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Can Infidelity Make A Relationship Better?


We're going to switch gears now and, as I said, this is another emotional and sensitive topic, but a personal one. And if I were to say the names Bill Clinton, LeAnn Rimes, Kobe Bryant, what would you say that they all have in common? Well, that they are all very bright, accomplished people and that they have all participated in infidelity. It still seems to be the case that the public seems shocked when such indiscretions become public.

But it turns out that 4 in 10 marriages are challenged by affairs; and it also turns out that more than half of American marriages survive the affair. These are some of the surprising findings - perhaps surprising to some - that are discussed in Dr. Scott Haltzman's new book. His book is titled "The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity" and he's with us now. Dr. Haltzman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DR. SCOTT HALTZMAN: It's a pleasure to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: And I want to mention that later in the program, we are going to speak to some people who've been through this, and they'll talk about their own personal experiences here. These were just a few of the hundreds of responses that we received when we asked for listeners to tell us their stories.

So first, I wanted to talk about that, Dr. Haltzman. I noticed, in your book, that you've been reporting on this and researching this for 25 years now. And you've said that when you first started working in this area and talking about your findings publicly, that you had a very hard time getting people to talk outside of the - sort of the therapeutic circle about this. Is it no longer the case that people are afraid to talk about it; or is it that there's more cheating going on, and there are more people to talk about it?

HALTZMAN: Well, I don't know that there's any more cheating going on than there had been before, and I also would like to believe that people are more willing and able to talk about it. But my experience has still been that they are eager to talk about it with me - send me emails, or call my office. But when I say to them, oh - you know - great; you know, Michel would like you to be on TELL ME MORE, suddenly, they pull back and go, I'm not sure I can do that. Because there still is a great degree of shame and embarrassment about infidelity, both for the person that had engaged in it and for the person who's a victim of it.

MARTIN: I think that a lot of people will be surprised by the number that we cite in - that you cite in your research, and that we've cited already here, which is that 4 in 10 marriages are actually affected by this. Should we be surprised by that number?

HALTZMAN: Well, you know, I think one of the things we have to be cautious about with any research regarding infidelity, is that people don't tell the truth about whether they've had affairs or not. But I think, you know, if you remember that 40 percent of people have had - of relationships have been involved in infidelity, that's just one of the partners. So about 25 percent of men may have had an affair at some point in their life; 15 percent of women. Some statistics will say 70 to 90 percent. It really also varies in terms of how you want to define an affair. And more and more these days, people are having intense emotional relationships with people they've never even met, or sexual relationships over the Internet with people they haven't met.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. I was going to ask if the circumstances of what is seen as infidelity have changed because of the rise of social media, because people have more - what would I say? - social freedom because of social media.

HALTZMAN: Well, 10 years ago, the most common complaints that I heard had to do with people in the workplace. And that has entirely shifted, whereas the great percentage of people are getting into contact with me because their partner has been texting somebody, receiving emails, spending time messaging them on Facebook. It really has shifted how we meet people and secondarily, how we sustain connections with people after we've met. So I think it really has changed dramatically, even in the last 10 to 12 years.

MARTIN: One of the issues that you address in your book, that you say comes up often, is the argument that humans actually aren't meant to be in monogamous relationships. The argument is that people used to die sooner than they do now, that people didn't live as long, that there was - generally partners, you know, didn't survive as long as they - women died in childbirth, men died in war - and that monogamy is kind of an impossible idea. What does your research say about that?

HALTZMAN: Well, you're absolutely right. A lifetime commitment, if you married at the age of 15, was another 20 years. And now, a lifetime commitment, if you marry at the age of 25, may be 75 years. And - well, that's being very hopeful that you'll live to 100. But I think the bigger question is, so are we biologically inclined to have one particular partner for life? And only something like 5 percent of vertebrates and mammals are monogamous.

So it may well be that, if our philosophy is that we want to spread our DNA and maintain our species, the philosophy - we may, in fact, be designed to have multiple partners. But my point is - that to say you're biologically inclined toward something is not the point. We're biologically inclined to do a lot of things - walking around naked, peeing in our garden of our neighbor, even eating food off of someone else's table when we go to a restaurant. But we don't do those things because we're part of a social organization.

And being married is making an individual commitment to stay with one person. And even if biologically, we're attracted to somebody else, I don't think that that's an excuse for leaving that marriage and having a relationship with someone outside of it.

MARTIN: Well, what is - do you have a values perspective on this of whether infidelity is just, by definition, harmful to marriage because there was some people - I think, in fact, we've heard from a number of people who said that they don't think it is; in fact, a number of people have said that they think that their affairs, relationships outside of marriage, have actually strengthened their marriage. So can I just ask your point of view on this?

HALTZMAN: Well, I do take a pretty strong position. I take what I would call a pro-marriage position. I believe that we are elevated as humans, and as parts of a couple, to keep our promises and to work hard to maintain relationships. There's a practical issue, which is that when you go from partner to partner, it may be a wonderful opportunity to have lots of great sexual experiences. But it erodes the capacity to have a deep and a fundamentally, you know, profound experience with one partner over the course of a lifetime.

So studies show, for instance, that married couples have better sex and higher - you know, in more frequency than singles. So that - the idea of staying in a marriage may ultimately help improve not only your sex life, but we have lots of studies that show it improves your health, your general well-being, your standard of living, your overall income, your resistance to disease, your reduction in alcohol and substance abuse. So there are whole host of reasons - and less risk of suicide, when people stay in married relationships.

MARTIN: I'm also interested in your perspective on the effect that infidelity has on children, even when they find out about this as adults. So I'm going to ask you to stay with us, Dr. Haltzman. Dr. Scott Haltzman is a psychiatrist. He's author of "The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity." He's going to stay with us. And we're also going to hear from people who have experienced infidelity, and they are going to tell us their stories. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We hope you'll stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.