The recent scandals of Sen. John Ensign of Nevada and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, both Republicans, have put adultery back on the front pages. But these affairs look very familiar to Dave Carder, a California pastor and psychologist who has studied adultery prevention and recovery for more than 30 years.
Staff writer Cheryl Wetzstein recently interviewed Mr. Carder about his latest book, “Close Calls: What Adulterers Want You to Know About Protecting Your Marriage,” which he is talking about at this week’s Smart Marriages conference in Orlando, Fla.
Q: What are some basic things people should know about adultery?
A: “It’s built around three concepts. One is that there are a certain cluster of risk factors - certain seasons of life, certain ages, certain life experiences, certain marital stages, personal histories you bring to the marriage - that can set you up for an affair. That doesn’t mean you are going to do it, but like in the disease model, there are risk factors.”
Q: What’s the second concept around adultery?
A: “That there are three sources, apparently, for the kinds of relationships that lead to what I call ‘surprise adultery.’
“The first is a platonic-friendship structure that develops over the years [and suddenly becomes sexual]. Secondly, there is a person whose profile or template or structure is especially [attractive and therefore] dangerous to me. That’s the ‘dangerous partner’ profile.
“Third, there’s a new phenomenon - the idea that you can locate and recapture old romances, old flames, old boyfriends and girlfriends from adolescence (through Classmates.com, Facebook, etc.).”
Q: So you’re saying adulterous relationships seem to occur with people who are either a longtime platonic friend, a new ‘dangerous partner’ or an ‘old flame’?
A: Right. “And in the latter case, you don’t have to wait until infatuation surfaces. The infatuation is already stored in your brain. So if you get back in touch with a person like that - a person you dated, that you kissed, maybe a first-love experience - some 10, 15 years later … Well, the saying in my field is, ‘Thirty days of regular contact with an old girlfriend/old boyfriend and you create an infatuation explosion. And in 30 more days, you will find a way to be with each other.’ So it’s 60 days from the start, because infatuation is a mood-altering experience. It’s a huge drug of choice and will sweep you off your feet.”
Q: What is the third concept in how extramarital affairs happen?
A: “In adultery recovery, you try to identify a date when you [and the other person] shared with each other strong feelings for each other. Most [adulterous] couples can do that pretty clearly - they remember ‘that day,’ or ‘that e-mail,’ ‘that circumstance.’
“Once you identify that date, you go back two years and look for unusual and sustained stress. Stress always generates ‘surprise adultery.’ Stress would be like legal issues, financial issues, loss of career, job changes due to downsizing, major health changes, relationship issues, maybe the birth of a child with a chronic illness. It’s something that’s strong, powerful, that you have no experience dealing with, and it’s been sustained for a period of years.
“And as many of those stresses as you can find in that two-year period, the more you realize that the ‘surprise affair’ was really [an attempt] to heal yourself or distract yourself, to make yourself feel better.”
Q: If you have a spouse to talk to, why would stress open the door to an affair?