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Getting Beyond Betrayal - An interview with Dr Shirley Glass

Hold on to your wedding ring: It is difficult, but not impossible, to repair the damage caused by infidelity. Increasingly, that’s what couples want. But let go of most of your assumptions; 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. G. Boundaries. That it is 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: Infidelity appears to be the topic of the year. What has struck you most about the reaction to what may or may not be some kind of infidelity in high places?

Dr. G. Whatever horror or dismay people have about it, they’re able to separate the way the President is performing in office and the way he appears to be performing in his marriage. That’s especially interesting because it seems to reflect the split in his life. We don’t know for sure, but he apparently is very much involved in his family life. He’s not an absentee father or absentee husband. Whatever it is that they share—and they do share a lot, publicly and privately— he has a compartment in which he is attracted to young women, and it is separate from his primary relationships.

Q: Is this compartmentalizing characteristic of people who get into affairs?

Dr. G. 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 do love the person that they had the affair with. But my research has shown that there are many men who do love their partners, who enjoy good sex at home, who nevertheless never turn down an opportunity for extramarital sex. In fact, 56 percent of the men I sampled who had extramarital intercourse said that their marriages were happy, versus 34 percent of the women. That’s how I got into this.

Q: Because?

Dr. G. Being a woman, I believed that if a man had an affair, it meant that he had a terrible marriage, and 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, 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 had 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. G. 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 was an early casualty was the hydraulic pump theory—that you only have so much energy for something. By this belief, if your partner is getting sex outside, you would 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. That made me question the hydraulic pump theory. Many of our beliefs about the behavior of others come from how we see things for ourselves. A man who usually associates sneaking around with having sex will, if his wife is sneaking around, find it very hard to believe that she could be emotionally involved without being sexually involved. On the other hand, a woman usually can not believe that her husband could be sexually involved and not be emotionally involved. We put the same meaning on it for our partner that it would have for us. I call that the error of assumed similarity.

Q: What research have you done on infidelity?

Dr. G. My first research study was actually based on a sex questionnaire in Psychology Today, in the Seventies. 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: that men in long term marriages who had affairs had very high marital satisfaction—and that women in long-term marriages having affairs had the lowest marital satisfaction of all. Everybody’s marital satisfaction went down the longer they were married, except the men who had affairs. But in early marriages, men who had affairs were significantly less happy. An affair is more serious if it happens earlier in the marriage. 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. G. Sometimes infidelity is just about sex. That is often more true for men. In my research, 44 percent of men who said they had extramarital sex said they had slight or no emotional involvement; only 11 percent of women said that. Oral sex is certainly about sex. Some spouses are more upset if the partner had oral sex with an affaire than if they had intercourse; it just seems so much more intimate.

Q: What is the infidelity?

Dr. G. The infidelity is that you took something that was supposed to be mine, which is sexual or emotional intimacy, and you 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. 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. G. Because you have certain assumptions about your marriage. That I chose someone, and the other person chose me; we have the same values; we have both decided to have an exclusive relationship, even though we may have some problems. We love each other and therefore I am 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.

Q: And it is deeply traumatic.

Dr. G. It’s terrible—unless you cheated on each other during your engagement, or you or your partner came from a family where everybody cheated on everybody, or you come from certain cultures where the women don’t take it that much to heart, because that’s the way men are thought to be. The wounding results because —and I’ve heard this so many times—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. G. 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 that were exchanged, poems and letters that were written, trips you thought were taken for a specific reason 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: when you were going to the drugstore that night and you said your car broke down and you didn’t come home for three hours, what was really happening?

Q: This is necessary?

Dr. G. 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—"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. G. 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 is 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: You mentioned to me that one question people these days are asking you is, is oral sex really infidelity?

Dr. G. The question they ask is, is oral sex really adultery? And that’s a different question, because adultery is a legal term. It is also a Biblical term. I don’t know what the answer is legally. In the Old Testament, adultery was when a man had intercourse with another man’s wife. If the woman was single, it was not adultery even if he was married. Because women were possessions, and you’re not supposed to take something that belongs to somebody else.

Q: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.

Dr. G. Or his ox. The real issue is, is oral sex infidelity? You don’t need to ask a psychologist that question—just ask any spouse: Would you feel that it was an infidelity for your partner to engage in that type of behavior?

Q: Would women answer that differently from men?

Dr. G. It is not necessarily a function of gender. People might answer it differently for themselves than for their partners. Some people maintain a kind of technical virginity, by not having intercourse. That was often true of premarital sexual behavior in more conservative times. However, even kissing in a romantic, passionate way is an infidelity. People know when they cross that line from friendship to affair.

Q: So you don’t have to have intercourse to have an affair? Dr. G. Absolutely. There can be an affair without any kind of touching at all. People have affairs on the Internet.Q: What is the sine qua non of an affair?

Dr. G. Three elements determine whether a relationship is an affair. One is secrecy. Suppose two people meet every morning at seven o’clock for coffee before work, and they never tell their partners. Even though it might be in a public place, their partner is not going to be happy about it. It is 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 are 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 "I had a dream about you last night, but, of course, 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: Another interesting question you told me people now ask is, "Are you a liar if you lie about an affair?" How do you answer that?

Dr. G. Lying goes with the territory. If you’re not lying, you have an open marriage. There may be lies of omission or lies of commission. The lie of omission is, "I had to stop at the gym on my way home." Or, "I had to go to the library." There is the element of truth, but the omission of what was really happening: "I left there after 15 minutes and spent the next 45 minutes at someone’s apartment." The lies of commission are the elaborate deceptions people create. The more deception and the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is to rebuild trust and honesty in the wake of an affair.

Q: The deception makes a tremendous psychological difference to the betrayed spouse. What about to the person who constructed the deception?

Dr. G. Once the affair’s been discovered, the involved partner could have a sense of relief, if they hate lying and don’t see themself as having that kind of moral character. They’ll say, "I can’t understand how I could have done a thing like this, this is not the kind of person I am." Some people thrive on the game. For them, part of the passion and excitement of an affair is the lying and getting away with something forbidden. Often, since childhood, they’ve had a whole history of sneaking around. In the marriage, one partner may be fairly parental and judgmental while the other avoids conflict by not being open about things. The affair is an extension of a preexisting pattern. There are some people who have characterological problems, and the affair may be a symptom of that. Such people lie on their taxes and about their accomplishments; they are fraudulent in business. When it’s characterological, I don’t know any way to rebuild trust; no one can ever be on sure footing with that person.

Q: So there is always moral compromise just by being in an affair.

Dr. G. Which is why some people, no matter how unhappy they are in their marriage, don’t have affairs. They can’t make the compromise. Or they feel they have such an open relationship with the spouse that they just could not do something like that without telling their partner about it.

Q: Do affairs ever serve a positive function—not to excuse any of the damage they do?

Dr. G. Affairs are often a chance for people to try out new behaviors, to dress in a different costume, to 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. G. After an affair, I do not ask the question you would expect. The spouse always wants to know about "him or her". "What did you see in her that you didn’t see in me?" Or, "what did you like about him better?" One man asked, "was it that he had a bigger penis?" I always ask about "you": "What did you like about yourself in that other relationship?" How were you different? And, of the way that you were in that other relationship, 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: That’s a surprising question. How did you come to know that’s the question to ask?

Dr. G. There is an attraction in the affair, and I try to understand what it is. Part of it is the romantic projection: I like the way I look when I see myself in the other person’s eyes. There is positive mirroring. An affair holds up a vanity mirror, the kind with all the little bulbs around it; it gives a nice rosy glow to the way you see yourself. By contrast, the marriage offers a make-up mirror; it magnifies all your wrinkles and pores, every little flaw. When someone loves you despite the fact that they can see all your flaws, that is a reality-based love. In the stories of what happened during the affair, people seem to take on a different persona, and one of the things they liked best about being in that relationship was the person they had become. The man who wasn’t sensitive or expressive is now in a relationship where he is expressing his feelings and is supportive.

Q: Can those things be duplicated in the marriage?

Dr. G. That’s one of the goals, not to turn the betrayed spouse into the affair partner, but to free the unfaithful spouse to express all the parts of himself he was able to experience in the affair. I see a lot of men who are married to very competent women and having affairs with very weak women. They feel: "this person needs me." They put on their red cape and do a lot of rescuing. They feel very good about themselves. That makes me sad, because I know that even though their partner may be extremely competent, she wants to be stroked too. She wants a knight in shining armor. Perhaps she hasn’t known how to ask for it, or the ways she’s asked have pushed him away.

Q: Do people push their partners into affairs?

Dr. G. No. People can create a pattern in the marriage that is not 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. G. 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 will 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 will move toward her and make her feel secure," they think, "What is 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. G. When she withdraws, the marriage is much further down the road to dissolution, 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 is often too little too late.

Q: By then she is often committed to someone on the outside?

Dr. G. Yes, which is why when women have affairs, it’s so much more often a result of long-term marital dissatisfaction.

Q. Can you predict which couples will get involved in affairs?

Dr. G. When we look at predictors, we’re really looking at them retrospectively. For example, we know that people who have had affairs have attitudes that are more endorsing of reasons for affairs—but did that attitude take root before or after the affair? Some research shows that women who have affairs previously talked to other women who had affairs, a way of getting permission. Social context is a predictor. If you’re in an occupational or social group where many people have affairs, and there’s a sexually permissive attitude, you’re more likely. Also if you come from a family where there’s a history of affairs—the most notorious are the Kennedys, where the men have a certain entitlement. Coming from one of the Mediterranean cultures, like the Greek, where the double standard is alive and well, is another predictor.

Q: What you’re saying is that an affair is not always about the marriage. There are often cultural pulls or contextual pulls into affairs. This seems to me very important information for women, because women blame themselves.

Dr. G. And society blames women.

Q: So affairs can happen in good marriages. Is the marriage really good?

Dr. G. Sometimes one person thinks the marriage is fine and the other doesn’t. That may be because the more dissatisfied person hasn’t communicated their dissatisfaction. Or they’ve communicated their dissatisfaction and the partner has discounted it. But after an affair, people often try to justify it by rewriting unhappiness into the marital history. They say. "I never really loved you," or "you never really acted like you loved me." That is just a way to make themselves feel that they didn’t do such a terrible thing.

Q: Why do some people in unhappy marriages have affairs and others do not?

Dr. G. Number one is opportunity. Number two is values. Some people do not think an affair is justified for any reason. Others think it’s okay if you’re not getting it at home, or if you "fall in love" with another person. Most surveys of attitudes simply ask people whether they approve of extramarital sex. Fully 85 to 90 percent of people say no. But asking more specific questions—such as, do you think it’s okay to have an affair for sexual excitement, or to get understanding or affection—greatly discriminates conditions under which affairs are justified. These break down according to gender. For women, the highest justification is for love; emotional intimacy is next. Sex is last on their list of justifications. It’s the opposite for men; sex scores the highest.

Q: Is infidelity in a longstanding marriage the same as in one of shorter duration?

Dr. G. It is potentially more threatening to the marriage when it happens earlier, and the chances of the marriage surviving are less, particularly where the woman is having an affair.

Q: Did she choose the