really not love her? How is it possible to be married for over 40 years and think you have a good marriage? It occurred to me that an affair could mean something different than I believe. Another belief that you only have so much energy for something. By this belief, if your partner is getting sex outside, you’d know it, because your partner wouldn’t be wanting sex at home.
However, some people are even more passionate at home when they are having extramarital sex. I was stunned to hear a man tell me that when he left his affair partner and came home he found himself desiring his wife more than he had in a long time, because he was so sexually aroused by his affair.
Q: What research have you done on infidelity?
Dr Glass: My first research study was actually based on a sex questionnaire in Psychology Today, in the 70’s. I analyzed the data looking at the relationship of extramarital sex, length of marriage, and gender difference on marital satisfaction and romanticism. I found enormous gender differences. Men in long term marriages who had affairs had very high marital satisfaction. Women in long-term marriages having affairs had the lowest marital satisfaction of all. Explaining these gender differences was the basis of my dissertation. I theorized that the men were having sexual affairs and the women emotional affairs.
Q: Are affairs about sex?
Dr Glass: Sometimes infidelity is just about sex. That’s often more true for men. In my research, 44% of men who said they had extramarital sex said they had slight or no emotional involvement. Only 11% of women said that. Oral sex is certainly about sex. Some spouses are more upset if the partner had oral sex than if they had intercourse. It just seems so much more intimate.
Q: What is the infidelity?
Dr Glass: The infidelity is that you took something that was supposed to be mine, which is sexual or emotional intimacy. You then gave it to somebody else. I thought that we had a special relationship, and now you have contaminated it. It doesn’t feel special any more, because you shared something that was very precious to us with someone else.
There are gender differences though. Men feel more betrayed by their wives having sex with someone else. Women feel more betrayed by their husbands being emotionally involved with someone else. What really tears men apart is to visualize their partner being sexual with somebody else. Women certainly don’t want their husbands having sex with somebody else. But if it’s an impersonal one-night fling, they may be able to deal with that better than if their husband was involved in a long-term relationship sharing all kinds of loving ways with somebody else.
Q: Why are affairs so deeply wounding?
Dr Glass: It’s because you have certain assumptions about your marriage —that I chose someone, and the other person chose me. We have the same values. We’ve both decided to have an exclusive relationship. And even though we may have some problems we love each other and therefore I’m safe. When you find out your partner has been unfaithful, then everything you believe is totally shattered. And you have to rebuild the world. The fact that you weren’t expecting it—that it wasn’t part of your assumption about how a relationship operates, causes traumatic reactions. The wounding results because I finally thought I met somebody I could trust.
Q: It violates that hope or expectation that you can be who you really are with another person?
Dr Glass: Yes. Affairs really aren’t about sex. They’re about betrayal. Imagine if you were married to somebody very patriotic and then found out your partner is a Russian spy. Someone having a long-term affair is leading a double life. Then you find out all that was going on in your partner’s life that you knew nothing about. Gifts were exchanged, poems and letters were written. And there were trips you thought were taken for a specific reason that were actually taken to meet the affair partner.
To find out about all the intrigue and deception that occurred while you were operating under a different assumption is totally shattering and disorienting. That’s why people then have to get out their calendars and go back over the dates to put all the missing pieces together. They wonder when you were going to the drugstore that night and you said your car broke down and you didn’t come home for 3 hours, what was really happening?
Q: This is necessary?
Dr Glass: In order to heal. Because any time somebody suffers from a trauma, part of the recovery is telling the story. The tornado victim will go over and over the story. They tell “when the storm came I was in my room” —trying to understand what happened, and how it happened. Didn’t we see the black clouds? How come we didn’t know?”
Q: And so they repeat the story until it no longer creates an unmanageable level of arousal.
Dr Glass: Yes. In fact, sometimes people are more devastated if everything was wonderful before they found out. When a betrayed spouse who suspected something says, “I don’t know if I can ever trust my partner again,” it’s reassuring is to tell them that they can trust their own instincts the next time they have those storm warnings. When things feel okay, they can trust that things are okay. But if somebody thought everything was wonderful, how would they ever know if it happened again? It’s frightening.
Q: What is the sine qua non of an affair?
Dr Glass: 3 elements determine whether a relationship is an affair. One is secrecy. Suppose two people meet every morning at 7 A.M. for coffee before work, and they never tell their partners. Even though it might be in a public place, their partner isn’t going to be happy about it. It’s going to feel like a betrayal, a terrible deception.
Emotional intimacy is the second element. When someone starts confiding things to another person that they’re reluctant to confide to their partner and the emotional intimacy is greater in the friendship than in the marriage, that’s very threatening. One common pathway to affairs occurs when somebody starts confiding negative things about their marriage to a person of the opposite sex. What they’re doing is signaling: “I’m vulnerable. I may even be available.”
The third element is sexual chemistry. That can occur even if two people don’t touch. If one says, “I’m really attracted to you.” Or says, “I had a dream about you last night, but I’m married, so we won’t do anything about that.” That tremendously increases the sexual tension by creating forbidden fruit in the relationship.
Q: Do affairs ever serve a positive function —not to excuse any of the damage they do?
Dr Glass: Affairs are often a chance for people to try out new behaviors. They dress in a different costume, stretch and grow and assume a different role. In a long-term relationship, we often get frozen in our roles. When young couples begin at a certain level of success and go on to achieve all kinds of things, the new person sees them as they’ve become, while the old person sees them as they were.
The unfortunate thing is that the way a person is different in the affair would, if incorporated into the marriage, probably make their spouse ecstatic. But they believe they’re stuck. They don’t know how to create that opportunity for change within the marriage. A woman who was sexually inhibited in marriage —perhaps she married young and had no prior partners —may find her sexuality in an affair. But her husband would probably be delighted to encounter that new self.
Q: How do you handle this?
Dr Glass: After an affair, I don’t ask the question you’d expect. The spouse always wants to know about “him or her”. “What did you see in her that you didn’t see in me?” I always ask about “you.” “What did you like about yourself in that other relationship?” How were you different? And, what would you like to bring back so that you can be the person you want to be in your primary relationship? How can we foster that part of you in this relationship?
Q: Do people push their partners into affairs?
Dr Glass: No. People can create a pattern in the marriage that isn’t enhancing. And the partner, instead of dealing with the dissatisfaction and trying to work on the relationship, escapes it and goes someplace else.
Q: That is the wrong way to solve the problem?
Dr Glass: Yes. There are some gender differences in the ways partners handle problems. Although everything we say about men can be true for some women, and everything we say about women can be true for some men. Generally when a woman is unhappy, she lets her partner know. She feels better afterwards because she’s gotten it off her chest. It doesn’t interfere with her love. She’s trying to improve the relationship: “If I tell him what makes me unhappy, then he’ll know how to please me. I am giving him a gift by telling him.”
Unfortunately, many men don’t see it as a gift. They feel criticized and put down. Instead of thinking, “she feels lonely. I’ll move toward her and make her feel secure,” they think, “What’s wrong with her? Didn’t I just do that?” They pull away. If they come in contact with somebody else who says to them, “oh, you’re wonderful,” then they move toward that person. They aren’t engaged enough in the marriage to work things out. The partner keeps trying, and becomes more unpleasant because he’s not responding.
Q: She becomes the pursuer, he the distancer.
Dr Glass: When she withdraws, the marriage is much further down the road to dissolution. That’s because she’s given up. Her husband, unfortunately, thinks things are so much better because she’s no longer complaining. He doesn’t recognize that she has detached and become emotionally available for an affair. The husband first notices it when she becomes disinterested in sex —or after she’s left! Then he’ll do anything to keep her. The tragedy is that it’s often too little too late.
Q: The opportunities for affairs have changed radically in the past 20 years. Men and women are together all the time in the workplace, and workplaces are sexy places. You dress up, you’re trying your best, there’s lots of energy in the air.
Dr Glass: And you’re not cleaning up vomit or the hot water heater that just flooded the basement. And it’s not at the end of the day, when you’re exhausted. Also, you’re working together on something that has excitement and meaning. One of the major shifts is that more married women are having affairs than in the past.
There are several reasons. Today’s woman has usually had more experience with premarital sex, so she’s not as inhibited about getting involved sexually with another man. She has more financial independence, so she’s not taking as great a risk. And she’s working with men on a more equal level, so the men are very attractive to her.
Q: What do people seek in an affair partner?
Dr Glass: Either we choose somebody very different from our partner, or we choose somebody like our partner used to be, a younger version. A woman married to a really sweet guy who helps with the dishes, who’s very nurturing and very secure, may at some point see him as boring. She gets interested in the high-achieving, high-energy man who may even be a bit chauvinistic. But if she’s married to the man with the power and the status, then she’s interested in the guy who’s sensitive and touchy-feely, who may not be as ambitious.
Q: Is this just the nature of attraction?
Dr Glass: It has to do with the fact that people really want it all. We have different parts of ourselves. The other flip-flop in choice of affair partner reflects the fact that the marriage often represents a healing of our family wounds. Somebody who lacked a secure attachment figure in their family of origin chooses a mate who provides security and stability.
It’s a healthy, resilient part of ourselves that seeks that balancing. But after we’ve mastered that, we often want to go back and find somebody like that difficult parent and make that person love us. There’s a correlation between the nature of the attachment figure and the affair partner. The person is trying to master incomplete business from childhood. As a result, some people will choose an affair partner who’s difficult, temperamental, or unpredictable.
Q: The challenge becomes, how, with busy lives, do people satisfy all of their needs within the marriage?
Dr Glass: It’s a false belief that if I’m incomplete, I have to be completed by another person. You have to do it through your own life, your own work, for your own pleasure, through individual growth. The more fulfilled you are, in terms of things that you do separately that please you, the more individuated and more whole you are. Plus, the more intimate you can be. Then you’re not expecting the other person to make you happy. You’re expecting the other person to share happiness with you, to join you in your happiness.
Q: What other changes do you see in affairs these days?
Dr Glass: Cyber affairs are new. For some people the computer itself is very addictive. They get very caught up in it. It’s hiding out, escaping. And an affair is an escape —from the realities of everyday life. These two escapes are now paired. The other danger online is that people can disguise who they are. Think of the roles you can take on if you hide behind a computer screen. More so than in workplace affairs, you can project anything onto the other person.
At the computer, with a screen in front of you, you can act out any fantasy you want. You can make this other person become anybody you want them to be. There’s a loosening up, because you’re not face to face with the person. The relationship begins in anonymity. Sometimes people send nude pictures back and forth.
Q: This attracts only a certain kind of person, doesn’t it?
Dr Glass: We don’t know yet. Among the e-mail questions that I get are always a number from people who are concerned because their partner is having an online relationship with somebody. Or their partner had an affair with somebody they met online. It’s very prevalent, and it’s very dangerous. If you’re talking to somebody on the computer, and you begin to talk about your sexual fantasies, and you’re not talking to your partner about your sexual fantasies, which relationship now has more sexual chemistry? Which relationship has more emotional intimacy? Then your partner walks in the room and you switch screens. Now you’ve got a wall of secrecy.
It has all the components of an affair. And it’s very easy. Technology has impacted affairs in another way, too. Many people have discovered their partner’s affair by getting the cellular phone bill. Or it could be by getting in the car and pushing redial on the car phone. Perhaps it’s by taking their partner’s beeper and seeing who’s been calling. We’re leaving a whole new electronic trail.
Q: How many affairs survive as enduring relationships?
Dr Glass: Only 10% of people who leave their relationship for affairs end up with the affair partner. Once you can be with the person every day, you deal with all the little irritations in a relationship that makes it less romantic. Then you’re into Stage Two —disillusionment. Several people have told me they wish the affair had never happened. They wish they had worked on their marriage instead. Once they got into an affair, it was too compelling. But now that the affair has settled into a reality based relationship, it’s too late to go back to the marriage; they destroyed too much.
Q: Can all relationships be fixed after an affair?
Dr Glass: No. What I look for is how the unfaithful partner shows empathy for the pain that they have caused when the betrayed spouse starts acting crazy.
Q: In what way do they act crazy?
Dr Glass: They’re very emotional. They cry easily. Their emotions flip-flop. They are hyper-vigilant. They want to look at the cell phone. Plus, they have flashbacks. In the car they hear a country-western song and start crying, or accusing. They obsess over the details of the affair. Although these are common post-traumatic reactions to infidelity, their behavior is very erratic. This is upsetting to them and their partner. How much compassion the partner has for that is one of the benchmarks.
Another sign of salvageability lies in how much responsibility the unfaithful partner is willing to take for the choice they made. This is regardless of problems that pre-existed in the marriage. (We definitely need to work on the weaknesses of the marriage, but not to justify the affair.)
If the unfaithful partner says, “you made me do it,” that’s not as predictive of a good outcome as when the partner says, “we should have gone to counseling before this happened to deal with the problems.” Sometimes the unfaithful partner really doesn’t regret the affair. This is because it was very exciting. One of the big strains between the partners in the primary relationship is the way they perceive the affair partner.
Q: How so?
Dr Glass: A lot of the anger and the rage the betrayed spouse feels is directed toward the affair partner rather than the marital partner. “That person doesn’t have any morals, and was exploitative.” “That person’s a home wrecker.” To believe that of the marital partner would make it difficult to stay in the relationship.
At the same time, the person who had the affair may still be idealizing the affair partner. The unfaithful spouse perceives the affair partner as an angel. Whereas the betrayed person perceives an evil person. It’s important at some point in the healing process for the involved person to see some flaws in the affair partner. This is so that they can partly see what their partner, the betrayed spouse, is telling them. But it’s also important for the betrayed spouse to see the affair partner not as a cardboard character but as a human being.
Q: Is there anything else that helps you gauge the salvageability of a relationship after an affair?
Dr Glass: Empathy, responsibility —and the degree of understanding of the vulnerabilities that made an affair possible.
Q: What vulnerabilities?
Dr Glass: There are individual vulnerabilities, such as curiosity. Somebody gets invited for lunch, and they go to the house because they’re curious. They must learn that getting curious is a danger sign. Or they learn that if some damsel or guy in distress comes with a sad story, instead of becoming their confessor and their confidante, they give out the name of a great therapist. Knowing what these vulnerabilities are, and understanding them, allows a person to avoid them.
Q: Are there relationship vulnerabilities?
Dr Glass: The biggest one I see these days is the child-centered marriage. I tell couples that if you really love your kids, the best gift you can give them is your own happy marriage. You can’t have a happy marriage if you never spend time alone. Your children need to see you going out together without them, or closing the bedroom door. That gives them a sense of security greater than they get by just by being loved.
Today’s parents feel guilty because they don’t have enough time with their kids. They think they’re making it up to them by spending with them whatever leisure time they do have. They have family activities and family vacations. To help them rebuild the marriage I help them become more couple-centered. It’s important to build a cocoon around themselves as a couple.
Q: Is it hard to get over an affair without a therapist?
Dr Glass: It’s hard to do with a therapist. People can get over it, but I don’t know that they resolve the issues. Usually the unfaithful person wants to let it rest at “Hi hon, I’m back. Let’s get on with our lives. Why do we have to keep going back over the past?” The betrayed person wants to know the story with all the gory details. They may begin to feel they’re wrong to keep asking. So many suppress their need to know because their partner doesn’t want to talk about it. They may stay together, but they really don’t learn anything and they don’t heal.
Q. Can it ever be the same as it was before the affair?
Dr Glass: The affair creates a loss of innocence and some scar tissue. I tell couples things will never be the same. But the relationship may be stronger than it was before. If you break something and glue it back together with Super-Glue, it could be stronger than before. But you can see the cracks when you look closely.
Q: How do you rebuild trust?
Dr Glass: You do this through honesty. First I have to build safety. It comes about by stopping all contact with the affair partner and sharing your whereabouts. You must be willing to answer the questions from your partner, and handing over info on your cell phone.
It also requires sharing information about any encounters with the affair partner before being asked. When you come home, you say, I saw him today, and he asked me how we’re doing. I said I really don’t want to discuss that with you. That’s counter-intuitive. People think that talking about it with the spouse will create upset. They believe they’ll have to go through the whole thing again. But it doesn’t. Instead of trying to put the affair in a vault and lock it up, if they’re willing to take it out and look at it, then the trust is rebuilt through that intimacy.
The betrayed spouse may say, “I remember when such-and-such happened.” If the unfaithful spouse can say, “yeah, I just recalled such-and-such,” and they bring up things, or ask their partner, “how are you feeling? I see you’re looking down today, is that because you’re remembering?” trust can be rebuilt.
Marriage Missions Editors Note:
You can read another article that answers the question. It’s titled, “What do you do when your unfaithful spouse won’t answer your questions?” It’s written by author Anne Bercht. To do so, please go to Beyondaffairs.com.
Q: Eventually the questioning and revealing assume a more normal level in the relationship?
Dr. Glass: Yes, but things will often pop up. Someone or something will prompt them to remember something that was said. What did you mean when you said that? Or, what were you doing when that happened? In the beginning, the betrayed partner wants details. Where, what, when. Did you tell them you love them? Did you give them gifts? And did they give you gifts? How often did you see them? How many times did you have sex? Where did you have sex, was it in our house? Was it in the car? How much money did you spend?
Those kinds of factual questions need to be answered. Eventually the questions develop more complexity. How did it go on so long if you knew that it was wrong? After that first time, did you feel guilty? At that point they’re in the final stages of trauma recovery, which is the search for meaning.
Q: And they have come to a joint understanding about what the affair meant?
Dr. Glass: Yes, this is by combining their stories and their perceptions. A couple builds trust by rewriting their history and including the story of the affair. Some couples do a beautiful job in trying to understand the affair together. They co-create the story of what they’ve been through together.
Q. What is happening in those relationships that are not equal?
Dr. Glass: Sometimes there’s an over-functioning spouse and an under-functioning spouse. One partner takes on a lot of responsibility. And then he or she resents it. The more a person puts energy into something and tries to work on it, the more committed to the relationship that person is. The other partner, who is only semi-involved in the relationship, is freer to get involved in an affair. This is because they’re not as connected to the marriage. This is interesting because the popular notion is that the person who has the affair wasn’t getting enough at home. The reality is that they weren’t giving enough at home.
Q. How do you handle that?
Dr. Glass: In rebuilding that relationship, more equity has to be created. The issue isn’t what can the betrayed spouse do to make the partner happy —it’s what can the unfaithful spouse do to make their partner happy. In research and in practice, Tom Wright, Ph.D., and I have observed that when you compare who does more, who is more understanding, who is more romantic, who enjoys sex more —the affair is almost always more equitable than the marriage.
Usually, the person was giving more. They gave more time, more attention, more compliments in the affair than in the marriage. If they can come back and invest in the marriage what they were doing in the affair, then they’ll feel more. There’s research showing that people are more satisfied in equitable relationships.
Q: You use the metaphor of walls and windows in talking about affairs.
Dr. Glass: There’s almost always a wall of secrecy around the affair; the primary partner doesn’t know what’s going on on the other side of that wall. In the affair, there is often a window into the marriage, like a one-way mirror. To reconstruct the marriage, you have to reverse the walls and windows, put up a wall with the affair partner, and put up a window inside the marriage.
Answering a spouse’s questions about what happened in the affair is a way to reverse the process. It’s a matter of who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside? Sometimes people will open windows but not put up walls. Sometimes they put up walls but don’t open the windows. Unless you do both, you can not rebuild safety and trust in the marriage.
Dr. Shirley Glass, was an internationally known psychotherapist, lecturer, and author was an expert on infidelity research.
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