All apologies

Some couples can move beyond an extramarital affair, but it takes work

By Bella English
Globe Staff / January 2, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

She was six months pregnant with her third child - a pregnancy her husband did not want - when he had an affair. That was seven years ago, and the couple, who went through counseling, are happier than ever today, she says.

“He was angry; he was feeling overwhelmed, and when he worked it out he became kinder, gentler, and more involved in our family because he realized what he was going to lose,’’ says the woman.

It helped her, she says, to be on the phone line when her husband broke off the affair - even though she did throw the telephone against the wall. “If my husband ever did it again, he knows I’m gone, no questions asked.’’

Tiger Woods can only hope for a second chance. The golf great is known for his remarkable recoveries from sand traps and water hazards. But whether he’ll be able to recover his marriage and earn his wife’s forgiveness for his multiple affairs remains to be seen. There are reports that Elin Nordegren plans to file for divorce.

If their marriage does end, it will once again raise the question of why some women - Hillary Clinton, Silda Spitzer, Elizabeth Edwards, actress Tèa Leoni - stay with their cheating men. And why others, like Jenny Sanford, leave. (Some fictional wives are fed up, too; at this season’s conclusion of “Mad Men,’’ Betty Draper finally left her cheating husband and was on her way to Reno with her new beau.)

Counselors say that if cheaters have any hope at all of saving their marriage, even though it may seem obvious, a sincere apology is key.

“The person who had the affair,’’ says Anne Fishel, the director of couples and family therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital, “must make an ongoing apology that takes into account the impact on the partner.’’

And what, precisely, does a sincere apology after cheating on your spouse sound like?

“Being willing to listen to what the impact was and to apologize in a specific way for the harm and trauma and damage and pain and all the rest that was caused,’’ Fishel says. Being accountable means a willingness to go into therapy, she adds. More than half of the couples she counsels maintain their marriages after an affair, she says, adding that forgiveness comes only at the end of a long, painful process.

But that still doesn’t explain why some couples weather the tsunami of infidelity while others don’t. What are the limits of forgiveness?

“As one clinician has said, forgiveness is surgery on the soul,’’ says Fishel. “It’s a decision one makes because they don’t want to live in a state of anger or resentment anymore.’’

Precise statistics on marital affairs are hard to come by; surveys vary, researchers believe, because people don’t want to admit to cheating. Face-to-face interviews yield fewer admissions than anonymous telephone or computer questionnaires. Still, the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago has studied the issue since 1972 and has found that about 10 percent of married people say they have cheated in any given year.

According to a 2008 telephone poll of 1,025 adults by USA Today/Gallup, one in three Americans would forgive their spouse for infidelity, while nearly two-thirds say they would divorce their spouse.

“The obvious deal-breaker should be that you can’t forgive something until it has stopped. And then whatever the issues are have to be treated, so it doesn’t happen again,’’ says Terry Real, a family therapist and founder of the Relational Life Institute in Arlington.

What’s forgivable and what’s not depends on the circumstances, says Real, who has written several books on marriage. At one end of the spectrum is the sex addict who has multiple partners, including unprotected sex with prostitutes and then has unprotected sex with his wife. On the other end, says Real, “is a guy who has a one-night stand on the road during a 35-year marriage 25 years ago’’ and the wife just found out.

“He feels remorseful but he’s still toast, there’s zero tolerance with the wife,’’ says Real. As for the women who hang in with men who have had multiple affairs: “They are probably codependent.’’

Some Boston-area women agreed to talk about cheating: either their own, or their husband’s. But because of the personal, painful topic - and because infidel ity carries such a huge stigma - they asked not to be identified.

Two years ago, one middle-aged woman said she discovered her husband had engaged in multiple affairs during their 20-year marriage. They both went for therapy, individually and together, and the husband enrolled in a residential treatment program for sex addicts. The couple, who have children, are still together but the marriage remains a work-in-progress.

The wife doesn’t find all the Tiger Woods jokes funny, and in fact hopes that his prominence will shine a light on a much-overlooked addiction: sex. “I think it’s important for the public to understand it as something that is more than just cheating,’’ says the woman. “Tiger Woods has issues. If you’re healthy, you don’t behave that way. I would hope he’s getting help.’’

The woman says it appears that Woods has an addiction but society has little patience for it. “There’s just a lot of condemnation because people don’t understand it. But if you look at it from an addiction model, as a disease, you realize that person is in pain.’’

Fishel, who also teaches psychology at Harvard Medical School, says that when affairs happen, those who have been married at least 10 years have a better chance of staying together. To heal the marriage, the betrayer must end the affair “in a way that’s convincing and transparent’’: He or she must allow the spouse to listen in on a phone call ending the relationship, or read the letter, and to have e-mail access to monitor any contact with the former lover.

Julie Powell, the author of the best-selling “Julie & Julia,’’ which was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep, recently published another memoir, “Cleaving,’’ which deals with her two-year affair with a man she identifies only as “D.’’ When her husband found out, he engaged in a couple of shorter affairs of his own, and the couple separated briefly.

The affairs have ended, and the Powells, who have been married 11 years, are together and in counseling.

“I think that D - not to belittle him, I had a real relationship with him - but he did sort of pop up when my husband and I were already on the road to crisis,’’ Powell says in a telephone interview. It was easier, she adds, for her to forgive than for her husband. “I felt the real betrayal was not the sex so much as the fact I had managed to fall in love with the other person. The emotional betrayal was hurtful for us both to get over.’’

Is there a point of no return, where there’s too much to forgive?

“If it’s revealed to you that this person is not who you thought they were or if they are not willing to take care of you in the way you need to be taken care of, that’s absolutely the line that gets crossed,’’ she says. “For us, no matter what either of us did, the essential tenor of what we felt for each other never went away. None of our mistakes wound up breaking that.’’

The woman who was pregnant when she discovered her husband was cheating believes their children played a role in their staying together. “I’m a firm believer that once you have children, it’s not about you anymore. Barring abuse or serial infidelity, I really believe it’s something you can work through.’’

She also takes issue with those who say there must have been something wrong at home that caused the partner to stray. “I think that’s really unfair,’’ she says. As for Tiger Woods, she says he’s like many men who have affairs: “It’s about arrogance and entitlement.’’ But she feels that if he goes through counseling, makes changes and recommits to his marriage, the couple can work it out. “If not, she should kick him to the curb.’’

But for another Boston woman, her affair with her college sweetheart led to divorce - and remarriage, to the old flame. Her new husband was also married at the time of the affair, and both had children. “I was torn for two years, I was a mess,’’ says the woman. “The hardest part was to think about how it would affect the kids. Tiger Woods and his wife have got to feel conflicted where there’s kids involved. It’s so painful.’’

For Powell, time, honesty “and really difficult conversations’’ have helped heal her marriage. “The only way over it is through it,’’ she says. “At some point, you realize the relationship is more worth saving than the resentment is worth holding on to.’’

Bella English can be reached at

of married
people say they have cheated in
a given year.
1 in 3
Americans would forgive spouses for infidelity.