When the Vow Breaks: Long Term Extramarital Love Affairs
Salt Laker Mike S. often feels like James Bond. For 20 years, he's led a double life. He knows every pay phone where he can dial without being observed, and how to place long distance calls so the number doesn't appear on his cellular or household phone bills. He's careful not to leave motel receipts in his suit pocket or BMW ash tray, and adept at making excuses to his wife about where $500 a month has suddenly disappeared.Mike is involved in a long-term extramarital affair with Kate, a former co-worker with whom he felt instant sexual attraction. He is married with five children, and she is divorced with two grown sons. Occasionally, both become frustrated with the relationship, like a couple who can't decide whether to get married. He's tried to leave his wife for her more than once; but also found he couldn't abandon that relationship because "I still love her and no one has loved me like she has."Yet when he and Kate decided to break up, for three years he felt pangs of interested longing when he regularly spotted her blue Corsica parked at her work place. Still single today, Kate has broken off her relationship with Mike at least five times, and dated other men periodically. Yet during the days while he glanced at her parked car, she was simultaneously recalling his unique ability to empathize with her feelings.They got back together after she called his office. "It was a pleasant shock to hear her voice, which I recognized immediately." She asked him to pick her up at work. "Our first glimpse of each other was like seeing an old friend. At first, I sensed she might be ambivalent about getting involved with me sexually again; but it was only four days before it felt like no time at all had passed between us."The two continue to juggle their schedules and emotions despite the toll this takes on the rest of their lives. If he's seated with Kate in a restaurant and sees someone he knows, Mike immediately turns his head; then wonders for days if the acquaintance saw him and will tell his wife. On holidays his attention is distracted by thoughts of Kate spending the day alone in her apartment. When he first became involved with Kate, Mike had no idea he would create a new life for himself that daily consumes energy from his first, outward life. He didn't realize this relationship would impact all his other relationships, every day. Before Kate, his career path toward advancement was clear; today he declines out-of-state transfers because he knows it would threaten the relationship he considers to be "high maintenance."It is because of the affair's powerful influence on his life and the risk of losing family, friends and job that Mike chooses to speak in anonymity. Barbara Wheeler, BYU professor emeritus and marriage and family therapist, says Mike's story includes many "typical" elements of extramarital affairs that are hidden "lives within lives" in one-third to one-half of today's marriages. These common qualities include leading a double life, not being able to leave the relationship, powerful emotional ties and being unable to get one's lover off one's mind.Despite the current preoccupation with family values, tight budgets and the threat of AIDS, Wheeler and other experts believe extramarital affairs are very much a part of the 90s. A Sept. 30 Newsweek cover story focusing on adultery states that although Americans reject adultery, there is no reliable evidence that there's any less of it going on. Recent surveys indicate that figures ranging from 21 to 66 percent of men and 11 to 54 percent of women admit being unfaithful to their spouses at least once in their lives. Moreover, Wheeler and other experts add that adultery often isn't just about sex. Particularly in long-term relationships, such as Mike's, the adulterous couple is familiar with other aspects of their partner's lives family, job, birthdays and holidays.When Salt Laker Leslie T. sends a Christmas card to Jay, with whom she has been having an affair for 13 years, she always addresses the envelope to Mr. and Mrs. Jay Randall and Family (not his real name), to hopefully indicate that she's really just a friend of the whole family. Inside, she writes, "We've had a good year" and describes annual events, as if she and Jay haven't seen each other for that period of time, when actually, they meet at least twice a month.The two slept together for the first time after he helped her rake leaves. Finishing the yard work, they went in the house for a drink when Jay says Leslie stood in front of the door and wouldn't let him leave. He says, "We kissed and she led me to the bedroom." When he protested, she jokingly said "This is your pay for helping me." Jay became enraged, telling her she wasn't a prostitute, and if they had sex it would be because he cared. He says, "When we made love, it was very romantic -- and I kept thinking this is what her husband is missing out on."Leslie and Jay had first met when she was his nurse while he was hospitalized with pneumonia. He noticed that her friendly conversation soon proceeded beyond small talk as she began lingering in his hospital room, taking breaks and lunches at his bedside. He liked her laugh, which he describes as "an embarrassed chuckle," along with her petite stature. When she left his room after they talked, she always patted him, leaving her hand pressed against his for more than a few seconds. As their bedside chats lasted longer and longer, her comforting pats on the hand soon turned to hugs and kisses.Both see her husband Dave's inattention to her as a possible catalyst for the relationship. At the time their passion began rising, she spoke of her husband's cold indifference, saying he always went off to watch TV alone as soon as he got home from work. She said she gave birth to her first baby alone because he had gone hunting.Wheeler says Jay and Leslie's story includes another common theme of long-term affairs. Leslie isn't getting what she wants from her marriage, but feels she can't get out of that relationship, possibly because she has six children. Wheeler says that like unhappy marriages, long-term affairs become harder to leave the longer they last. She's known people involved in an affair to invest money together, or to buy property jointly, with hopes that someday they'll be able to build a house on their dream piece of land.But Wheeler and other experts explain that more often than not, a marriage from an affair doesn't happen. Wheeler explains that affairs are "dangerously safe" in that while the intrigue and secrecy seems exciting and risky, unless someone is caught, most affairs don't outwardly disrupt the participants' everyday existence. Leading double lives, they go home to the same house, drive the same car and work the same job they always did. Wheeler says, "I've asked clients why they continue to see a particular person who is married. The answer often -- 'he'll never leave his wife,' or 'she'll never leave her husband.' While affairs are socially precarious in some ways, in others, they are a safe relationship that won't interrupt the status quo."Jay says when he and Leslie discussed the possibility of her leaving her husband, he told her, "We're happier this way. You've got kids at home and it would be more damaging if you left. You know you have me, and let's just keep it this way." He says they never discussed the possibility of divorcing to marry each other again, and he can't see that either of them ever would.Leslie, Jay, Mike, Kate and others describes their affairs as "sort of like going together in high school -- but with sex added." Also like high school relationships, some of the excitement and emotional tension emerges from not knowing what will happen in the near future -- when another phone call or liaison will take place. Mike's evenings with Kate often consist of dinner and/or a movie, followed by two to three sexual hours at a budget motel before he goes home to his wife. Jay and Leslie often share passionate kisses before they make love in his car and or have sex on the lawn after picnics. He says she loves to hold hands and receive love letters from him. "I do things her husband would never do," he says.Yet, ironically, according to Wheeler, Leslie's husband, Dave, and Jay's wife (whom he married years after beginning his affair with Leslie) are among an interesting minority of people who know their spouse is having an affair and don't protest because they themselves somehow benefit from the liaison. Jay initially panicked when Leslie's husband and children discovered the relationship after finding some of his love letters. Later, both he and Leslie were surprised to discover that Dave actually seemed relieved to know that someone else took over the task of providing Leslie with the extra attention she'd always wanted. Though Dave will jokingly say, "It's your boyfriend," occasionally when Jay calls, he shows no other interest in the illicit relationship.TIME BOMBAffairs in movies and novels are often portrayed as a fling, a short-term glitch in morals that lasts only as long as the novelty exists. But in real life, experts say that probably more often, an affair is a long and oft-visited retreat, a dark secret that cuts across the subterranean fabric in what outsiders and often one spouse feels is a happy, stable marriage. While a short-term affair might be considered a firecracker in matrimony -- a brief explosion that leaves some pain -- a long-term affair is a time bomb; the attachment, bonding, risk, guilt and emotional trauma all continue to escalate and may "blow up" the couples' marriages at any time. Even if the affair ends without the partner finding out, the scars powerfully affect the former lover's and family's life.Mike feels that his affair robs him of energy and focus because his mind is constantly thinking of the next rendezvous and any number of things related to the deception. "I'm home with my wife and halfway wondering what Kate is doing -- then as soon as I'm with her I'm mentally guessing what's going on at home. I've discovered that when I'm not really either -- I'm no place," he says, describing the "head games," that take up his time and energy regularly. He adds that while the "James Bond" aspects are undeniably part of the excitement, it's also tiring to "always have to go where you think no one will see you and still worry that someone did." He adds that, "It invades every aspect of your life. For example, I'd never get a personalized license plate. It would be too easy for someone to spot my car and remember that they saw me with someone other than my wife."In 1974, dark, good-looking Dan Johnson caught the eye of a co-worker at a retail store in Tucson. At the time he was single and she was married. Her husband worked swing shift and she was always available to meet Dan in the evening. Dan said they had great sex, but, even from the beginning, the main attraction wasn't physical. " I got along with her better than her husband did. We had similar views and interests and liked doing the same kind of things -- movies, sports, etc. "She didn't feel like we were doing anything wrong as long as we didn't take time away from her husband when he was home. Dan liked the relationship because, unlike the single women he knew, he got all the benefits of having a steady relationship from a woman who didn't push for a marriage commitment. Today, 20 years later, Dan has two boys from his present marriage and still sees Laura periodically when visiting Tucson. "We call each other on holidays and birthdays and when I go there on business, she is always there to take me places and spend time with me."THE PARADOXDan's story also illuminates the concept of "dangerously safe" -- he's been able to carry on a sexual affair for 20 years, partly because it invades neither his nor Laura's everyday life of spouses and families. All of the relationships portrayed here describe couples who have been involved in extramarital affairs 10 years or longer. Even though they've been able to carry on affairs without losing their marriages, questions still remain. Why do they feel they need these continuous outside relationships and how did they begin in the first place?Wheeler describes multiple motivations for initiating the involvement. "Though it sounds paradoxical because of the secrecy, some affairs are carried out just to gain attention from the spouse. These people do not communicate directly that their needs are not being met. Instead, they have an affair and hope they will get caught and gain the attention they need," she explains. "In effect, they are saying, 'I'm not happy. You won't listen, so I will act out.' More women than men choose this type of affair."She adds that women, even contemporary women, who are very modern in their attitudes still seem to be having affairs for emotional reasons, intimacy and conversation, rather than just for sex. Not that they're not interested in sex, but they are less likely than a man to go out and have an affair just for sex. Women want sex imbedded in a package of emotional expressiveness, intimacy and sharing of feelings. They don't necessarily need to be in love. Wheeler says, "People get involved in an affair because there is no lifetime commitment. They can play sex games without actually having an intimate relationship. Sex in itself isn't always intimate."Wheeler contends that affairs themselves also fall into several distinct classifications. There is the one-night stand or accidental infidelity, in which a person walks into a situation, gets caught up in it and feels terribly guilty and remorseful. Another type is the philandering affair, actually more of a lifestyle, in which a person constantly needs validation of her or her sexual prowess and has a high need for excitement that causes him or her to continually seek new partners. Within the marital arrangement type of affair, spouses or cohabitors agree that they can see other people. The romantic affair, in which someone is actually seeking the ideal love, can last for a few weeks or for a lifetime.The long-term affairs described here most likely fit the description of romantic, as do the affairs Hollywood claims Spencer Tracy had with Katherine Hepburn, Gennifer Flowers alleges she carried on for 11 years with President Clinton, and The New Yorker says O.J. Simpson's attorney Johnnie Cochran maintained for 10 years with Patty Sekora.While celebrities appear to have both the time and money to have affairs with few ramifications, what about everyday Utahns? Wheeler says that as far as can be tabulated, 30 to 50 percent of Utahns have affairs -- the same percentage as the rest of the nation. Jay believes that in Utah, Mormon men neglect their wives after having large families, and that many of these women are starving for romantic attention. Once Leslie said to Jim, "You know, when Dave makes love to me, it lasts 60 seconds or less -- he doesn't hug me, kiss me, hold me or make me feel warm." Another time, she told Jim he was the only man who ever listened to her.Mike believes that conservative people, both Mormon and non-Mormon, are taught to stick with their marriages through thick and thin, and that this attitude often leads to affairs when people attempt to hang on to the outward appearance of being happily married while carrying on long-term affairs.Wheeler feels that affairs have continued at their current rate despite AIDS and tight finances because they "are a way to deal with stress. They are the prime fantasy world, the ultimate escape." She adds, "I've had several people who are involved in an affair say, 'I feel guilty. I've never felt so bad about myself, and yet I've never been happier or felt so good.'"She adds that negative feelings arise from the energy and sacrifice required to maintain the affair, while positive feelings are often expressed as, "For once in my life I feel like a worthwhile person. My lover is telling me how great I am and how I make him or her happy." As a practicing therapist, she has asked many adulterers if they had it to do over, would they still choose to have the affair? She smiles at the irony. "Without an exception, they all say yes."