- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

Adultery has been hitting Page One every other day.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s dalliance with a prostitute is followed by the admission by his successor, Gov. David Paterson, of multiple affairs he claims were provoked by his wife’s infidelity. This week Detroit’s mayor was charged with using millions of city funds to buy off police officers who threatened to expose his affair with his chief of staff.

Just how common is adultery? How often does it destroy marriage?

Most couples are faithful. A study by E.O. Laumann and others reports that 10 percent of both men and women have had an affair by their 10th anniversary. By the 30th anniversary, 30 percent of men and 20 percent of women confessed to adultery. It is not as common as Hollywood’s “Desperate Housewives” suggests.

However, many affairs do not threaten a marriage because they are kept secret. In only 12 percent of marriages, do spouses learn their partner cheated on them, according to a 20-year study of 2,000 married people by Pennsylvania State University’s Paul Amato. He acknowledges this estimate is low, because some people don’t want to talk with researchers about it. And others divorced soon after the affair and could not be interviewed.

What happens when adultery is discovered? “There are two bad outcomes,” Mr. Amato reports. Three years later, 24 percent of couples have divorced. Another 42 percent remain married but are unhappy. Only 34 percent have rebuilt trust enough to say they are “very happy.”

The Sexual Revolution has changed public attitudes about premarital sex. Almost no one thinks it is wrong, though Scripture is certainly clear. “Flee fornication,” St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. Chastity is not a subject of many sermons.

However, attitudes about adultery have not changed over 50 years, Mr. Amato reports. Nine-tenths believe it is wrong. Even sociologists are convinced sexual fidelity is the central characteristic of a good marriage. “Marriage implies obligations and responsibilities, the core obligation of which is to be sexually and emotionally faithful,” observes Mr. Amato.

The Internet is increasing the likelihood of affairs. One study reports 57 percent have flirted over the Internet, 38 percent engaged in explicit online sexual conversation, and 31 percent had sex with someone they “met” on their computer. Stephen Judah reports in his book, “Staying Together,” that infidelity was a primary or contributing factor in a third of divorces. That is double a 1989 Gallup Poll in which only 17 percent of the divorced blamed adultery.

How can a marriage be restored after adultery?

Mr. Judah’s book, “Staying Together: When an Affair Pulls You Apart,” outlines several steps. First, the adulterer needs to examine his/her own failures in the marriage, the dysfunctions and dissatisfactions in the marriage that led to the affair:

“If my wife does not give me enough attention, or approval, respect, sex or if there is some basic difference, instead of being the person I want to be — honest and faithful — I can become dependent on the other and react to what I am not getting” by cheating, Mr. Judah says.

The offending spouse will experience a mixture of excitement and shame. However, if wholeness is to be restored, “revelation of the affair becomes the first order of business.” The alternative is that the offended spouse will discover it. That exacerbates the offense. The sin’s trail is easy to spot: unfamiliar but repeated “recent calls” on a cell phone, suspicious credit card charges, odd behavior during phone calls, reports from friends of suspicious behavior. By contrast, being honest about the infidelity earns respect and builds a bridge back.

Mr. Judah, a therapist, recommends the revelation occur in a counseling session, which decreases the inherent volatility. What must be revealed is what happened in general terms — who, when, where, current status, and who else knows.

Next, both spouses need to learn communication skills — most important, how to be an empowering listener. After the offender tells the story, he or she must paraphrase their spouse’s expressed outrage, to empower the offended spouse and build hope. A letter must be written to the third party terminating the relationship.

Finally, Mr. Judah believes both spouses must choose to define character traits they want to develop. Do they want to be known for honesty, fidelity, being a promise keeper or for dishonesty, unfaithfulness and as a promise breaker? We all are a mixture of good and evil, but we can choose a higher path, which can attract back one’s spouse.

Results? Mr. Judah has helped 87 percent of his couples stay together.

Michael J. McManus writes the syndicated column “Ethics & Religion,” and is president and co-founder of Marriage Savers.

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