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WETZSTEIN: Sanford affair all too familiar

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's confession about his adulterous relationship has set tongues wagging, with people wondering whether he is mentally unstable or emotionally obtuse. His recent declaration that his Argentine paramour was his "soul mate," but that he would try to reconcile with his wife, just fueled the media firestorm.

To Dave Carder, however, Mr. Sanford's experience is so familiar that the politician could be "a poster child" for adultery.

People assume that adultery is intentional, that husbands or wives start trolling for new lovers when their marriages falter, says Mr. Carder, a California pastor and psychologist who has been studying adultery prevention and recovery since 1977.

But the vast majority of adulterers say they were "blindsided" by their affairs - "they had no idea that this was coming, they were shocked that they did this."

And they are correct - they didn't see it coming, even though their risks for an affair were clearly visible, says Mr. Carder, who has written several books on how affairs happen and what spouses can do to prevent or recover from adultery.

Mr. Carder will be presenting information from his new book, "Close Calls: What Adulterers Want You to Know About Protecting Your Marriage," at the Smart Marriages, Happy Families annual conference, which opens Wednesday in Orlando, Fla.

Modern life offers husbands and wives plenty of opportunities to experience an attraction to someone other than their spouse. "And, in and of themselves," such attractions are not wrong or abnormal, Mr. Carder told me recently. But they can lead the unwary individual "into wrong behavior."

The seeds of what he calls "surprise adultery" lay in certain risk factors, Mr. Carder says. "Certain seasons of life, certain ages, certain life experiences, certain marital stages and certain personal histories you bring to the marriage can set you up" for infidelity.

Another factor is entering a period of life that has severe, sustained, personal stress, such as financial, legal or health problems.

The actual catalyst for an affair often involves one of three kinds of people. One is a platonic friend or co-worker who starts meeting a spouse's intimate emotional needs and suddenly becomes sexually attractive. Or it's a "new friend" who is extraordinarily attractive because he or she fits the spouse's "template" of a perfect partner. Or it's the return of an "old flame" - a classmate, boyfriend, secret love from adolescence - who often is found in an Internet search.

In cases of adultery with an "old flame," the couple doesn't "have to wait until infatuation surfaces," says Mr. Carder. "The infatuation is stored in your brain." He predicts that if a spouse and an "old flame" have regular contact for 30 days, the ensuing "infatuation explosion" will drive them to meet in 30 more days. Infatuation is a "mood-altering experience," not unlike being drunk, he says.

Mr. Carder, who has been married 43 years, is confident married couples can learn how to "put hedges or protections" around their marriages to keep them happy, thriving and affair-resistant. There is also a clear recovery path for adultery; in just 90 days with the right program, spouses can feel "back on track" about themselves and their marital future, says Mr. Carder, who leads the counseling ministries at First Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton in California.

Infidelity is devastating and sometimes destroys a marriage, he says. But if a couple wants to stay together, they often find they end up in a stronger union. What's needed are "time, a safe environment, appropriate nurture, lots of patience and God's grace."

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.