Have you seen other effects of the recession?
Donahue: People overextended in housing. I’ve had a number of couples who say, “We just bought this huge house.” In some cases, I think the house was too much stress, so they created another reason for why they can’t stay together.
Some couples have to stay together because they can’t sell the house. They’re both saying, “If we separate, neither one of us is going to be able to afford much. We’re better off staying together.”
How important is sex?
Donahue: It’s important, but I don’t think it’s key. As people age, that physical connection could be hand-holding or kissing. Or even having a cup of coffee together in the morning. One should strive to keep sex in the marriage, but from what I see, it’s not as important as people used to think.
The stereotypical affair used to be the man and his secretary. How has that changed?
Brown: That may still be going on, but now there are more people in on the act. Infidelity is one of my specialties, and I think women have caught up with men. Some research suggests women might have even gotten ahead of men.
One of the things I ask couples is: How did the two of you create enough space in the marriage for there to be an affair?
How does that most often happen?
Brown: There are different types of affairs and different motivations. There’s conflict avoidance—they don’t like to talk about hard stuff, issues don’t get addressed. They let problems pile up. And intimacy avoidance, where getting close is too scary—you see a lot of anger with those couples.
Then there’s what I call the “split-self affair,” where there is a long-term affair. It usually starts as a friendship, but it’s an emotional friendship and the affairing spouse feels something they’ve never felt before. It wakes up their emotional self, which is why those affairs last so long and are so intense.
There is also sexual addiction and the “exit affair,” where somebody’s already decided to leave the marriage and just uses the affair to slide out the door.
And I think there’s a sixth type. People who are extremely successful, who have pretty much gotten whatever they’ve wanted, one success after another—they think they can do anything they want because it’s always worked. I’m thinking of John Edwards and John Ensign and Eliot Spitzer.
Donahue: Opportunity is a big factor. We have a society in which travel is part of many work situations. You’re away from wherever it is you’re anchored, and it makes it easy to say, “Oh, what the hell? It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just casual.” People think it doesn’t matter.
We’ve read some of Mark Sanford’s love letters and he did seem to have an emotional connection with the other woman.
Brown: You don’t know about the quality of the connection. It certainly was intense for him, but was it really an intimate connection? I don’t know. Again, I think he’s one of these guys where success has come his way and he’s just kept using opportunities.
What do you make of Tiger Woods?
Brown: I feel bad for him. He has such a drive to be perfect in golf, to be a great golf champion, and he is. But I think all his life he’s been so focused on that part of himself that he’s underdeveloped emotionally.
How do couples such as Bill and Hillary Clinton stay together?
Donahue: There’s no way to know, but I think it’s an arrangement they went into with their eyes open when they first got together. I think they’ve made that arrangement work for them.
What about Silda and Eliot Spitzer?
Donahue: We don’t know as much about the Spitzers—they weren’t in the limelight in the same way the Clintons were. Before the infidelity, what was the connection between the couple? And does she believe that there was enough there before the indiscretion to work at getting back to a better place?
Brown: There have been some comparisons between Silda Spitzer and Jenny Sanford, but Sanford knew for months before the news broke. She had some time to get her act together.
What are the success rates for couples after an affair?
Donahue: Whether you’re able to repair the relationship has to do with the readiness of the person on the other side. If you have somebody who is never going to let go of the incident and is going to punish their spouse forever, then there is no point in trying to work on the marriage. It won’t happen.
Brown: It varies with the type of affair. With conflict-avoidance affairs, there’s a high rate of success. They usually occur earlier in the marriage, and a lot of those couples work things out.
People think if there’s an affair there’s got to be a divorce, and that’s not the case. A lot of people have a better marriage after an affair. They can recover if both are willing to do some work.
Which types of affairs are harder to recover from?
Donahue: If there’s a long-standing affair and the person has had a whole other life, that’s much harder to get past. It’s like a separate marriage.
What are other signs a marriage isn’t fixable?
Donahue: You have to have the commitment of both parties for any kind of change.
Brown: Sometimes divorce is one of the best decisions that can be made. The decision to divorce usually is one-sided. Somebody wants out. Often the person initiating the divorce has done some growing and in the process decides the marriage is not really viable anymore.
How should you tell the kids you’re splitting up?
Brown: You need to do it together, and if you can’t do it together well, you should hire a therapist to help you stay on track. You might say, “You’ve probably noticed we’ve been pretty short with each other or staying away from each other”—whatever you think the kids might have noticed. “We’ve been having a hard time making things work, and we’ve come to a decision that we’re going to separate.”
Do you see many couples who never should have gotten married in the first place?
What are some of the signs?
Donahue: People who get married quickly, with not much knowledge of the other person, and just say, “I’m madly in love and that’s it.” It’s only when you live together over a period of time that you begin to see that, wait a minute, this isn’t what I thought it was.
Brown: Or the rebound after a divorce, the too-quick marriage where they can’t stand to be alone and they find somebody and get married quickly. They haven’t had time to do the work of dealing with the end of the marriage.