Staying in a marriage rocked by straying

Happily married couples who want to stay that way need to know one thing: A lot of happily married people have extramarital affairs.

That's an essential finding of Pikesville psychologist Shirley P. Glass, a leading expert on infidelity. She says affairs usually start like this: A married man or woman strikes up a friendship with a co-worker. It starts out innocently but grows into something more and soon a lot of people are getting hurt.


If more people realized that this can happen to almost anyone, perhaps there would be fewer betrayals and divorces, she says.

"I'm not saying that a bad marriage won't make you vulnerable [to an affair]," she says. "I'm saying that's not the only thing that can make you vulnerable. A lot of people who see themselves as loving and devoted can find themselves in this dilemma."


Glass should know. She's treated hundreds of unfaithful spouses -- not to mention the other two points in their romantic triangles -- and has researched the subject for nearly three decades.

Her conclusions? That many affairs could be prevented if couples understood these risks and that the affairs that do occur can be overcome -- albeit through a sometimes painful but ultimately therapeutic process of talking through what happened.

"It's not the sex, it's the deception that destroys a marriage," says Glass, 67. "How can you trust anyone again who has looked into your eyes and lied to you?"

In her new book, NOT "Just Friends" (The Free Press, $25), Glass outlines her findings and explores the hows and whys of affairs. It's a complex subject. And she thinks it's an evolving behavior -- with more affairs starting with emotional, rather than sexual, relationships.

Studies suggest that 44 percent of husbands and 25 percent of wives have had sexual relations outside marriage, she notes. It's not confined to a "particular class, occupation or age," Glass writes. "Infidelity can occur in any household, not just in situations where partners are promiscuous or rich and powerful. No marriage is immune."

Myths and reality

Glass says she's frustrated by the many myths that are perpetuated about affairs. Among them: that cheating partners usually leave clues, that a person who is having an affair will lose interest in spousal sex, that a straying partner will find fault in his or her spouse.

The reality, she says, is that most affairs are never detected, that married sex will often get better during an outside affair and that unfaithful spouses will sometimes act quite devoted at home (if only to cover their outside behavior).


"The people I see [after an affair] say they wish they could go back five years before it happened," she says. "They didn't think about the consequences. They act like teen-agers, romantically swept away."

The workplace has become the prime launching pad for modern infidelity, according to Glass, with studies showing that 62 percent of straying men and 46 percent of women found their extramarital partners there. She notes that two decades ago, fewer affairs started at work because fewer women were there (particularly women acting as peers) -- a point that has not exactly endeared her to feminists.

"Today's workplace is the most fertile breeding ground for affairs," she writes. "The observed increase in women's infidelity is because more women are in the workplace and more women are in professions that were previously dominated by men."

Fellow therapists say Glass' findings are important because few psychologists have studied the field as exhaustively as Glass, a one-time Bal-timore City school psychologist who began researching infidelity while studying at Catholic University in the 1970s. She found it the ideal topic for a dissertation -- relatively little-studied by academia to that point.

"If you don't get good information about what to do [after an affair], it can be very difficult to put a marriage back together," says Diane Sollee, a longtime Washington, D.C.-based marriage educator and director of "People think if you have a good marriage and you bake cherry pies and do everything right, your marriage will work out. It's just not the way it is."

Pat Love, a fellow therapist and author, says she agrees with Glass that affairs cause marriages to turn bad more often than bad marriages cause affairs.


"If you meet enough people, you'll eventually find someone with whom you have chemistry," says Love, who is based in Austin, Texas. "Having an affair doesn't mean you don't love your partner."

Radical healing

Glass believes the best way to heal a marriage post-affair is to have a full accounting of what happened. The spouse who has been betrayed has a right to know the specifics, she says, down to how they met, what they talked about, where they went and even details of sexual encounters.

Such close examination not only de-romanticizes the infidelity (it can no longer be a private secret), it helps re-establish intimacy in a marriage, Glass says.

It's a controversial approach and can be extraordinarily painful for both partners in the marriage. Studies show that about one-third of marriages don't survive an affair. But if a couple is committed to keeping their union intact and commits to this process, [the marriage] can emerge "stronger than if there'd never been an affair," she says.

Eileen Mager, a Pikesville psychologist and longtime colleague, says failure to explore the "nitty-gritty" of an affair can haunt a relationship.


"More traditional therapists may disagree, but it's really essential for the partner's healing and putting the affair behind," Mager says. "We gauge this based on what the betrayed spouse needs to know. Sometimes, they need to know little. It's a customized thing."

Glass says that despite so many years of dealing with infidelity, she can still empathize with couples who have their marriage torn apart by affairs. Only occasionally, she says, does she meet betrayers so narcissistic that they feel no regret.

"Seeing so many cases, it has made me a bit more cynical, I suppose," she says. "Certainly, I've been deceived by clients, too. My sleaze detector doesn't always go off."

Glass has some first-hand experience with marriage. She and her husband Barry, 70, a retired accountant and business consultant, have been married 47 years. They've raised two daughters, Randi, 46, a San Francisco literary agent, and Karen, 41, an executive for Disney, and a son, Ira, the 44-year-old host and producer of the critically acclaimed This American Life program on public radio.

Glass says it may sound zealous but the best way to insulate a marriage against infidelity is to maintain some boundaries with members of the opposite sex. That means it can be all right to have friendships, but highly personal subjects should be off-limits.

"People very seldom expect it to happen to them," she says. "They don't expect to ever be in that position, but when they are, it's a catastrophe."


Will you be tempted?

Are you vulnerable to having an affair? Answer these questions to find out if your marriage is at risk.

Choose the number that best represents your reaction to the following statements.

1 = No, disagree completely

2 = Yes, agree somewhat

3 = Yes, agree completely


o We had problems trusting each other before we got married.

o Our marriage revolves around our children. For childless couples: We disagree on whether or not to have children.

o My partner spends too much time away from home.

o My partner rarely takes my side in anything.

o We've grown apart.

o I have felt alone and unsupported at times of loss or crises.


o We don't have equal input for important decisions.

o We argue about the frequency of sex.

o Our interactions feel more like a parent-child relationship than one between equals.

o We are uncomfortable about exposing our inner selves to each other.

o We sweep things under the rug, so we hardly ever fight.

o There's a disparity in how invested we are in the relationship.


o I feel I can't influence my partner to do what I request.

o I don't know if I really love my partner.

o We don't know how to repair after a conflict.

o We don't have much in common.

Add up your total number of points to interpret your relationship vulnerability score.

Your marriage is in:


16-20 = A safe harbor

21-29 = Choppy waters

30-39 = Rough seas

40-48 = Watch out! You're headed for the rocks

Source: NOT "Just Friends" (The Free Press, $25, 2003) by Shirley P. Glass with Jean Coppock Staeheli