Sunday, March 17, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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When The Heart Strays -- An Author-Therapist Gives The Facts About Affairs - And Counsels Against Acting Hastily

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

----------------------------------------------------------------- `Triangles' reading

Author-therapist Lana Staheli will give a talk about "Triangles" and sign copies of her book tomorrow from 7 to 8 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, University Village. -----------------------------------------------------------------

-- Most couples are faithful most of the time, but they have "little episodes": About two-thirds of marriages are rocked by affairs.

-- Couples who meet each other's needs are less likely to have affairs, but an affair is not necessarily a sign of unhappiness with the marriage. "No marriage is insulated from an affair."

-- Younger women are becoming as likely as men to have an affair.

-- Fewer than 10 percent of "affairees" divorce their spouse and then marry their lover (and more than 75 percent of these affair-marriages end in divorce).

-- Nearly 80 percent of those who divorce because of an affair are sorry later.

-- Most marriages survive an affair. "If you want to stay married, you can."

If you're in an affair, extricating yourself or recovering from one or dealing with your spouse who's having an affair, therapist Lana Staheli thinks you ought to know the facts.

And she believes her prescription for "affair-proofing" a marriage (see accompanying story on Page L 2), while not a guarantee against affairs, can help couples keep their marriages strong enough to head off most affairs and weather any that might sneak through.

"You can't talk someone out of an affair," says the Laurelhurst Ph.D. in counseling and author of a new book on affairs, "Triangles" (Staheli Inc., $13), "but I've used the facts to slow them down."

And most of all, to stop them from hasty actions. In particular, knee-jerk divorce.

Staheli bases her conclusions on a review of academic studies, supplemented with popular surveys and her own counseling of more than 500 couples and 1,000 individuals. (The "affair facts" listed above are all culled from that research.)

Staheli, 48, married 19 years to a physician - she says she's "super-attentive to our relationship" and has successfully practiced her own affair-proofing tips - originally wrote an informal primer for her counseling clients.

Typically affluent and successful, many of them seemed to drift from affairs into an emotional downward spiral - including to divorces they didn't really want and remarriages doomed to fail.

She thought they'd benefit from having such facts as: who's likely to have affairs and why, the probable consequences, the mistakes typically made by "affairees" (Staheli avoids judgment terms like "adulterer"). Word-of-mouth about the booklet led to so many calls from nonclients that she expanded the project and turned it into a nonprofit book.

Most of all, Staheli says, people need to face reality: "Affairs can be thrilling, fun, challenging, ego-enhancing; they create feelings and desires once thought to be lost, provide renewed energy and zest for life . . . But they rarely last forever, and seldom become happy marriages. So sooner or later, sadness touches the hearts once so full of love and joy."

Affairs: whos and whys

Opportunity has the greatest influence: Affluent people with flexible schedules are the most likely to stray. Those on the West and East coasts - where people are mobile, couples more independent, and attitudes more liberal - have more affairs. Working women have more affairs than homemakers. People who had premarital sex and marry before age 25 have the highest rate of extramarital affairs.

(Staheli notes her research concentrated on middle- and upper-class persons, since that's her clientele.)

Younger women are increasingly becoming more like male counterparts in their ability to limit their emotional involvement and have affairs for fun or adventure. (The biggest reason women have affairs: to enhance their self-esteem.)

Married women tend to have affairs with married men (they believe the men won't become overly dependent, won't tell, are less likely to have a sexually transmitted disease, and won't have other sexual partners outside the marriage).

The majority of women care about the lover but are not "in love" and wouldn't marry him. They are not "swept off their feet," Staheli says, and usually, carefully, consider the affair beforehand.

Staheli observes that often they take up with a man of lower economic status. "She's not going to leave her husband, but the guy is attentive, he talks to her, tells her she's great, makes her feel sexy and younger." (One of Staheli's clients, a good-looking mechanic who works on luxury cars, has been bowled over by the number of propositions he gets.)

But "successful" mature men top the list of affairees, with several studies showing that between 70 percent and 84 percent of affluent men have extramarital sex sometime during their married life. Typically, says Staheli, their affairs have about a five-year run; the woman of choice often lives in another city. Men at or past a certain age - about 55 - rarely leave their wives. "They have a lifestyle they like; they usually like the wife, she's a friend and someone who looks after them. And, of course, the money; they'd lose half. And social consequences . . ."

Men in affairs generally believe the affair does not affect their marriage, or that it makes the marriage easier, and rarely feel guilty for long. They intentionally control their emotional involvement and even when passionate don't seriously contemplate divorce. Sex is the most important part of the affair.

But, she says, "there's an interesting age cutoff: men five years younger, they want a new wife. The `trophy wife' is seen as a positive thing among their peers . . . Losing money isn't as important to them. They want a wife who doesn't nag or criticize. Younger women are dazzled by them. And they want someone who can give them children: they want to do parenting again, be more involved this time; (parenting is) cool now, and they're in a different space; they've done the career thing already and they're lonely."

Affairs: science and history

Infidelity is a constant of the human condition, Staheli notes; there are biological, Darwinist drives against fidelity, having to do with each gender's interest in preservation of the species. And, historically, the idea of being sexually faithful to one spouse is relatively new and accepted by only some of the world's cultures.

Recent advances in science, says Staheli, point to why humankind has found sexual fidelity difficult to maintain in marriage: amphetamines and endorphins create the feeling of love and the drive to mate; phenylethylamine (PEA) is an amphetamine-like chemical secreted by the pituitary gland that gives the feeling of being "in love."

When a potential mate appears, there's an increase in the amount of PEA released; over time, the body builds up a tolerance to PEA, eventually requiring more to achieve the same high. Eventually the "in love" feeling is over. It averages about two years, and rarely persists for longer than three or four years.

So people are vulnerable to a PEA flare-up with an attractive new mate - once the PEA-induced high inevitably dies down with the spouse.

Affairs: love and sex

But all affairs are not equal. Staheli separates affairs into types, primarily:

-- "In love" affairs, characterized by blind passion and obsession; about 70 percent of them destroy the marriage (though the affair typically lasts only two to four years).

-- Loving affairs, primarily emotional and based most on friendship; neither party considers leaving the spouse. They can last for years or even a lifetime. The parties report the affair "subsidizes" the marriage.

-- Sexual affairs, for physical pleasure and adventure, sometimes for conquest.

People who have affairs are likely to have more than one, especially men. Two-thirds of men who had affairs had more than one; women averaged between one and three. A few are constantly involved in affairs.

Sexual affairs are usually not discovered. About half of loving affairs are discovered, usually because the spouse confesses.

Affairs: dealing with it

In dealing with an affair, Staheli advises against anyone involved acting too quickly. "There's a fine line I'm treading, not to condone or condemn affairs. It happens. Don't ruin your life over it."

The partner who is in an "in love" affair shouldn't hastily dump the spouse. The intense feelings will pass, Staheli promises: "Give it a year. Don't tear up the lives of your spouse, children, yourself."

For the partner who discovers the affair, confronting the lover is generally a bad idea. It may drive the spouse to defend the lover and force an untimely and otherwise unwanted decision.

While it's normal to want to hurt the partner or send him or her packing, Staheli cautions: "While the pain will linger, punishments don't work and they often take the couple in a direction neither wanted."

For women, chances of remarrying get slimmer over time (they're less marketable, but also pickier than men), and women who remarry usually marry "down" and keep the marriage going by being more flexible and compromising. Men have more choices, but studies show that second marriages aren't any happier, just less stable, and that if they marry much younger women, there's an even greater chance of divorce.

Affairs: ending it

In trying to break off an affair, Staheli recommends dwelling on the problems, hassles and hurts, not the romance or sex.

While there's controversy among psychologists over confession, in general Staheli thinks confession is a bad idea. It's usually a way for the affairee to deal with his guilt, and is unfair and hurtful to the spouse. Better that the affairee deals with the guilt himself.

If you do confess, she says, don't blame or criticize the spouse or lover, get into details, defend your actions, or leave.

For the spouse who wants to reclaim the straying partner, she recommends you negotiate for what you want, whether it's to stay married, for him to stop seeing the lover, or to understand what's happened.

There's no free lunch, says Staheli.

"Love affairs are hard to quit. Lovers miss one another for a long time - months and years, not weeks. The end of an affair brings on a grieving process of about a year. Feelings of anger, hurt, loneliness, even depression will linger."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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