2013-06-13 / Healthy Living

Surviving an affair

Psychiatrist debunks the myth that cheating dooms a marriage

Scott Haltzman, MD Scott Haltzman, MD Infidelity has unsavory associations for most of us. We think of adulterers as self-centered narcissists, raging sex addicts or lying philanderers. But the surprising truth about infidelity is this: Most affairs take place between two otherwise responsible, respectable people who had absolutely no intention of cheating.

Yet, up to 40 percent of marriages are rocked by affairs every year.

And time is no buffer. The chances of cheating go up each year you’re together. Among the 60-and-older crowd, 28 percent of men and 15 percent of women have had at least one indiscretion.

Why do happily married men and women cheat despite knowing the devastation it will leave in its wake? And what happens once the affair is exposed? Can couples re-establish trust after betrayal?

According to psychiatrist and relationship expert Scott Haltzman, author of “The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity,” the answers to the first two questions are complicated. But the response to the last one is clear: Yes, the relationship can survive — and even thrive — once the couple moves from understanding to apology and forgiveness.

In his just-released book, Dr. Haltzman examines why people stray — from the psychology of desire to the neuroscience behind infidelity — and presents a breakthrough medical explanation,

“flame addiction,” for the behavior of the cheating partner (though it doesn’t excuse philandering or poor impulse control). Then he helps couples tackle the “what now?”

Dr. Haltzman has been married for 25 years. He is on staff at the David Lawrence

Center, is a distinguished fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and a former clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Brown University. He is also the author of “The Secrets of Happily Married Men,” “The Secrets of Happily Married Women” and “The Secrets of Happy Families.” Here he shares some of his thoughts about his newest book: Q: Why did you write this book? A: I didn’t set out to write about infidelity. My passion was in discovering the secrets of couples who have healthy, happy marriages. I wanted to learn about how they deal with roles, conflict, sex and companionship. As I gathered more and more information from married men and women, I kept running up against this common event that seemed to affect so many relationships: infidelity.

As I began to learn more about the subject, I realized how lost people feel when they have an affair. I was very lucky to be mentored by some of the world’s experts in infidelity, but was unable to find one consistently good book to refer couples to for help through this life crisis. Around the same time, Johns Hopkins University Press had begun looking for an author to write about infidelity because they also saw the need for such a book.

Q: Who should be reading this book? Is it for the person who has been the victim of infidelity, or for the perpetrator of the affair?

A: The book is for both! I wanted to be able to explain both sides of the story. Generally, people have an appreciation for the emotional toll of someone who has been cheated on, but those who have committed affairs also have deep emotional effects from their own behavior.

Q: No one likes cheaters. Do they really deserve empathy?

A: It’s easy to paint the unfaithful partner as evil or bad, but many people who have affairs are genuinely good people who have done a genuinely bad thing. Rather than being actively on the prowl for a good time, most people who commit adultery do so by a series of small steps. First, intimate conversations increase the sense of comfort between two people. Then, a growing sense of closeness draws the two people together. Eventually, that emotional connection can result in a full-blown affair.

Q: Is there one secret that will help guide couples through an affair?

A: Affairs are all about secrets; people don’t want to reveal that affairs have happened to them. Consequently, any of your neighbors or friends may be involved in infidelity issues at this very moment, but you’d never know because it’s not something people talk about. The main secret is that people can survive infidelity. People believe that if an affair ever happens, the marriage is doomed. But more than half of all couples choose to keep moving forward, after an affair. Remarkable! Couples that don’t give up on each other often can find ways to grow and strengthen their marriage.

Q: What’s the definition of infidelity?

A: Traditionally, researchers have taken a rather narrow view of infidelity: when a married individual has sex with someone other than a spouse. But the definition has broadened in recent years. One example of unfaithfulness is when a married individual has a secretive emotional connection with someone to whom he or she has a sexual attraction. I’ve counseled people whose partners have discovered hundreds of non-work text exchanges between their spouse and co-worker, and yet the offending spouse insists, “Since we’ve never had sex, there was no affair.” In my opinion, these intimate exchanges over a long period of time with someone outside the marriage constitute an emotional affair, which can have devastating effects on the marriage if it is not addressed.

Q: Are there specific things that a couple can do to rebuild a marriage after an affair?

A: The most common question I get when couples come in to my office is, “What should we do?” There are four vital steps:

¦ Stop the affair.

¦ Cut off all communication with the affair mate.

¦ Eliminate all secrets between husband and wife — all e-mails, texts, voicemails and bank accounts should be open to both sets of eyes.

¦ Initiate a “Do ask, do tell” policy. The unfaithful spouse must openly answer all questions posed by his or her partner about the affair.

Affairs are built on lies; the main thrust behind all of these steps is to reestablish trust. It takes time, and sweat and tears, and the commitment to ride through some very difficult times. It’s definitely not for the timid-hearted.

Q: Can couples ever really recover after an affair?

A: Couples can recover when they share in an understanding of what caused the affair, open their communication and know the steps to take to rebuild trust and bounce back. There is hope. ¦

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