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The roots of temptation

Times Staff Writer

A simple plea for reassurance -- You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? -- is about all the discussion many couples can manage on the topic of marital infidelity. It’s rarely a genuine request: Everyone knows it could happen, but very few of us would really want to know that it did. The topic of infidelity is off limits for most couples.

That’s one reason social scientists have left the study of hidden love largely to novelists and poets. “Although we can describe sexual desire, we don’t know how to measure it scientifically,” said Dr. Stephen B. Levine, a psychiatrist at Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine and co-editor of the Handbook of Clinical Sexuality, a guide to help doctors address sexual concerns.

For many years, most of what scientists knew about infidelity came from marital therapists’ interviews with clients or from psychologists who asked men and women to answer questions about hypothetical affairs. In the last few years, however, researchers have finally begun to conduct larger, more rigorous surveys, asking about real experiences. The evidence has contributed to an emerging body of thinking about who cheats, when and why.

Contrary to one commonly held view, many people who report being in happy marriages commit adultery. Their yearning for variety warps their judgment, even when they fully appreciate the risks of infidelity. For when an affair is revealed, clinicians report, the impact on the marriage is usually catastrophic.

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“Those who assume that only bad people in bad marriages cheat can blind themselves to their own risk,” said Beth Allen, a researcher at the University of Denver who, with colleagues David Atkins, of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, and the late Shirley Glass, a Baltimore family psychologist, recently completed an extensive review of infidelity research. “They’re unprepared for the risky times in their own lives, the dangerous situations when, if they aren’t careful, they’ll suddenly be very tempted,” Allen said.

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Taking a closer look

The prevalence of infidelity is coming into sharper focus. Several recent surveys suggest that the majority of people do not cheat, either because they cannot bear the thought of betrayal, cannot drum up the interest or perhaps have already known the profound pain of losing an important relationship. Yet the studies find that more than one in five Americans do have an affair, at least once in their lives, and that women are now about as likely as men to cross the line.

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The first few years of marriage are clearly a red zone, new research shows. An analysis conducted in 2000 by sociologists in New York found two distinct patterns in the timing of affairs. A married woman’s likelihood of straying is highest in the first five years, and falls off gradually with time, according to the survey of 3,432 U.S. adults. Men have two high-risk phases, one during the first five years of marriage and again, after the 20th year.

The psychological underpinnings of early affairs often are tied up with the vows themselves, some experts believe. As well-intentioned as they can be, vows are still open-ended pledges -- of unknown cost, of blind sacrifice. Very often, their gravity doesn’t sink in right away; and young married men and women often have a lingering appetite for the flirtation and sexually charged attention that was the lifeblood of their single lives, marital therapists say.

Newlyweds’ expectations of wedded bliss can set them up for profound disappointment, after the florists and caterers are gone and the reality of living with a spouse becomes clear. And if there are no children on the way, to deepen and broaden the character of the bond, the yearning for variety and attention outside the marriage often still runs very high, psychologists find.

“One reason for starting an affair, especially for young couples, is rebelliousness against the vows, against the very idea that ‘I’m never ever going to make love to another person,’ ” said Joel Block, a clinical psychologist in New York and author of “Naked Intimacy” (McGraw Hill, 2003).

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Even when people welcome the sacrifice, and honor vows without reservation, the promises can lend a false sense of security. The commitment is firm, but the imagination may lag behind. In one recent study, University of Vermont psychologists surveyed 180 couples who were either married or living with a partner. Fully 98% of males and 80% of females reported having a sexual fantasy about someone other than their partner, at least once in the previous two months. The longer couples were together, the more likely both partners were to report having fantasies; but the imagined flings were still very common in young married couples, who often assumed that they should be immune.

In short, almost everyone is doing it -- at least in their heads.

And usually they can’t talk about it, especially with the person closest to them. This creates one of the universal paradoxes of romantic desire, a tension between public faithfulness and private longing for another, a secret life of the imagination.

Some married people can live with this paradox and understand it as an entirely internal drama that in no way presages a real affair or reflects any need to stray. Yet even long-married people who are acutely aware of this double life and can joke with themselves about it aren’t always able to resolve their tension. In a psychological sense, free-floating desire has provided the brain with an idea of infidelity, complete with expectations, curiosities and what-ifs. The frequency and vividness of these thoughts may themselves lead a man or woman to believe their love for a partner is fading, Levine said.

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Then something happens. A blowout argument. A promotion. A school reunion, the loss of a job, an e-mail from an old boyfriend. Some triumph or loss that opens a door through which a person is now primed to walk. The delights of an affair have already been richly imagined. The consequences are now minimized: “Many couples survive affairs; stop depriving yourself; it’s an experience, part of the richness of life,” a person might tell herself or himself.

“Whatever the final provocation,” Levine said, “the person decides -- actively makes a choice to participate at every step along the way.”

The evidence that this kind of logic can lead people astray from apparently satisfying, long-lived, stable relationships is circumstantial but compelling. In one recent analysis, researchers at UC Irvine found that people who claimed their marriage was “very happy” were two times as likely to cheat on their spouses as those who said their marriage was “extremely happy.”

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What drives them?

The given reasons for these affairs range widely. In research for a book, Diane Shader Smith, a Los Angeles writer, has conducted in-depth interviews with more than 175 married women who have had or were currently involved in an affair. There were “revenge” flings: One woman had a brief affair after she found out that her (now former) husband had cheated on her. There were “motivational” flings: An L.A. doctor’s wife has had affairs whenever she needs some impetus to lose weight. And certainly love can come into play: One middle-aged woman living out in the country had a 10-year affair with her neighbor’s husband.

“One thing many had in common was chemistry,” Smith said. “They all described that, the chemistry with another man, the casual brush against the arm, that orgasm-on-the-spot feeling,” she said. Most of the women interviewed were unapologetic, Smith said; many had kept their secret, and preferred to stay in their marriage, risks and all. In previous surveys, men have expressed similar motives, although primarily focused on the thrill of sensual pleasure.

Psychologists may never know the true impact of infidelity on marriage. Most couples do not seek therapy, whether an affair is suspected or revealed. Among couples who do pursue counseling, however, there’s little doubt: Infidelity hits like Hurricane Isabel.

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In one recent study of 62 Israeli couples seeing therapists to help cope with their affairs, a third eventually divorced; about half limped along in still-troubled marriages, according to researchers at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem. Only nine of the couples, or 14%, seemed to bounce back and show signs of real growth and optimism in their marriage, the psychologists reported.

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Traveling a rocky road

Several recent studies have tracked how men and women react when a partner’s affair is revealed. The pattern is familiar: emotional chaos, which can last for months; then reflection and self-questioning, which can go on even longer; and finally, a decision whether to forgive, if not forget.

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In one ongoing study, researchers at UCLA and the University of Washington in Seattle have been tracking 134 couples in marriages deemed “very troubled” as they attend weekly therapy sessions. Those couples whose relationships were most damaged, by psychological measures, tended to be the same ones who were reeling from affairs, said Atkins, of the Fuller Theological Seminary. Yet after six months of therapy, these 19 couples had made greater gains in repairing their relationships than the others. In part, that’s because they started at the bottom, he said. But there also appeared to be something else at work..

“These couples were very unhappy at the start, but they also had shown heroic perseverance in the face of this betrayal,” Atkins said. “In no way do we want to say that infidelity is good. But it may be that, at least for these couples, the affair gave them one huge major issue to focus on in the therapy.”


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