Health Talk: Dealing With Infidelity
Tuesday, March 30, 1999
Peggy Vaughan, author and family consultant, was our guest for "Health Talk," a weekly discussion with Abigail Trafford, The Post's Health editor on Tuesday, March 30 from 2-3 p.m. EST.
Vaughan has written books on love, affairs and shared her personal struggle with infidelity. She and her husband are the creators of a non-profit Center for Life-Design aimed at helping people improve their lives. Sharing their personal battle with infidelity has set them apart from other professionals.
Read the online discussion below.
Hello and welcome. Our subject today is the extramarital affair. Our guest today is Peggy Vaughan co-author with her psychologist husband of six books on affairs. Send us your questions!
Abigail Trafford: Peggy, I'd like to start with a question for you. Why are affairs so common? And how common are they? Will most people have to face this?
Peggy Vaughan: The prevalence of affairs is due to a combination of factors - not just the "shortcomings" and "lacks" that most people think of. The general consensus is that about 60% of men and 40% of women will have an affair at some point in some marriage - but even MORE marriages are affected - perhaps ups to 80%! So, Yes, most people will face this issue in some way - whether it happens to them personally or to someone close to them.
Abigail Trafford: In the past, people didn't talk about affairs. The subject was taboo. Now it seems people are talking about infidelity. Why this openess? Is this good to talk about it?
Peggy Vaughan: Affairs were always seen ONLY as personal failures - so people did not want to talk openly. There is now more realization of the prevalence of affairs - so more people are talking. HOWEVER, the openness is often irresponsible in that it's more EXPOSURE than DISCLOSURE. It's good to talk more openly - but we need a great deal more "responsible honesty" instead of the kind of titillation that we currently see.
Charlottesville, VA: What are the odds on a marraige surviving when one spouse has had an affair which was discovered. I hear that most couples undergo 3 or so years of therapy and then split, wasting a lot of time. I can understand this if there are children involved but seems to be fruitless otherwise.
Peggy Vaughan: Following an affair, more couples actually stay together than get a divorce. But since most of the statistics are based on the results of therapy, we never hear about the many couples who stay married - and simply never tell anyone that they have faced this issue. Also, it's better now to try to make such a life-altering decision too quickly - since the initial emotions make it very difficult to think clearly.
Washington, DC: I've misbehaved badly. What can I do to give confidence to my wronged spouse, in hopes to return, recommit and be truly accepted , after separating and publicly socializing with my "affair" for over a year?
Peggy Vaughan: This is an opportunity to establish a strong connection - but only by doing a few basic things. Since you truly want to recommit and be accepted - here are the first steps: 1) answer all or your spouse's questions, 2) hang in through the inevitable emotional impact, 3) severe all contact with the third party. This is just the beginning - but it demonstrates a commitment that makes all the difference. You can gain respect (from everyone) for taking responsibility for dealing with this in a responsible way.
Greensboro, NC: Hello. Peggy, have you been able to regain the trust in your husband fully since you discovered his affairs? And if so, how long did it take?
Abigail Trafford: It seems to me that this is the hardest thing to do: restore trust. How did you do it?
Peggy Vaughan: Yes, I did regain full trust. In fact, the trust grew stronger after dealing with the affairs than it had been prior to the affairs - because NOW the trust was based on honesty instead of the kind of "blind trust" that just "assumed" he wouldn't have an affair. The trust-building was relatively quick (because of his honesty) - but fully recovering from the emotional impact took about 2 years - and I have never heard of anyone FULLY recovering in less time than that... So patience is important.
Springfield, VA: Of the "combination of factors", how many factors are legitimate and how many are basically rationalizations for what amounts to a lack of integrity, honor, and respect for others and one's committments?
Peggy Vaughan: I would say that about one-third of the factors are the ones you mention. I see it a little like a 3-leggeds stool. The "lacks" are one leg of the stool - the factors that "push" people into affairs. Another leg is made up of those things that "pull" people (like excitement, curiosity, novelty). And the third leg are the societal factors - where we give lip-service to monogamy but actually undermine monogamy in many, many ways.
New York, NY: I had a short affair a year ago and have not told my wife. We have since moved to another state, and our marriage -which of course had some "issues"- is on its way back. We have 2 children. Should I tell?
Abigail Trafford: This is a tough one. What about "What you don't know won't hurt you?"
Peggy Vaughan: There is a strong rationalization that "what you don't know won't hurt you" - but people almost always know "on some level." Keeping a secret like this creates an "emotional distance" that can make a couple vulnerable to all kinds of other problems that could even lead to divorce. This is NOT to say you "always tell" - BUT you always work TOWARD telling - meaning that you continuously increase the degree of honesty between you. Even if you never tell, you will have improved the relationship. So never say never!
Washington: I am 24 and living with my boyfriend of 2 years. We will be getting married after graduate school. Please give us some advice so we don't fall prey to infidelity. What can we do to prevent it? Thank you&-33
Abigail Trafford: Peggy, this is the hardest question. No one starts out a marriage thinking about having an affair. What can people do before all this starts?
Peggy Vaughan: PREVENTING affairs is SO important. There are no "guarantees" or prescriptions to follow. HOWEVER, when a couple first begin being serious (and jealous and possessive) they tend to show they don't want to know if their partner is ever attracted to anyone else. This allows the attractions to grow because the secrecy allows them to be a fantasy (all positive) - when talking openly about how to deal with attractions actually decreases the chances of acting on them. Ongoing Responsible Honesty is the key.
Washington, DC: I have two very close friends. "Abby" and "Liz" are next door neighbors, and "Abby" often babysits for "Liz" and her husband "Don". "Abby" recently told me that she and "Don" have been having an affair for the last 3-4 years. They have been carrying on this affair while "Abby" is supposed to be babysitting and "Don" happens to come home from work early. "Don" keeps telling "Abby" that he plans on leaving "Liz", and that he is no longer in love with her and loves only "Abby". My worry is that their 3 children have been witness to this affair that is going on between "Daddy" and "Aunt Abby". "Liz" recently confided in me that she is expecting their 4th child. My question is; should I tell "Liz" or stay quiet and hope that the kids aren't aware of what's going on? P.S.....Abby is 20, and Don is 34. HELP&-33&-33&-33
Abigail Trafford: This sounds like the start of a t.v. series. What do you say, Peggy?
Peggy Vaughan: Friends and family members have an awesome responsibility when they know about something like this. IN GENERAL, it's important to know whether the person WANTS to know - based on whether they say anything that indicates suspicion. Sometimes (like I was for many years) a person doesn't want to know and have to deal with it. HOWEVER, it's important to tell the person having the affair that you know about it and that you will NOT cover for them in any way. This gives them the opportunity to tell - or at least to stop.
Woodbridge, VA: I'm involved with a married man who I believe is staying with his family because of his young children. ages 6& 7. Eventually won't his children see his love-less marriage?
Abigail Trafford: This has a familiar ring. What prompts a married man to leave his marriage....and what keeps him in the marriage. Is it really so "love-less?"
Peggy Vaughan: "Staying together for the sake of the children" is one of the oldest and most common reasons for staying married. However, it's ALSO one of the most common rationalizations on the part of a married person who wants to continue the affair while having no real intention of leaving the spouse. Marriages are not necessarily "love-less" when an affair happens. Love is not static; it has stages - and the long-term love in marriage is simply different from the first stage of "new" fantasy love of affairs.
falls church, va: I've always heard that once a person cheats on you, he or she will probably do it again. In fact, many people who have had one affair that was discovered are often found to have had others. Do people really change this pattern of behavior, and if so, what is it that finally makes them stop and how can you ever trust that they won't deviate again?
Abigail Trafford: This is the $64,000 question--or 64 billion dollar question. How do you know your spouse won't do it again? Are these patterns deply ingrained?
Peggy Vaughan: Whether or not some has another affair (after being discovered) has very little to do with the fact that they had one initially - and everything to do with how they deal with the discovery of that first one. If they do not take responsibility for the consequences of the first one, they're likely to repeat. But if they answer questions, hang in, severe contact with the third party - and most importantly maintains "ongoing" honest communication about attractions, temptations - then they probabaly won't repeat.
small town ny: My husband had an affair, even after conseling, he kept going back to this woman, so now our divorce will be final soon. My question is: how do you begin to trust again, even new people who come into your life. I was married for 24 years and I trusted this man. My bases for trust has been shaken badily.
Abigail Trafford: Starting over is hard and learning to trust again is key to a new relationship. How do you get strong enough to "leap" again with someone else, after you've been so hurt?
Peggy Vaughan: This illustrates the long-term ramifications of affairs - the difficulty in EVER trusting ANYONE again. Actually, with this knowledge that affairs CAN happen, a person is less likely to have the kind of "blind trust" that makes affairs more likely. They're also more likely to trust their instincts and "know" whether or not a new person is being trustworthy. Personal recovery from affairs is a separate issue from recovering the marriage. But it IS possible to learn from the past and prevent a repeat.
i have a friend across the country whose husband left her for the other woman a little over a year ago. he has been very wishy washy about making any "final" decisions -has moved out, kept his new relationship intact, filed for divorce--only because it was what his attorneys were pushing for, but keeps calling her and telling her how confused he is-. He won't go to counseling, though she is. They have two kids, ages 6 and 9.
Abigail Trafford: Your friends are going through a really hard time--a time that seems crazy. At the risk of sounding self-promotional, I can mention a book I wrote called "Crazy Time: Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life" (HarperCollins, 1994). Breaking up a marriage is a life-changing trauma. Even if the coupld goes back together, the old relationship is gone. Peggy, what's your advice?
Peggy Vaughan: The most help a friend can be in this kind of situation is simply "being there" for the other person. It's very wise not to be too "opinionated" (judgmental or otherwise). Since the person dealing with the situation is the one who has to live with the consequences, it's never wise to give personal "advice." I do recommend Abagail's book, "Crazy Time" because this is a complicated issue, not one that can be easily or quickly addressed.
Hilton Head, SC: What about closure? My husband did not have any sort of closure with the 'other woman' - he just ended contact. How important is having closure? I've thought often about contacting the 'other woman' to put some sort of close - but a lot of time has past and it would be a mute point.
Abigail Trafford: Peggy what about this? And how important is it for the betrayed spouse to have some contact with the "other" man or woman? And what about the lover. What kind of closure does he or she get?
Peggy Vaughan: There's no way to have a nice "closure" where everything is tied up neatly in a bow. Most people find that avoiding any and all contact is the best way to deal with this. The more contact there is, the LESS likely it will bring the kind of closure that is desired. This is NOT "at the expense" of the other man or woman (even though it may "feel" that way). It does them no favor to prolong the final, final break. Part of the consequences of affairs is this general lack of closure. (P.S. I lived in Hilton Head for 9 years.)
Washington, DC: Peggy, my husband has never guilty of infidelity but I insist to him that lying is a form of infidelity - though not physical - and carries the same weight. What do you think?
Abigail Trafford: Can there be nonsexual infidelity? What's going on here?
Peggy Vaughan: Many people define an "affair" as "sexual contact." However, to the spouse any connection with someone outside the marriage is likely to FEEL like an affair. That's because any outside connection that includes a "sexual dynamic, or emotional connection" (that is kept SECRET) is a threat to the marriage. While the initial issue for people in dealing with an affair is the idea of their partner having sex - actually most people recover from the sex before they recover from the fact they were deceived!
San Jose, CA: Why do so many victims of affairs tend to blame the other person instead of their spouse?
Abigail Trafford: Doesn't a betrayed spouse eventually have to "blame" or get angry at the spouse, too. How does this work, Peggy?
Peggy Vaughan: There's a natural tendency to put a lot of the blame (and direct a lot of the anger) at the other person instead of the spouse. This is understandable since this makes it easier to rebuild with the spouse. However, all too often, people get carried away and become obsessed with the other person. There's plenty of "blame" to go around - and determining blame is nowhere near as helpful as gaining more "information, understanding and perspective." (The third party does not deserve so much attention - it's more the "role.")
Washington, D.C.: My spouse and I are having some difficulties and are working through them with counseling. I did, however have an indescretion though It never got to actually having sex with the person. If I told my spouse it would ruin them, so I have decided not to tell them since I believe it would do more harm than good. It's very difficult because I want to tell my spouse what happened, but I truely believe it would be detrimental. What are your feelings on this?
Abigail Trafford: Again, Peggy. Are there times when honesty is not the best policy. Or by keeping secrets, does the path lead to separate lives, and eventually separate lovers?
Peggy Vaughan: No one can make this call for someone else - so I won't say what this particular person "should" do. While people easily see the risk in telling, there's ALSO a risk in "not telling" about something like this. Most people can "sense" when their spouse is keeping some kind of secret - even if they don't know what it is. But it's not just a matter of whether or not to tell; it's also important to determine when, why, and how to tell. As I said before, gradually working "toward" telling is ususally the better approach.
Is there such a thing as "it runs in the family" in reference to philandering. My
Abigail Trafford: You hear this alot. Is there a "philandering gene"--something in a person's makeup? Or is it the way they were brought up. Infidelity was implicitly condoned in the family? And how do you break the pattern if you marry someone like that?
Peggy Vaughan: I love an old saying: "The way you are may be your parents' fault; but if you stay that way, it's your own fault." I do NOT suscribe to the idea that affairs "run in the family." Since affairs are SO prevalent - it exists in MOST families - so to discover that there were affairs in past generations really means very little. In other words, most people who DON'T have affairs ALSO had ancestors who DID. You break the pattern by ongoing honest communication. Most people simply avoid dealing with this issue instead of discussing it in order to prevent it.
Germantown, MD: My marriage is suffering and I am afraid that my husband is going to stray because of it. What can I do to find out if he has already stayed and if not to prevent it from happening?
Abigail Trafford: This is a tough one.
Peggy Vaughan: A common reason ("excuse") for affairs is that the partner didn't "meet my needs." This is ludicrous - in that no one person can meet all of another person's needs all the time. It's easy (after-the-fact) to identify whatever was lacking - and assign a cause-and-effect to why the affair happened. But that is at best only one small part of it. Finding out if a partner has already has an affair depends on first being absolutely sure you REALLY want to know (and are not looking for "false" reassurance) - and then convincing the partner of that.
As a follow up...
Peggy Vaughan: First there are the obvious things (sex-saturated media, using sex to sell everything, glorification of affairs in romance novels, soap operas, etc. - and the general secrecy that protects people having affairs). But there's also a societal factor that virtually everyone contributes to; that is the way we literally "teach/condition" teenagers that sex and deception go hand in hand. Parents do not develop good communication about sexual issues with teens, so teens have sex and pretend to their parents - then later when married and wanting to have affairs, they use the same pattern they learned as a teen. (There's much more in my book, "The Monogamy Myth" available on my website.)
hoboken nj: I don't quite understand why having a close connection with someone outside the marriage is a problem. If you have a really close friend, there are going to be things about that friendship that are not part of your relationship with your spouse. Or am I off base?
Abigail Trafford: Is sex the issue? If you have a friendship but no sex, is it okay? Even if there are sexual undertones and a little flirting? Or is it just a matter of time and opportunity before such a friendship changes into a love affair? What do you think, Peggy?
Peggy Vaughan: A close connection with someone outside the marriage is NOT a problem - IF the basis for the "close connection" is not something that is kept secret from the spouse. We certainly don't want to give up friendships outside marriage, but many people rationalize that there's no "secret" stuff with the outside person - even if there is. So it all depends on being honest First with yourself (about your outside friend) and then being honest with your spouse.
Abigail Trafford: I guess this is the tit for tat approach. But at some point doesn't one spouse "fall in love" and the balance is broken? And talk about separate lives. What do you think?
Peggy Vaughan: The key word is "allowing each other." If any couples genuinely agrees to a "sexually open marriage," that's their business. But most of the time, there's a vague sense that they're "probably" seeing other people - but they simply don't discuss it. It is true that sometimes people "fall in love" even when they don't INTEND to - but that's MORE likely to happen when they're each just "doing their own thing" (without it being a joint plan that they discuss) instead of something they're consciously doing together.
Washington, DC: I have been with my wife for six years now, and I feel a strong desire to have sex with other women. The frequecy with which my wife and I have sex has decreased dramatically in the past year. I sense that she, too, is less interested in sex with me -or in sex at all-. We still love each other very much, and we remain best friends. The lust just seems to be gone. I am 27 years old. Will this pass? Is this common? Any advice?
Abigail Trafford: This sounds like a pretty common situation--and a dangerous one. What do you think?
Peggy Vaughan: Having a "strong desire to have sex withother women" is extremely common. However, it's smart to NOT pursue that desire - but to channel that desire into putting energy into rekindling the sexual relationship within the marriage. Long-term sex IS different from "new" sex with a "new" partner - but the new sex is not necessarily better; it's just different - and it carries SO MUCH BAGGAGE. Whereas "lust" was once enough -now there are other resources to draw on -and believe it or not, being "rock-bottom" honest with each other - about ALL desires, hopes, wishes, fears, etc. can bring a closeness that can do more for your sex life than any sex manual.
Because of the huge interest in this subject, we'll continue taking questions for another 15 or 20 minutes.
Washington, DC: OK, I know I won't get a favorable response from this, but I have to say it anyway. There are many of us who are happily involved in extra-marital relationships, such as myself. I am a single woman involved with a married man...I keep my independence, he enjoys another relationship that is very different from what he has at home. We have intimacy, commitment, and passion, and the situation is working well for us. Relationships are mysterious things that don't obey rules. I would never advocate that people have affairs, but I think some people function best with more than one intimate relationship in their lives.
Abigail Trafford: Peggy. this woman is not alone. But how satisfying can a long term extramarital affair be?
Peggy Vaughan: Yes, there ARE women with this philosophy. This sounds like a description of the book titled "The NEW Other Woman" Unfortunately, even though it may SEEM OK for quite awhile, most of the time things eventually change for the person in this woman's position - and they often wind up getting hurt. And while the married person may feel they have the "best of both worlds" - anytime a big part of your life needs to be kept secret, it takes a toll. Mainly, for the "other woman" like this - it's not usually a SMART thing to do - long-term.
McLean, VA: When you talk about "working towards telling them" can you give more detail? How does one do this, and how does one determine when a spouse might be ready to hear the whole truth?
Peggy Vaughan: There are some important steps to take. First, show by word and deed that you value the spouse which will help their self-esteem and help them not feel they're to "blame" for it happening. Then educate both yourself and your spouse about all the factors involved in affairs - thus helping them "not take it personally." Then make it absolutely clear that you want to develop more honesty in ALL aspects of your relationship. Finally, gauge the reaction to all these steps - and try to assess when the "time is right."
Why are you so big on telling all to one's spouse? Don't you think everyone should retain a degree of autonomy in a marriage?
Abigail Trafford: Why not keep quiet? Are there some circumstances where secrecy is the kinder gesture to a spouse. It's not telling a lie. Just not telling? Or is this the start of the slippery slope?
Peggy Vaughan: Responsible Honesty is more than "not lying." It's not WITHHOLDING relevant information (lying by default). This does NOT, of course, mean telling your spouse every thought that comes to your head - but it DOES mean "not withholding" the important stuff that can have a significant impact on your relatinship. This does not hurt your "responsible autonomy." And, again, the kind of honesty I'm talking about it "responsible honesty" - which has the specific INTENT of brining you closer together. Certainly, you don't "dump" on someone, but failing to reveal significant information in many ways "kills" the vitality of the marriage anyway.
A few years ago I came very close to having an affair with my wife's sister. We were both disilusioned at the time and in need of support. We even fantasized -jokingly but perhaps not so- about taking off period.
Abigail Trafford: A good question. Peggy?
Peggy Vaughan: People almost always "know" on some level. This is a perfect illustration of the point I made earlier about how a failure to deal with something kept secret like this can lead to a deadened, meaningless marriage - even if the secret is never revealed. It may feel like a catch-22 with no good solution - so each person needs to weigh for themselves the potential damage from the alternatives. It's just helpful to acknowledge that there are, in fact, repercussions no matter which way it goes.
Washington, DC: I married my husband after years of being the "other woman". Although he was not married to his live in girlfriend I still see-saw myself as "the other woman". I was instrumental in causing that woman a lot of pain. . .but most of me does not want to take responsiblity for that. Now, after 1 1-2 years of marriage I've discovered that my husband slept with another. . .he says it was only once, he supposedly severed ties but I don't trust him. He was a womanizer when I met him and I just don't think he has it in him to be faithful one woman alone. Do you have any statistics or general knowledge on what I should expect from him?
Abigail Trafford: Is this what the "other woman" must worry about if she marries her lover. That he will do to her what he did to his former spouse? but surely, people can break old patterns. Don't many affairs lead to strong long-lasting marriages? Any statistics on that?
Peggy Vaughan: It's good to keep in mind that statistics are general patterns and there's no way of knowing precisely where a given person will fall in the statistic. However, the odds are against a good long-term relationship in this situation. For instance, there's already an indication of this situation not following the general statistics -in that only 10% of affairs lead to divorce and marrying the affair partner. And of those who do marry, the divorce rate is about 60% (as opposed to the general 50% divorce rate in first marriages).
I married my college sweetheart at 23; we relocated to another state a year later and things began to deteriorate. I fell in love with someone else and had an affair. My now ex-husband knew about the affair -I told him-, but he didn't do anything to stop it. We separated, then divorced. We've now been apart for 2 years, and I've been dating the guy I had the affair with ever since. I read what I've written and I can't believe it's all worked out--but certainly seems to have. My ex and I have a nice friendship, despite everything. The only problem is--I still have this feeling of guilt about what I did...I'm not sure I'll ever forgive myself, and at times I have moments where I wonder if a relationship founded in deceit can work long-term.
Abigail Trafford: How do you shake guilty feelings?
Peggy Vaughan: This "bad guy" (or "bad gal") attitude is common - and wrong. ALL kinds of people from all walks of life have affairs. It's not as simple as "good people don't" and "bad people do." Anyone is vulnerable; no one is immune. While it's healthy to take responsibility for whatever pain is caused from our actions, it's important to overcome the lasting "guilt" feelings with information and perspective. Also, everyone fails at times - and the more important thing is "what do you learn from mistakes" and "how do you use that learning" to be a person YOU can feel proud of in the future.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: Thank you for this discussion. I have been involved with a married man off and on for about 3 years. It was mostly an admiration until last fall, when I decided I needed to end it and move out of the area. He convinced me to stay and that he would make a decision on his marriage soon. That was last July. I still wait, in painful lonliness as he can't seem to make a move. My question is: how often do they leave their marriages for the other woman? Do you have any idea of the statistics? I feel he is just stringing me along, and everytinme I try to break away, he draws me back in. I feel powerless... please help...
Abigail Trafford: We often forget in the triangle that the "other woman" or "other man" is hurting too. What do you advise?
Peggy Vaughan: This is SO TRUE -that everyone suffers. While we easily see that the spouse of a person having affairs is in pain -this kind of pain from the third party is extremely common. They also have no "power." In fact, many spouses and third parties have come to recognize that they are somewhat like two sides of the same coin - leaving the married person having the affair to avoid much of the pain they experience. Simply facing the fact that it's not smart to hang in and suffer is the first step toward finding the strength to leave.
NY,NY: Is it easier for the relationship to continue if unfaithful partner had very little emotional commitment in the affair and viewed the affair as a way of hiding alot of emotional baggage -i.e. previous abuse, narcissism,fears etc- or does it make no difference?
Abigail Trafford: Is it possible to have an affair of several years duration and have very little emotional commitment in the affair? How is infidelity a way for a spouse to work out "emotional baggage?"
Peggy Vaughan: I don't personally subscribe to the explanation of affairs as a way of dealing with emotional baggage. Any ONE SPECIFIC explanation is far too simplistic - and is almost inevitably wrong. So while it may be helpful to recognize these factors, it would be shortsighted to see this as "ther reason." It's one of the many, many excuses/rationalizations to try to defend/justify an affair. So in the final analysis, it doesn't make a lot of difference..
Peggy Vaughan: People love to debate whether or not we're "naturally monogamous." Actually, it's an irrelevant question - because no one has ever lived outside a society to see how we would "normally" be. The REAL question is not whether or not it's natural - or whether we may WANT to have multiple partners. We don't DO everything we WANT to do. As human beings, we can make decisions about what we do. So no matter why people may WANT to have affairs - they don't ACT on that desire - unless they're willing to DECEIVE THEIR PARTNERS. Without the deception, people would not have many affairs (regardless of their desires) - because most people can't handle a sexually open marriage. So the issue (again) is HONESTY - not whether or not we're naturally monogamous.
Thank you all for your thoughts and questions, and thank you Peggy for giving such spendid advice. We've barely scratched the surface on the psychology of male-female relationships. I hope we can revisit the subject again. Next week, we'll be talking about sports injuries. It's the start of the baseball season and everyone wants to throw a good pitch. Healthfully! Join us next Tuesday!
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