Again, apologies. We’re slowly getting up to speed with our blog posts. Here’s a new one, in our ripped from the headlines series. This is an interview we did for a writer for what is probably the most respected weekly magazine in the English speaking world. How this interview will be used, we don’t know, of course. But here’s the whole thing.
If you’ve had questions about the issue of infidelity in our society, this will be of great interest to you.
Q: Given that so many couples will experience infidelity at some point, do you think Americans have an unrealistically puritanical view of affairs and relationships?
CHI: I don’t know what you mean by “unrealistically puritanical.” According to the Pew Center, in every country in the world, except France, the great majority of the population (at least 60%) say that married people having an affair is morally unacceptable. France is a major outlier with only 47% disapproving. The disapproval rate for the United States 84%, but 64% of countries are within ten percentage points, plus or minus, of that rate. France aside, since it’s an outlier, only a third of countries have a lower disapproval rate than the US.
What these statistics show is that the rules about marriage put people in a bind. Most people in most countries don’t like the thought of infidelity. And many more people say “I don’t want my spouse to cheat on me” than feel abstract moral disapproval. But while cheating is something we don’t want, cheating is also something we do.
That isn’t puritanism. That’s hypocrisy. But it’s perfectly normal to be hypocritical like this. There are lots are areas of life where we allow ourselves to do things or tolerate things that we disapprove. In fact, is there any area of life where we generally behave better than we think we should behave? I don’t think so.
And yes, marriages everywhere are at serious risk of an episode of infidelity by one or both partners. And most married people are aware of this, and afraid of it. But they also don’t pay much attention to it, and that’s for the simple reason that they have absolutely no idea what to do to prevent it from happening, the way people in Los Angeles pretty much ignore earthquake risk.
Q: Have you noticed a certain prejudice in the mental-health field when it comes to handling infidelity?
CHI: And how! At least in the couples therapy part of the mental-health field. Individual therapists are generally supportive of their patients, and evaluate behaviors only on the basis of whether they are harmful to the patient. But couples therapists too often assume that infidelity is not only terribly destructive but creepy and weasily as well.
Q: What is the most conventional mistake people make in their assumptions about affairs?
CHI: The most common mistake is…well, there are a lot of common mistakes. Here are the top ones, in no particular order:
- · “My partner will never find out.”
- · “My partner will be upset if he/she discovers I’ve been cheating, but will pretty soon get over it.”
- · “Marriages can never recover from an affair.”
- · “Only bad people cheat.”
- · “Being cheated on is something you ‘get over.’”
- · “Only bad marriages are at risk from infidelity.”
- · “If infidelity is discovered, the two people on their own can usually work it out.”
- · “The main thing in dealing with an affair is for the person who’s been cheated on to forgive.”
Q: How gendered is our adulterous behavior? Do men and women behave differently in their affairs?
CHI: Asking if men and women behave differently in affairs is like asking if men and women behave differently if their house catches fire. The answer is No, not in any really important way. Individual differences are much larger than gender differences.
Q: Are you familiar with Esther Perel’s work? If so, do you think her views and approach are helpful to those who are navigating a relationship after an affair?
CHI: I’m familiar with Perel’s writing, but I have no first-hand knowledge of how she works with patients. I would assume that with patients who are contemplating cheating she would work to help prevent an affair. With patients who’ve been affected by an affair, she’d help them save the marriage if it’s reparable. The difference between therapists isn’t so much their position on these points but in how good they are in actually helping people.
Q: It seems opinions are mixed about whether infidelity is traumatic. Do you think it’s accurate or helpful to classify the effect of an affair as a trauma?
CHI: Of course being cheated on is traumatic, if by traumatic you mean the pain lingers for a long time, you are repeatedly prey to emotional fallout, you change the way you behave and those changes linger for a long time, and the damage lasts much longer than you could possibly imagine. At the same time, it must be understood that trauma can heal, and the healing is faster and more complete if people don’t do things to deepen the trauma after the event.
Q: I read an article that mentioned that men are more likely to forgive women who have affairs, often because they are more reliant on them emotionally and socially than women are with men. Does this bear out in the couples you see in your office?
CHI: Male/female differences again! Look, when a couple comes into my office reeling from one of the partner’s infidelity and the other partner’s response to that infidelity, I can count on the fact that the variety in how they respond, compared to other people, will be almost entirely based on individual differences and, to a lesser extent, upon ethnic and cultural difference. Gender differences run a distant third. The individual differences I’m talking about include, among other things, willingness to work on the relationship, ability to understand and empathize with the other’s pain, talent for forgiveness, history of being betrayed, sense of post-marriage options, the strength of connections between the married couple (that is, how good the good stuff was in their marriage before the affair), the connection between the cheater and the person with whom he had the affair, and how much damage they have done to each other in the days and weeks after the affair before they came to see me.
Q: You mentioned that it is possible for people to make the trauma of an affair worse by handing it poorly. How do people deepen the trauma of an affair? What do you recommend against?
CHI: Without professional help, people often create dynamics that deepen and prolong the pain. Here are two examples:
A cheats on B. B turns all her rage on A. A soon tires of this endless punishment, because he “never meant to hurt” B. He is judging himself not by what he did or the outcome of what he did, but by the degree to which he didn’t intend the outcome. This make B feel he is more interested in defending himself than in acknowledging and understanding her pain. So she rages on, feeling even more betrayed and abandoned. Her rage stimulates his rage which prolongs her rage. Soon both are victims of this pattern.
Another example. C cheats on D. D just doesn’t want to deal with it. He shuts down, demands they both act as if everything were OK. But as time goes on, D’s hurt and anger and fear and humiliation fester because there’s been no processing, no healing.
Q: Some argue that these days it is often seen as more dignified to divorce after an affair than to forgive it (just look at how Hillary has been criticized for staying with Bill, for example). How prejudiced are we as a society against those who want to stay with an adulterous partner?
CHI: There have been all kinds of cycles and fads when it comes to infidelity and its aftermath. The people who today say, “If it were me, I wouldn’t put up with him anymore,” had grandparents who said, “You have to stay and work things out or make the best of it.” It’s hard to say one emotional stance is more dignified than the other. It’s just that the highest value today is against someone being a victim or putting up with any behavior that’s humiliating.
This attitude is strong and widespread. I’ve seen many families and friendships torn apart because everyone is mad at or disappointed in someone because they don’t kick the cheater’s sorry ass to the curb. But many, many people want to stay for reasons that are not borne of masochism or helplessness. They may feel there are so many good things in staying married to that person that they’re willing to put up with the bad things.
This is what needs to be emphasized: If you are close to someone who’s been cheated on, shut the hell up about what you think that person ought to do. They desperately need support, someone to help, someone to listen. They don’t need someone to judge or boss them around or make them feel small. Be supportive of that person’s working things out on her own, or get out of the way.
Q: Why do happy couples/good people cheat?
CHI: In our book When Good People Have Affairs, we identify 17 reasons why people cheat, and there are probably more. Good people in a happy relationship might cheat because they fall into the snare of someone who wants to bed them. Or because they are going through a period of vulnerability. Or because there is something missing in their marriage (however good it is) or their life that an affair can seem to supply. Or because of unfinished business from the past. Or because they are working with someone, grow close to that person, develop feeling for them, work late one night…and so slide down a slippery slope into infidelity.
Whatever tips a person over into cheating, that cause may be real, but a cause is very different from an excuse. This is important to understand during the healing phase when the affair is over.