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    Infidelity in the Family

    Emily Brown
    With the president's admission of an "inappropriate relationship" with Monica Lewinsky, the media has focused a great deal of attention on how the first family is handling the infidelity of a family member. Why do people cheat? What makes some people stay with an unfaithful spouse? How can the family heal?

    Licensed Social Worker Emily Brown, answered questions Tuesday, Sept. 1 at 1 p.m. EDT

    Brown is the director of the Key Bridge Therapy and Mediation Center in Arlington, Va. and the author of the book, Patterns of Infidelity and Their Treatment.

    Read the discussion below.

    Huntington Beach, Calif.: Why does Hillary Clinton continue to put up with a husband that is a chronic liar and chronically unfaithful. Does she have no principles or backbone when it come to her marriage?

    Emily Brown: Marriages aren't all good or bad. I'm sure Hillary has many reasons for staying with Bill - personal and professional. They have a lot of work ahead of them in resolving this crisis. After they are beyond the crisis, Hillary can make a decision about whether to stay in the marriage based on how well the problems are resolved. It's almost always best not to make major decisions when you're in crisis.

    Arlington, Va.: Is it true that all men cheat at one point in their lives? Do women cheat just as much when no children are involved?

    Emily Brown: Not all men cheat, but many do - some estimates are that 55% of men cheat at some point. The same studies say that 45% of women cheat. Another study says that at younger ages, more women than men cheat. Children don't seem to make that much difference.

    Alexandria, Va.: What drives men to be unfaithful? What are the best ways to prevent infidelity in a marriage? What are the signs that a woman can recognize before she confronts her husband?

    Emily Brown: Men and women are unfaithful because of their own emotional "unfinished business." For example, some couples are so "nice," that they never discuss their differences, and their anger goes underground and one or the other has an affair. Other reasons include a fear of intimacy, a childhood that was so damaging that the person uses sex to numb the pain (much like alcohol), a person who has always denied himself his needs or emotions, or as an excuse to leave the marriage.
    Signs include sudden changes, a feeling that something is going on but you can't put your hands on anything, lots of hang-up calls, etc.

    Washington, D.C.: If infidelity led to the breakup of a marriage, should this information be shared with the children in response to their questions?

    Emily Brown: Yes, the children need some sort of explanation. Little kids don't know what an affair is - they might be told that Mom is spending so much time with Mr. X that Dad is upset. After about age 9 or 10, sometimes earlier, kids know what an affair is. They need honest information, ideally from both parents together, that gives just the basic fact of the affair, and lets the kids know the parents are working on their problems. Kids should not be used as confidantes about one parent's affair or to take sides against the parent having the affair, no matter how furious the betrayed parent is.

    Boston, Mass.: Is there a significant difference between having an affair and having a one night stand?

    Emily Brown: Not really. For the spouse it is a betrayal of the marital vows.

    Rockville, Md.: Is it better to confess an affair and ask forgiveness or be quiet about it if there is little chance your spouse will find out?

    Emily Brown: If you want the marriage, it's better to confess, and then get some professional help for the two of you to resolve the issues that led to the affair. You would be amazed how many secret affairs come to light in unexpected ways. Most spouses feel that the secrecy and lying is more destructive of the marriage than the sex.

    Washington, D.C.: Do you think it is possible to get on with a marriage with one of the partners holding a secret as big as cheating?

    Emily Brown: No, you can't really work on a marriage with one person holding this big secret. When you hold a secret, the process of hiding it also means that you have to start keeping other things secret, so eventually there's this black hole of stuff you can't talk about.
    Also, don't work on your marriage with a therapist who is willing for you to keep an affair a secret.

    Shelbyville, Tenn.: How much harder is it for a couple or a family to heal when the relationship is being scrutinized by the public? Is it anyone else's business but the couple's?

    Emily Brown: It's got to be much harder to heal. The betrayed spouse feels so hurt and humiliated - then has to face the public either pretending he or she is ok or exposing the pain, which then makes them even more vulnerable. Couples need privacy, not the advice of outsiders, even loving friends and relatives. If they need help, and they usually do, they should get professional help. Other than that, it is not anyone else's business. We need to remember too that no one is perfect.

    Washington, D.C.: Just a few years ago some surveys indicated that extramarital affairs were pretty common. Now surveys seem to indicate almost nobody would think of such a thing. Do people really tell the truth about this subject when surveyed? How common do you think it is? Is it the worst thing that can happen in a marriage? What about the rest of the wedding vows, are they very important, or can they all be violated except this one?

    Emily Brown: Some of the problem is with the research design. When you're told that you may be interviewed again later, you're going to be less likely to admit an affair, for fear your spouse will learn of it, than if the survey is a one-time truly anonymous contact. From what I see, there has been no reduction in the number of affairs. Putting together some studies, probably 70% of marriages experience on affair on the part of one or the other spouse.
    This is not the worst thing that can happen in a marriage - most people, especially those being left, feel that divorce is even worse. Also the death of a beloved spouse or of a child is worse. Many affairs mark a turning point in the marriage - with work the marriage becomes much better.

    Arlington, Va.: What can marriage partners do to prevent the other from having an affair?

    Emily Brown: Communication about what you're feeling is even more important in a marriage than communication about what you're thinking. Couples need to be honest, volunteer their emotions even when they feel vulnerable doing so, be realistic in their expectations, do things together they enjoy, put the emphasis on the positive rather than the negative - that is stay away from criticism and instead say how something feels to you. One study shows that for every negative remark by a spouse, it takes 6 positive remarks to make up for it.

    Hightstown, N.J.: How do couples heal from this traumatic experience?
    How can the cheated-on spouse keep their confidence?
    How can the loyal spouse regain their sense of sexuality and not feel they are being compared to others?

    Emily Brown: Couples heal by starting to talk straight with each other about their emotional selves. A great many couples have hidden their deepest emotions, feeling that they're not important enough, or that the other person will be upset. The tasks of rebuilding your marriage are honesty, giving yourself a voice, being vulnerable with your spouse, making your expectations realistic, taking responsibility for your own actions. Forgiveness is last.
    In my experience, even though only one spouse chose to have the affair, both spouses have let their marriage get into disrepair. They need to assess early on where their problems are and get to work on them.

    Arlington, Va.: What if the one-time stand was with someone of the same sex? Do you think this is something that any spouse could deal with? What if you want to make the marriage work?

    Emily Brown: A one-night stand with someone of the same sex is something the couple needs to talk about. What did it mean? What does it mean for the future? Again, professional help may be needed to help both spouses sort out what this means for gender identity and for the marriage.

    Nicole Hider: We are roughly half-way through this live online discussion with Emily Brown, director of the Key Bridge Therapy and Mediation Center.

    Send your questions by clicking on the Submit Question hyperlink.

    Bel Air, Md.: Do you coach people to do "mental" exercises to help people through their brief obsessions of lust? If so, what are some examples?

    Emily Brown: I'm not sure mental exercises work. I think that when someone is tempted to have an affair, it's important to recognize that this is a sign there's an emotional problem that goes deeper than just the affair. Getting to what's going on underneath is the best way to resist an affair. Affairs are often an escape from facing a problem.

    SmallTown, Ill.: My wife and I have just had a huge fight. She has been having cyber-sex, and now moved on to phone sex, with a mutual friend from a chat room.
    Another guy there is telling her that he loves her, and wants to meet her. She is not sure if she loves him or not. She tells me that she enjoys spending time with them, more than with me in person.

    She does not see that this is a problem. It hurts me terribly, and I have told her so. She doesn't mind, and continues. She tells me that it is my fault, since she has not actually met them in person, only on line. And that I'm overreacting.
    My position is that she purposely betrayed me, betrayed my trust and hurt me deeply.
    Am I wrong for feeling this way?
    Is this infidelity when you have strong personal feelings and a sexual encounter of a sort.

    Emily Brown: I'd be surprised if you weren't tremendously hurt. Cybersex is getting to be more of a problem. It's easy to be romantic when you don't really know the person, and can fantasize them as you want to see them. Also, there's none of the dailiness of life in these cybersex affairs, that there is in real life, so they provide an escape from reality. Often cybersex becomes an addiction. Sounds like the two of you need to get some help together.

    Ellicott City, Md.: What percentage of marriages "survive" after an affair and how long, on the average, does it take for the marriage to "heal"?

    Emily Brown: I don't know of any studies that provides survival rates. However the type of affair has a lot to do with it. In my experience, those nice couples who avoid conflict, have the highest survival rate, provided they change their patterns of relating to each other. Those who are scared of intimacy are next. Sexual addicts and their spouses may stay together, but they are the least willing to seek help, so survival may not be a positive thing. Couples with long-term affairs that run parallel to the marriage may or may not stay together - the longer the marriage, the harder to change behavior. Often both the marriage and the affair continue. Those who are using the affair to leave the marriage, generally do so.
    It usually takes at least a year to resolve the issues underneath the affair, and often longer.

    Huntington Beach, Ca.: What is it about the W. J. Clinton sex life that causes the president to set aside his marriage vows and seek extramarital sex?

    Emily Brown: Bill Clinton's affairs probably have little to do with his sex life and more to do with emotional wounds from childhood.

    Arlington, Va.: Why do some people stay with a cheating partner?

    Emily Brown: People stay because they still care for the person, they can't afford financially to leave, they hope for change, they are both committed to working on and changing their relationship, they fear being alone, and various other reasons.

    Albany, N.Y.: Would you consider the viewing of pornography the same as infidelity?

    Emily Brown: It's not the same as infidelity, but it can be a form of sexual addiction.

    Columbus, Ohio: What is it we are looking for when we are unfaithful in a relationship?

    Emily Brown: An easy solution to our pain, whether it's pain we carry inside from childhood, or current pain.

    Washington, D.C.: Statistically, can you say what are the chances for a relationship succeeding that began as an emotional affair two years before the resulting divorce occurs?
    My spouse and I are finishing our divorce this fall, which in large part was triggered by her meeting someone else (her words), in response to both of us doing our share to create an unhappy marriage. We have already taken early steps of discussing forgiveness of each other, but just in the context of being friends after our divorce. We were told in joint therapy that our marriage is repairable, but anger, hurt and the third party seem to propel her into completing a divorce and moving on.
    Though I realize each situation is unique, my question really is whether there's any hope down the road to reconstruct our family, given trends and your experience?

    P.S. From hearing you on the radio discuss categories of affairs, I would say this affair was either done as a way to exit the marriage or as the other category of not dealing with major "adult child" issues that were never addressed. These issues appear to have come out during post-partum depression two years ago.

    Emily Brown: Marriages that began as an affair are risky. Those involved have no down time to deal with their individual issues that led to the first divorce. Also, because the relationship began as an affair, there are issues of trust - both know that the other is capable of cheating.
    However there are some very good marriages that began as affairs. These couples have done a lot of work on themselves and on the marriage to make sure that they don't fall into their old patterns.
    Unless your spouse is willing to work with you on rebuilding the marriage, there really isn't any hope. Hopefully you will be able to work out a friendship, but take time in doing so, so that you both understand what went wrong between the two of you. Only then will you be ready for forgiveness.

    Salisbury, Md.: My friend's marriage (really) is breaking up -- he moved out and, occasionally, in with someone else. She's moving on and seems to be coping, but the kids are still too angry even to spend much time with him. She overheard one child explain to another that it will never be the same again. How hard should she push the kids to try to accept him again? Of course he blames her for their attitude.

    Emily Brown: It's going to be up to your friend to establish a good relationship with his kids. Trying to convince the kids won't work. Kids judge, based on behavior. If your friend calls regularly, sees the kids regularly, demonstrates caring, and acknowledges their anger at him it should help.

    Washington, D.C.: What is sexual addiction? I thought one needed a drug to be addicted? Is sexual addiction obsessive or compulsive behavior?

    Emily Brown: Addiction is compulsive behavior that is engaged in (usually unconsciously) to numb inner pain and to fill up inner emptiness. There are all sorts of addictions: alcohol, drugs, work, sex, etc. The addictive behavior gives short-term relief only. That's why the person keeps engaging in the addictive behavior. Often there is more than one addiction.

    Arlington, Va.: I have had same sex encounters. Because of a recent argument with my wife, I am sure she would not understand this behavior and she and the kids would leave me. I want to change my behavior and keep the marriage going. How do I do this?

    Emily Brown: Honesty is going to help you the most. Tell her very simply, and let her know you want the marriage and you are going to work on changing your behavior. You might get some help to think through how best to tell her, and you'll definitely want some help for the two of you once you do tell her.

    Arlington, Va.: I'm in a relationship with a co-worker who I care a lot for, but also love my spouse. It is hard for me to end the relationship with my co-worker. I know the answer, but it's not as easy as saying. I've been with her for a year.

    Emily Brown: I would guess that your affair is what I call a Split Self Affair. The rational part of you tries to do things right, do family right, etc. The emotional part of you was neglected or suppressed in childhood, and the affair taps into your unaddressed emotional self, and seems irresistable. If you haven't told your spouse, consider doing so. Also, consider some individual therapy to sort through your inner conflict between your rational, responsible self and your emotional self.

    Plano, Texas: Is the increase of infidelity a reflection of the decline in the ability of priests and ministers to console their congregation? OR, is it due to a general lack of responsibility by people who should be role models?

    Emily Brown: I'm not sure there's that big an increase. We have always had affairs - even the Bible includes affairs. Affairs are symptomatic of emotional problems, and it's those that need to be addressed.

    Nicole Hider: We're out of time now so let's bring this online chat to a close with Emily Brown, director of the Key Bridge Therapy and Mediation Center in Arlington, Va. The center can be found on the Web at

    Thanks to all for participating.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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