Infidelity: Break Up Or Make Up? | St. Louis Public Radio

Infidelity: Break Up Or Make Up?

Originally published on June 26, 2013 3:12 pm

Tell Me More continues the conversation on infidelity by talking with a panel of people who have been there. They discuss why a person would cheat, and what goes into the decision to stay or leave a relationship after an affair. Host Michel Martin is joined by two listeners who wrote in about their experiences with infidelity: Scott Childress and Tina Curiel-Allen. Also, Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of "The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity."

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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We've been speaking with Dr. Scott Haltzman. He's a psychiatrist; he's been researching the subject of infidelity for more than 20 years. His latest book is "The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity." He's still with us. But we also asked you to share your experiences with infidelity with us, through Facebook and Twitter. And we must have touched a nerve because we got nearly a thousand responses from NPR listeners.

So we thought we'd continue the conversation with some of you who have weighed in. Dr. Haltzman is still with us, as I said. Joining us now are Scott Childress; he wrote in to us from Dallas. He's a former pastor; he's the dad of two. And Tina Curiel-Allen is with us from Modesto, Calif. Welcome to you two, thank you so much for joining us now.

SCOTT CHILDRESS: Thank you for having me.

TINA CURIEL-ALLEN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let me start with you, Tina Allen. I want to start with you. You say you're now happily married and monogamous. But you wrote in, and you told us that you had cheated in pretty much every relationship you had before your husband. And I think a lot of people would want to know why.

CURIEL-ALLEN: Well, I've had a lot of time to think about that. And for me, I think what it was, was that I never really had stopped to consider what commitment meant and how my actions affected other people. So I would be in these relationships. And I kind of had a clock of a year long, I would be in them, and then inevitably, would end up cheating.

And it wasn't as if I was cheating with everyone that came around, but it was a way that I would splinter the relationship, in a sense, and have a safety net - that I had cheated, and known that I had somewhat sabotaged the relationship myself. And at the time, it wasn't like I had this thought process going on and that I knew what I was doing. But in hindsight, that's what I was doing when I was in relationships, and never really thought of the person that I was hurting 'cause I was just thinking of what I wanted and that instant gratification.

MARTIN: Dr. Haltzman, how common is that among the people you work with, and what you've been hearing over the years?

DR. SCOTT HALTZMAN: Well, what Tina is describing is, you know, a kind of dealing with some of the complexities of being in a committed monogamous relationship, and having some type of emotional - you know, pull; some type of need, in this case, the need to sabotage the relationship that she was in.

There's a couple comments that I just wanted to make. One is that when people choose to have affairs, it often is a complicated decision. It's not just based on emotional needs. It's also based on things like opportunity, and the inability to suppress your impulse, which is what Tina's working on these days. You know, it might have been impulse, an urge - or what we call disinhibition. But she's not letting herself give in to that.

I think the other thing is, it's not as exciting to be with the same person every single day. And the reality is that even though an affair may be a way of sabotaging the current relationship, it's also a way of getting a buzz. It's a way of getting a certain electrical static charge from a new relationship, that the old relationship sometimes starts to lose out on, Because the people Tina was having an affair with weren't like, schlumps. They were people that she was attracted to.

MARTIN: Yeah, one of the things, though, that I learned from your book, which is something that I don't think many people might know just from watching - reading the tabloids - for example, when the celebrities get caught, inevitably a bust-up tends to follow - is that many, many marriages survive infidelity. And you say that infidelity is treatable. Sometimes it isn't, but I want to hear Scott Childress' story. You wrote in and you said that you got married at 20. You were married to your wife for 13 years before the marriage finally ended. You said that she was unfaithful for much of your marriage, and I think a lot of people would wonder why you stayed.

CHILDRESS: Yeah, and I guess maybe I wonder myself sometimes as well. But - yeah, six months into our marriage, actually, was just a - kind of a full-blown affair. Of course, I didn't find out about that until maybe a year, year and a half later. But, you know, there were a lot of factors that, you know, kept me in the relationship and kept me trying to work it out, you know. I think, you know, obviously there's the feeling of love, you know; of course, that's probably the most overriding thing.

But then there's the outside factors as well. Of course, you had mentioned, I was - I'm a former pastor so, you know, I was in a very evangelical, conservative environment, so everybody around me, my job, really pushed to make sure that, you know, not only didn't - nobody find out about the affairs but then that I kept the marriage together. So I think that was - that had a huge factor in it as well.

MARTIN: And the kids, too - I think part of it was the kids. You wanted the kids to have an intact family.

CHILDRESS: It did, I mean - now, the first - we didn't have kids until about five years into the marriage. So, you know, there was infidelity before so, you know, if there was - you know, looking back - you know, you think, well, if there was a time to get out, that would've been more of an ideal time. So - but then as time goes on, I think you almost lose your excuse, you know. You think, well, I dealt with this, or should be dealing with this; or I put up with this; or however you try to justify it, to stay in the relationship. And then well, if I didn't get out last year, then why would I get out now? So...

MARTIN: Dr. Haltzman, can I ask about - have you noticed over time, in the course of your research and your practice, are there defining characteristics of the marriages that survive infidelity versus the ones that don't?

HALTZMAN: You know, I don't think that we know enough about which ones continue. I think that Scott's example is one in which the couple often is set toward problems. And that is where there's repeated and continuous infidelity. And also, I would - let me just ask this question of Tina, so I can try to project her future. How long has this current marriage been going on, Tina?

CURIEL-ALLEN: We have been married for two years, and we were together for four years prior to getting married.


CURIEL-ALLEN: And I actually was afraid of getting married, and wondered if that would come back up for me - of cheating; and interestingly, it hasn't. Like what you said, I feel like I've - it's not that, you know, you're not going to be attracted to anyone or you're not going to meet anyone that's interesting, but now I'm in a committed relationship, and I'm not so interested in sabotaging something or in pursuing something. So somehow realizing what I was doing has kind of defused it for me.

HALTZMAN: So the recognition of what it means to be committed.


HALTZMAN: You know, it's interesting. Typically, guys are thought to be the ones that are less committed. And in fact, they do tend to fear commitment. But once they marry, men do tend to have just as high levels of commitment as women. But the issue that Scott is struggling - you know, that, you know, Michel raises with regards to Scott is, are there certain couples that are more likely to stay together?

I think that recognition of commitment, and also the ability to work together as a team once the affair has happened - that's really key. And the third part I would say is if they can rebuild the trust. It sounds like - and correct me if I'm wrong, Scott, but it sounds like a lot of what you and your wife did was bury things under the carpet. And then later on, you just had a lumpy carpet and not such a great marriage.

CHILDRESS: Yeah, definitely. I mean, there was, you know, we had - we did seek out some counseling, and that sort of thing, several times - you know, throughout the 13 years. But yeah, I don't think - at least for me, anyway, I don't know that anything was ever fully resolved for me.

So even if I didn't bring it up later, I still always felt that. So any slight or wrong that I perceived, while I may not bring that up in an argument - that's something I learned in counseling - I would still feel that. So that resentment still stayed there. So it was a very difficult - like I said, I don't think I ever got rid of it.

MARTIN: I wanted to bring up some other issues that listeners raised. A number of people wrote in because they wanted to talk about the effect of - on their children. A number of people were worried that if they cheated, their children would repeat the behavior. And Tina, I think you told us that your father - that you learned that your father did have relationships outside the marriage. And I wonder if that affected how you saw your own relationships. And can I just also play this clip from a listener - from Donna in Greensboro, N.C. - who talked about how she handled that when she learned that her husband had cheated on her. Here it is.

DONNA: I kept it from them for a long time. They asked me, you know, why are you getting divorced? And we're just, you know, we're not happy. He had told them that he had made a big mistake and it was just at that. But they've, you know, just recently found out. They're - they're still kind of angry with him. And, you know, I'm just letting them work it out. I'm just trying to let them know that we're so much happier now.

MARTIN: I still hear a lot of pain in that voice, though. Dr. Haltzman, what about that?

HALTZMAN: Well, you know, usually the person that doesn't want the kids to know about the affair - shockingly - is the person that had the affair. And in certain circumstances, I don't think children need to know. Obviously, it depends on their age 'cause at a certain age, you're able to understand things better. But if the family decides to separate, or if for some reason they have to break off - let's say, you know, you've had an affair with your sister-in-law; well, now you're not getting together anymore with your cousins - your kids may deserve a good explanation rather than some vague, oh, Mommy or Daddy made a mistake.

But you also have to be careful. The person who has been the victim of an affair sometimes will try to use the children as a weapon, and hurt the other partner by telling them. There's really no gain in that, so I don't encourage people to do that.

MARTIN: What about the argument - I think - Tina, do I have it right? - that you feel that you understood that there was a pattern in your parents' marriage, and you feel maybe you carried it into your own relationships of infidelity. Do think that that's - do I have that right, and is that true?

CURIEL-ALLEN: Yes - yes, you do. And for me, my father cheated on my mother with basically, her best friend. And it ruined that friendship for my mom. Part of a larger issue, for me, was - I think I never saw an example of what a relationship could look like with two people that genuinely cared, admired and respected each other and had that sense of commitment 'cause surrounding me, growing up, was a lot of dysfunctional relationships.

So I kind of just took it for granted that relationships were things where you could hurt someone; and where you didn't take into consideration, as much, other people's feelings. So not until I became an adult, and had that hindsight of all this wreckage of people I had hurt, did I begin to examine what a really thought a relationship meant, and how I should treat a partner, and what I should and should not do. I didn't have that explanation growing up, you know. I just had some bad examples that I was looking at, that involved cheating.

HALTZMAN: Can I comment on a couple things here, Michel? One is...

MARTIN: Sure, briefly because I want hear from Scott, too, because Scott also has a daughter, who's 11. And I'm wondering, if it's not too personal, what you think you'll tell her as well. So go ahead, Dr. Haltzman.

HALTZMAN: So there is - just that there is a - actually a biological predestiny. There is - you know, studies do show that there's a genetic inclination toward infidelity. So it is passed on, believe it or not. Not a hundred percent, of course, 'cause it's always a choice.

And just to be careful, because while you may feel care and admiration and respect right now in your marriage, every marriage goes through times when they don't feel respect or admiration for their spouse. So that's something to be aware of because that could be a trap that could lead you to believe that it's the wrong marriage. It's the right marriage; it's just going through a bad time.

MARTIN: What about the question of whether - Scott, do you mind talking about...


MARTIN: Do you have any sense of what you're going to tell your own children about this?

CHILDRESS: I don't. I think - my daughter, who's 11 - I've been divorced now for about two years - I think she has kind of a sense of what went on. It's not something that we've talked about, and definitely not something that I've felt comfortable kind of broaching with her. And it's a difficult - but like I say, I think she does have this sense of maybe the cause of the reason why behind the divorce, I think.

MARTIN: Scott - Dr. Haltzman, what do you think?

HALTZMAN: Well, Scott's absolutely right. Kids have a sense. They're not stupid; they're very sophisticated these days. And there's code words for why an - you know, an affair happened. Well, Mommy did something or - you know. They can kind of get a sense of what's going on, so I wouldn't be surprised. It probably wouldn't devastate her. But, you know, having not known Scott before or not knowing his 11-year-old daughter - I would just have to take a guess on that.

MARTIN: Let me bring in one more clip from a listener. And it speaks to something that you talked about earlier, Dr. Haltzman. It's just the thrill aspect of the thing. I mean, you've talked about the fact that this is complicated. I mean, there - in your book, you talk about how complicated it is. Many people feel that they're not appreciated within their relationship, so they're going through the doldrums.

You also talk about something we haven't talked about, which is substance abuse and mental illness can be factors here. So we don't want to discount that. But I do want to talk about the thrill aspect of it, and I think that's something that a lot of people will understand. This is a woman who wrote to us. She says she's in her 40s; she's been married for 20 years, and she's cheated on her husband. We know her name, but she asked us not to use it. But here's her story.

UNIDENTIFIED CALLER: I thought, here's this very successful, smart, married person himself, with several children, and he's willing to risk it to see me; he must really like me. Any little tidbit I got - whether it was a text or a phone call - that was like, all I thought about. It's almost like a fix. You just want to have that again, that next meeting. And then everything else in life kind of pales to that - friendship, family, work, all that stuff.

MARTIN: So what about that, Dr. Haltzman? You talk about that in the book, and could you talk a little about that now? How - particularly in long marriages, where people settle into a routine - how do they resist the thrill of the fix?

HALTZMAN: So what she's describing is, what I call in the book a flame addiction, which I differentiate from a sex addiction. This woman didn't have a sex addiction; it's not like she needed to go to, you know, one gigolo to another. But she just loved the attention; she loved the idea of this person being interested in her. And I think that's the challenge.

Now, let's just take it for a second, and look at it from brain chemistry. We know that during addictions, there's a surge of a brain chemical called dopamine - we even see that when coke addicts look at pictures of cocaine. So what happens is when you meet somebody new, you get this surge of brain chemical that can look like an addiction. So if you want to strategize and try to protect yourself from having affairs - which is ultimately, my goal - you need to bring in new, novel and exciting things into your marriage. Change things up a bit.

You know, go out camping or walk around the house naked, or go to a play or movie you wouldn't ordinarily see. Go on a roller coaster ride - things that are exciting, that stimulate dopamine, can get you attracted back to your partner. And it may reduce the risk of being pulled into this incredibly seductive and dangerous addiction, which is flame addiction.

MARTIN: Are you offering to babysit when we're walking around naked? I'm just - Dr. Haltzman, are you going to help us out with that?

HALTZMAN: I'm actually going to take a video and put it on your blog.

MARTIN: Uh, no thank you. Well, before we let you go, we have a minute and a half left, and I would love to hear briefly from each of you about, you know, what you learned from your experiences. And Dr. Haltzman, I'll end with you. But Tina, what do you think you learned from all that? What would you like to pass on?

CURIEL-ALLEN: Well, what I learned came from therapy. And interestingly, all my bad behavior led me to examine what I think a partner should be, and I believe has actually helped me to be a better partner now and in a more healthy relationship, because I learned from all the things that I had done.

MARTIN: Scott, very briefly.

CHILDRESS: Yeah, I think I learned that by trying to hold on to the other person so strongly, that you may actually be doing them a disservice as well; for, you know, both of you to be able to kind of take care of your own, individual issues.

MARTIN: Dr. Haltzman, a final thought from you? Well, thank you all again for speaking with us. A very difficult and candid conversation, we appreciate it. Dr. Haltzman, final thought?

HALTZMAN: So appreciative of the people that have actually told their stories because it isn't easy to tell. And I think the thought I want to get through to people is that there are ways of getting through this terrible experience. There are ways of improving the marriage. There are ways of fostering a better relationship so that you reduce your risk of infidelity. And you can ultimately, even sometimes develop a stronger marriage or relationship as a result of it.

MARTIN: Dr. Scott Holtzman is the author of "The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity." It's his latest of a number of books about relationships. He was with us from member station WGCU. That's in Fort Myers, Fla. Scott Childress was with us from Dallas, Texas. Tina Curiel-Allen joined us from Modesto, Calif. Thank you all, once again, for speaking with us and talking about this very sensitive topic.

HALTZMAN: Thank you.

CHILDRESS: Thank you.

CURIEL-ALLEN: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.