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?
A: “Your spouse may be tired of talking about it, or maybe they have nothing else to say to you. So you go back to that platonic friendship that you’ve been cultivating at work. There’s initially nothing wrong with that friendship, but when you’re undergoing terrific stress, that friendship can come to mean more than it should.”
Q: I feel like you’re talking about Gov. Sanford.
A: “Well, I think Gov. Sanford’s probably a poster child for this kind of thing.”
Q: Or Sen. Ensign - in his case, the affair was with the wife of a former aide - their families were longtime friends.
A: “As far as friendships go, in the book, ‘Close Calls,’ I have a list of 19 characteristics that over 10 to 12 years … can make these friendships become very intense.”
Q: What kind of advice would you give to Gov. Sanford and others caught in affairs?
A: “I would hope his therapist is helping him medically recover from this affair. A lot of my clients require anti-anxiety, antidepression medication because they can’t sleep … right now. Only the infatuation feels normal. They need help to get out of this. They’re exhausted, they’re confused, they’re not thinking straight.”
“Also, if he’s still staying in electronic contact with [the mistress], he’s not getting sober, and he is not working on his issues, and he is not working on the marriage … . He’s like the alcoholic trying to recover, but he’s still drinking.”
Q. What would you say to Mrs. Sanford or other wives?
A: “If anything she does can be hired [out], she should do it. She needs to let go of that, let a hired hand do it. And then she can do the [adultery recovery] stuff that a hired hand can’t do.”
Q: I’ve heard it takes 21/2 years for a marriage to really recover from adultery. Do you agree?
A: “Definitely. The second anniversary of the end of the affair is the most critical. The first anniversary (like with death or divorce) is very difficult, very sad; you often feel like you’re back at square one with all the grieving and anger. But at the second one, you can start talking about this experience as part of your history, and not feeling all the deep emotion attached to it.”
Q: What about couples who can’t reconcile?
A: “Even if couples divorce, they still have to forgive each other, because they will share the kids. Work through the forgiveness, rebuild some of the respect you’ve both lost for each other and rebuild some of the trust, because you are going to really have to trust each other if you live separately.”
Q: We’ve had a ‘marriage renaissance’ movement now for more than a decade. Are we learning anything?
A: “Yes, the lights are coming on. But 50 percent of the kids (under 30) are adult children of divorce, so they’ve never seen a good marriage up close and personal. They have no idea what they’re trying to build. And with the changing definition of marriage, throw in cohabitation and throw in the fact that these kids are sexually aware years before we were, and the frank language they use (talk about things I would never talk about in mixed audience), it’s a difficult mix.”