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When a Spouse Cheats

Immediate divorce may not be the best reaction when a partner strays, says a bestselling author and psychologist. Sometimes there are important lessons to be learned by trying to work it out.


Throughout her 15-year marriage, Amy told herself what any self-respecting married woman does: If my husband ever cheats on me, I'm out the door.

Then he did. And her decision wasn't so clear.

"I always said that would be my bottom line, but I completely crumbled in this conflict," said the 41-year-old mother of two. (Like all those interviewed for this story who were affected by affairs, Amy asked that her real name not be used.)

She struggled with her warring feelings. Part of her said she would not tolerate it, but then there were the kids and the new house she and her husband had built in Connecticut. Plus, he showed remorse. He promised to stop seeing the other woman and work on the marriage. She gave him another chance.

Such consideration is precisely what Janis Spring--a Yale University clinical psychologist and author of one of the most popular books on infidelity--preaches.

"Couples need to slow down and make sense of their intense feelings. I don't rate my success on how many couples stay together but on how many make thoughtful decisions," said Spring, whose book, "After the Affair" (HarperCollins, 1997), is in its 20th printing.

Spring's approach is sound, if not practiced often enough by marriage counselors, said Arthur Nezu, president of the Assn. for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy in New York.

Too many therapists hurry the process, he said. They are inclined, especially when there are children, to patch up the marriage quickly rather than take the time to really look at the relationship.

"An affair is an indication that the marriage has an important set of problems," he said. "The best approach is for a therapist to try to understand everybody's side and develop a comprehensive assessment."

Although it is difficult to gauge infidelity, some experts estimate that partners stray in one-third of all U.S. marriages.

The overwhelming majority of couples choose to stay together in the wake of an infidelity, although there is a bit of a gender gap. When women discover their husbands have cheated, 83% decide to reconcile; 66% of men decide to stay with wives who've strayed.

Fewer men stay, Spring suspects, because men tend to be less forgiving. When women have affairs, they are more likely to be dissatisfied at home, so the marriage is in greater trouble to begin with. Women who are economically dependent on their husbands are also more inclined to stay, Spring said.

Taking the Time to Think It Through

When Amy first suspected her husband, a 44-year-old financial analyst, was seeing another woman, she confronted him. But "he's a very good liar," she said. So she hired a private detective. "The day I confronted him with the hard evidence, I served him with divorce papers. Then I fell apart."

They talked and came to terms.

"I told him if he even wanted to consider keeping our marriage, he could not see [the other woman] at all, and he could not lie to me. If she called him, I wanted to know about it that day. He needed to keep me in the loop."

In less than three months, he lied again. (Lies do more damage to the relationship than the sex, experts say.) He told her he was working late, but later she discovered a car voucher showing that a driver had picked him up late that night at the other woman's apartment and driven him home. The divorce is now underway.

According to Spring, Amy behaved like many rational people in this situation. When she first learned of the affair, she thought it through and understood that people sometimes hurt the ones they love. She also understood it is possible they can learn and rebuild a relationship. But when she suspected the problem was chronic, she moved on.

"It's not always crazy, weak or needy people who stay," Spring said.

Madhu, 28, comes from an Indian family who opposed her marriage three years ago to an African American man because they wanted her to marry within her culture and Hindu faith.

Cultural differences aside, he'd get pretty low grades as a husband by American standards: She's the primary breadwinner, and he hasn't held a steady job since they met. He is 38. He doesn't have a car, so he uses hers, leaving her to find her own way to work. He's had so many unpaid parking tickets that the car was recently booted. And now Madhu believes he's seeing another woman.

Still, Madhu hopes the marriage can work.

"I want to give him the benefit of the doubt," Madhu said. "In Hinduism, marriage is . . . sacred. Here everyone tells me to divorce him, that divorce happens every day." She conceded that she has no basis on which to trust him. "I believe marriage is a one-time thing. And I still haven't given him the best that I can."

Alan Oda, executive director of the Asian American Christian Counseling Service in Alhambra, said he is not surprised.

"There's a very strong taboo against divorce in Eastern cultures, which puts women whose husbands have affairs in a difficult situation," he said. "As Eastern societies become more westernized, that's changing."

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