Have you had issues with infidelity in your marriage?
Then please this article from Mens Health Magazine
Bryan and Gina, a real couple from Texas, will make you reconsider everything you think you know about relationships
By Oliver Broudy via Men’s Health Magazine
Everyone wants to be happy.
For most of us, this means eventually settling into a long-term relationship with a smart, sexy partner who for some reason laughs at our jokes. The problem is, relationships rarely work out as originally envisioned. Trouble comes. Your resolve is tested, your character tried, your sweet nature pushed to its absolute limit.
In his 14 years of marriage, Bryan McCutchan has seen enough trouble to wreck a lesser man many times over, and he still somehow emerged stronger, wiser, and happier than ever before. His story is improbable. Seemingly impossible.
But it is nonetheless true. And with that truth comes an opportunity: To gaze into the depths of a marriage bound for complete destruction and discover the secret of how it was rebuilt.
It started off well enough.
They were married in a church–white wedding, string quartet, 250 guests. He was barely out of college, working at a Dallas-based tech company, and on fire with ambition. She was his sweetheart, a cool-eyed beauty in the mold of Garbo or Bacall, with a wry sense of humor and an unbeatable bluff at the poker table. They seemed meant for each other. Bryan and Gina. Gina and Bryan. “Like peanut butter and jelly,” Bryan says now.
Three years later they were living in Austin, and he was a global alliance manager at Dell–basically convincing partnering software companies to play nice with each other. From the outside, everything looked great: six-figure salary, 3,500-square-foot house, two cars, and then a newborn son. The American Dream, basically. And then…
“You never wake up and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to have an affair today,’ ” Bryan says. Life, he’s learned, is sneaky. And temptation is everywhere. Mostly it remains at a distance, winking from the TV screen or slinking by on the side of a bus, but every now and then it swerves close. Maybe the temptation is at work. Maybe at a party. Increasingly, says Rick Reynolds, founder and president of AffairRecovery.com, it’s on the Internet.
“Twenty percent of all divorce petitions mention Facebook,” Reynolds says, citing a 2009 survey by a U.K.-based law firm. With the added oxygen of sites like Facebook, he says, old flames reignite. “Even if you had good reason for letting these people go by the wayside, you forget that. And then the context makes it easy to say things to them that you would never say in person.”
Bryan was as high-tech as the next guy. For him, however, temptation arrived the old-fashioned way, a la Bill Clinton.
“She started working as an intern in late ’99,” he says. Asked to describe her, he sighs, a long exhale through the nose. “Hot,” he admits finally. Because she was hot. This is the truth. Her auburn hair was short, her mouth ample, her wit raunchy. She aspired to be a model and knew how to make the most of the Dell dress code. Just standing next to her gave him a charge. And when she left the room a sort of vapor trail of hotness lingered, until everything collapsed once more into the purely ordinary, the desk rematerializing, covered with dreary paperwork, a pasty-faced colleague blinking back into focus, saying his name. Bryan? Bryan? Hello?
His mind could never quite seem to get a fix on her; her party lifestyle was so different from anything he knew; he’d married so young, and had a son soon after.
It began with drinks at Antonio’s with the rest of the team. She drove a souped-up 1999 Trans Am, the kind with an eagle on the hood. He razzed her about that. And about her socalled boyfriend. She claimed she was engaged but didn’t have a ring. “Well that doesn’t count, then, does it?” he said.
It went on like that for a month or two. Mostly harmless. Then he went to Vegas on business and ended up at a jewelry store in his hotel. He bought a bracelet for Amanda. He didn’t forget he was married, though–he bought earrings for his wife.
Today, Bryan is awestruck by his capacity to deceive himself. “You start to tell yourself lies and then you start to believe them,” he says. “Your make-believe reality becomes real.”
Infidelity is generally thought to begin with deception, but Bryan’s story suggests that self-deception may be the key ingredient. Even before his best friend began lying for him when his wife called, and loaning his apartment for trysts, Bryan had become his own enabler by hiding the truth from himself.
Nor is he alone in this. All but 3 percent of Americans believe extramarital sex is a bad idea, and yet as many as 25 percent of men admit to having had an affair (15 percent of women say they’ve cheated). The disparity starts to make sense once you realize what we’re up against. Evolution, for one thing, which has left men in every country four times more likely than women to hanker for multiple partners.
Then there’s the ineluctable machinery of attraction itself. The dopamine spike upon catching her eye, the illicit thrill Bryan felt just thinking her name, the almost sensual way it contained her, the same way he longed to contain her, hold her, possess her.
“When you feel intense romantic love,” says Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a research professor at Rutgers University, author of Why Him? Why Her? “it’s the same brain region that becomes activated when you feel the rush of cocaine.
“Romantic love is a wonderfully pleasurable addiction when it’s going okay,” Fisher says. “The problem is when it’s not.” All affairs end. And it’s the rare one that ends well. In fact, an Israeli study of couples in therapy found that about 84 percent of affairs leave the marriage worse off than it was before, with more than a third of those ending in divorce. What’s more, fewer than 10 percent of men who cheat eventually marry their new love interest, and of those who do, 75 percent end up divorced again. If that weren’t enough, the emotional isolation so common with divorce raises blood pressure to the point that it could double your risk of heart attack and stroke.
So, yeah. That’s the bad news: Sexy interns can be a health hazard. But studies have shown that you can inoculate yourself against such hazards the same way you would against cigarettes, or any other unhealthy temptation: by habitually downplaying their allure. This could be as simple as playing up a potential mate’s imperfections (poor posture, unappetizing fondness for bubble gum), or dismissing what could be her flirtation (“Nice PowerPoint!”) as mercenary flattery.
The reflex comes in handy when the temptation involves someone you see every day. Someone with perfect skin and mischievous eyes who smells like beer and berries and laughs with you in the parking lot, which is where Bryan finally leaned in for that gunpowder kiss.
“She ducked away and that kinda spooked me,” he says, “but then she’s, like, ‘Well, you didn’t try very hard.’ ”
There were no consequences. How could there be consequences when the future didn’t exist? Only the present existed–that and a few jingly minutes of memory or anticipation on either side. His temporal outlook had collapsed to the time it takes to copulate.
The decision to leave Gina arrived one day when he was out buying propane for the grill. Came home. Connected the new tank. And feeling mildly deranged, he completed the rest of the day like a page from a workbook, head down, saying nothing. The following day, Gina had gone to fetch dinner when he retrieved his suitcase from the closet and put it on the bed.
“You pack as if you’re going on a trip,” he says now. “Just some toiletries, a few sets of clothes. Just one bag. In my mind I wasn’t thinking, I’m really leaving Gina. This was just a ‘time out.’ ”
The separation wore from days to weeks, weeks to months. Gina, devastated, began an affair of her own, as payback. (“That poor boy,” Gina says now. “I was sleeping with him no matter what. He didn’t know what hit him.” The affair lasted only 3 weeks, but it did the trick.) It didn’t hurt Bryan at first, because he knew he deserved it. But then she changed on him. She was no longer devastated. She cut her hair and dyed it. She lost weight and began dating. The intern, meanwhile, was becoming less interesting every day. Her youthful narcissism had begun to show through. Her flirtation devolved into shtick.
Ending the relationship proved to be harder than he figured, though, mainly because they saw each other every day. And also because forswearing her did nothing to resolve the abyss that yawned where his marriage used to be.
The sheer size of the loss overwhelmed him. It’s not that he lacked the strength or the willpower to become whole again. What he lacked was the know-how.
All that most of us know of marriage is what we’ve learned from our parents, and that’s often not enough; marriage changes from one generation to the next, and what worked for your parents may not necessarily work for you. Also, your parents’ marriage probably wasn’t perfect either. And even supposing it was, chances are they concealed the struggle to achieve that perfection for the sake of preserving the family unit.
Bryan had often heard his parents fighting behind closed doors. Now he was the guy behind those doors. And he didn’t know how to escape.
So he bought a Mercedes, a silver E320, with the idea that it would somehow elevate him above his own shortcomings. And for a short while it felt like it did.
Then Gina filed for divorce.
Five months later, his marriage gone, his girlfriend gone, his world in tatters, Bryan lay on the floor of his brand-new apartment, curled in a ball as if trying to keep one last errant spark of himself from vanishing with the rest. The ugly furniture hulked around him in the dark, offering no comfort. Serious relationship distress compounds the risk of major depression by up to 25 times, and Bryan was feeling every multiple. He felt, in fact, like he’d reached the end. Looking up, he could just make out a bottle of rum on the kitchen counter, and it occurred to him that with a handful of Vicodin he could make it official.
What went wrong?
You could say the problem began the day he walked out on Gina. Or when someone in Dell HR saw fit to hire that foxy University of Arizona grad. Then again, you might say it began at the altar, the moment he said “I do,” because they were both so young. After all, research indicates that the younger you marry, the more likely you’ll stray.
But the problem actually began even earlier.
It began with, of all people, Lee Iacocca.
“Here’s a guy who was a shooting star at Ford, launching the Mustang,” says Bryan. “Then he’s kicked out of the company and goes on to resurrect Chrysler.”
Twenty-two years later, Bryan still can’t hide his enthusiasm for the guy. He was 13 when he discovered Iacocca’s autobiography at the Plano public library. When school ended and all the other kids were out playing ball, he stayed inside and read. Iacocca was a revelation, a true apostle of the American Dream. The clues he left in his autobiography were just enough for Bryan to begin plotting his own corporate ascendancy.
From Iacocca he moved on to Sam Walton, and from Walton to Ray Kroc. He inhaled their life stories the way other kids read comic books. By the time he’d reached college, his core philosophy was already in place: Customer care. Innovation. Plenty of hard work. It was in college that he met the guy who would become his best buddy, his wingman, his business partner, and later, when he was pondering adultery, his enabler. “We were going to rule the world,” Bryan remembers. “I was going to be Bill Gates and he was going to be Paul Allen.”
By age 20, Bryan was carrying a full course load while working full time at a Dallas-based tech firm. Three years later, when he started at Dell, he had already developed the mindset of a workaholic. The culture at Dell didn’t help. The company was young and still in start-up mode, and no one blinked at 80-hour workweeks.
“I’d wake up on Saturday, and I knew that if I didn’t catch up or continue e-mail through the weekend…” He shakes his head. “Heaven forbid you wait till Monday morning.”
Workaholism: It’s been called the best-dressed mental health problem of the century. To the outside observer, everything looks great. In this country especially, a hardworking man has always been viewed as above reproach. But experts suggest that often the real reason workaholics work so hard is not to advance their careers or provide for their families but rather to dodge the even greater challenge of maintaining a relationship. The fact is, if you’re a workaholic, not only are you less likely to be as productive as a more disciplined worker is, but you’re 40 percent more likely than the rest of us to end up divorced.
Bryan knew something had gone wrong in his life. “I can remember times I’d pull in the driveway with this sense of emptiness, like, Is this all there is?”
As the days went by, he and Gina drifted silently past each other, pursuing divergent lives. Researchers call this “the distance and isolation cascade,” a systemic communication pattern deviously rigged to convince both partners that they’re better off not talking to each other. The slide toward divorce is fueled not by intense fighting but by emotional distance. Usually it’s set off by criticism, says John Gottman, Ph.D., a leading marriage researcher who originated the idea. Faced with criticism, a healthy couple will dig deep for some trace of fondness and use it to de-escalate. But when you’re sleep-deprived, overworked, and short on mental resources, who feels like digging?
According to one study from the University of Notre Dame, couples face about seven conflicts, on average, every 2 weeks. Just one is enough to kick off the cascade, and from there it’s a landslide, from criticism to defensiveness, defensiveness to contempt, contempt to cold-eyed indifference. (Naturally, your sex life suffers. But more on that later.)
The solution, says Lisa Neff, Ph.D., a professor in human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, requires more than just good relationship skills. It also helps to recognize external stressors and insulate yourself from them, as they can often turn a minor transgression into a major blowout. The need to stay cool is especially important considering that 69 percent of all marital conflicts, according to Gottman, represent unresolvable differences in core values. You must insulate your relationship from stress. “The goal is dialogue,” says Neff, “not gridlock.”
When Bryan and Gina did fight, he found himself becoming immediately rigid, as if he’d been injected with a paralytic. The arguments shot out of him like bullet points. He knew he was being absurd, but for some reason he couldn’t admit it. Sometimes the absurdity would burp forth of its own accord, as when he flung a bag of potato chips and they exploded against the wall with such festive levity that peace in the house was immediately restored. But for the most part he remained trapped in his own constricted fury.
Researchers have a name for this state. It’s called “diffuse physiological arousal,” or DPA–meaning it involves everything from an elevated heart rate to boosted cortisol levels and increased amygdala activation. In other words, it prepares you for war. In this condition it’s difficult to even climb into your shorts in the morning, let alone conduct a nuanced conversation on touchy subjects.
“Creativity and problem solving–and even the ability to process information–are compromised,” says Gottman. “You could say that when people enter into DPA they lose 30 IQ points.”
The result is what researchers refer to as “flooding”–that is, you are literally unable to keep up with cognitive demands. It’s at this point that the stupid stuff happens: You say something callous, you bring her mom into it, you reach for a knickknack to hurl. Then her DPA state activates.
Generally speaking, women do a better job of modulating DPA than men do, Gottman says. The best indicator is the increased heart rate. In one study of arguing couples, Gottman showed that the difference between those who stay together and those who divorce boils down to 17 heartbeats per minute. That’s how much faster the husband’s heart was beating when the doomed couple started to fight.
The first step to recovery is disengaging from the fray to give your physiology time to normalize. “We’ve actually demonstrated in the laboratory that if you interrupt a conflict discussion and take just 20 minutes for a break, it’s kind of like a brain transplant,” says Gottman. Why 20 minutes? Because that’s about how long it takes for the chemicals responsible for activating DPA to filter through your system–you literally sweat, breathe, and piss them out.
At that point you can begin reclaiming control from the posturing knuckleheads that populate your lower brain–the North Korea of the mind, if you will–and return to the difficult business of adult communication.
“I call it the practice of remembering love,” says Terrence Real, the author of The New Rules of Marriage and founder of the Relational Empowerment Institute. “Remembering that the person you’re speaking with is someone you care about, and that the reason you’re speaking is to make things better.
“It’s like building a muscle,” he says. In other words, the more you do it the stronger you become. This explains why, in his experience, older couples are more than twice as good at regulating their emotional states as younger folks are, and why they show more affection when discussing sensitive subjects. They’ve been at it longer.
Bryan was young, a mere novice, a control freak with no self-control. The DPA cranked up and he succumbed. In a way it was like going blind. Gina began to fade from his vision. First she became an object. Then she ceased to be real.
In the throes of evolutionary instinct, their sex life suffered. “When a herd of gazelles starts running from a cheetah, the animals don’t stop to mate,” says John Michael Grey, Ph.D., a veteran relationship coach and the author of Relationship Tools for Positive Change. “Their survival systems take over, and they can’t relate to one another until they feel safe again.”
In time, Bryan fell back on old porn-dog habits left over from his adolescent years–another dubious gift of the Internet. It’s not a subject men like to talk about, but the links between pornography use and relationship dissatisfaction are unequivocal. Happy couples are 61 percent less likely to report using Internet porn, and unfaithful partners are three times more likely to use it than those who stay true.
In effect, pornography functions a lot like workaholism. “It’s an escape from intimacy,” says Dennis Ortman, author of Transcending Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder. “It requires effort to adjust to another human being. That’s how people grow…There’s no effort on the Web. It’s a quick fix, like a drug. Healthy living requires effort.”
Without sex to bind them, Bryan’s marriage began to unravel even faster. We’ve all heard that relationships thrive when couples spend “quality time” together. But much depends on what is meant by the term. Research shows that couples who place greater importance on doing exciting activities together–hang gliding, say, or the occasional roller coaster ride–enjoy greater current and long-term happiness than couples who settle for a routine “date night.”
The operative principle here is called “self-expansion,” a reference to our natural tendency to feel good about ourselves when we’re pushing limits and cracking open new frontiers. Relationships function much the same way–except that with two minds at work, the likelihood of self-expansion is effectively doubled, says Arthur Aron, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Stony Brook University.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” he explains. “You’re having that exciting experience and you associate it with your partner.” This, in turn, strengthens the relationship. These self-expanding experiences don’t have to involve extreme sports. “You could spend an evening sitting at home drawing pictures of each other naked,” says Aron. If nude drawing isn’t your speed, a sufficiently deep conversation can sometimes suffice.
“It’s not just the things you do,” he says. “It’s the things you talk about.” If all you’re talking about is what to have for dinner and what clothes to buy for the kids, self-expansion isn’t likely. “But if what you’re talking about is interesting, deep, about the meaning of life, or even planning some big event, it’s more engaging.”
For whatever reason, some couples just stop trying. This was certainly true in Bryan’s case. It had been months since he had opened any new doors for Gina, and the same could be said about her. Instead of expanding together, they were wasting away in isolation. That’s how things stood when the intern showed up. In a sense, the marriage was dead already. The affair was simply the coda.
Bryan made it through that long night on the floor. You don’t survive a night like that unaltered, however. Something changes, or you die. And something had changed in him. He emerged quieter, clearer, somehow more real. Looking back, he could see the burned and broken parts of himself he’d left behind, like wreckage in the rearview mirror. It was like an episode of madness ending. The end of a long, horrible drunk.
Meanwhile, Gina was still out there, a distant light somewhere on the horizon. Mercifully, he felt like he could see her again now. He could fathom perspectives beyond his own.
Redemption began with a trip to Sea World, 5 months after the divorce. As they sat in the poolside sunlight while dolphins bobbed up to nip half-frozen sardines from his 2-year-old son’s hand, Bryan felt his world expanding again. He was touched once more by a sense of possibility.
We tend to think of affairs as the ultimate dealbreakers, creating such unhappiness and animosity that even willing partners can’t overcome them. And often enough they are. But one study from the University of Chicago found that nearly 80 percent of “very unhappy” couples who avoided divorce worked through their difficulties and 5 years later emerged happier than ever.
“An affair alone is rarely, if ever, the cause of divorce,” says Mark O’Connell, Ph.D., a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard medical school. “It’s a symptom of underlying issues. If a couple is committed to working on the relationship, an affair can lead to important, neglected conversations.”
For Bryan, a lot of those conversations concerned work, and how to balance it with family. Today, he refers to this balance as “the sweet spot.” It began with understanding how phone and e-mail technology can contribute to workaholic behavior, and setting clear limits that he still keeps to this day. “Unless it’s a really big deadline or project, I don’t do e-mail at night or on the weekends,” he says. “And people know that about me.”
With limits in place, he could begin thinking about how work and family could coexist. After all, even Iacocca didn’t work weekends. Bryan had missed that point when he first read Iacocca’s bio. Now, spending time with family left Bryan feeling more grounded, and this in turn made him more focused and productive at work. Greater productivity generated more confidence, which allowed him to assert his own ideas over the groupthink of others. This, in turn, gave rise to new leadership opportunities. The virtuous cycle was gathering steam.
Eventually Bryan and Gina were remarried–in a small, intimate ceremony. The divorce and ensuing expense of living separately had wiped them out financially. Since they wanted to focus on their relationship and not just house payments, they moved to a smaller house. Bryan quit Dell and went to work for Arthur Andersen, at a job with hours that were more reasonable. For the first time in a long time, he actually began to feel happy.
In a movie, this is where the credits roll. But real life doesn’t end after the wedding–not even the second one. Seven months into their new marriage, Bryan got the call from a colleague. Enron was going under. And it was taking Arthur Andersen, and every single employee, with it.
A man gets knocked down. What determines whether he’ll stay down or push himself up to fight once more for what he believes? You’d think it’d be harder each time. But as Bryan discovered, the opposite was true. Simply because the more you fight for something, the more valuable it becomes. The more it ennobles you. And the more you learn.
After 7 months of unemployment, he landed a job with Microsoft. The money flowed and life moved forward. The marriage flourished. Unemployment had been rough, but it had also given Bryan and Gina time to bond and start to know each other again. They had a second child, a girl. Then they discovered Gina was pregnant again. Quietly Bryan congratulated himself, and began anticipating the hard time he’d give his unborn daughter’s pimply suitors 16 years down the line.
Then came Memorial Day 2009, one of those amazing early summer weekends when everything is clear and blue and bright. On Saturday he taught his son to mow the lawn, and stood back watching proudly. Then they checked out the air and space museum. The next day they relaxed at a friend’s backyard barbecue. That’s when Gina, 22 weeks pregnant, first felt the pain.
From here the story rolls brutally forward. Through our fingers we spy Bryan and Gina next in the company of an ultrasound tech.
“I need to go get the doctor,” the tech said.
“That’s when time stood still,” Bryan recalls. “Gina and I just looked at each other–What’s happening?”
The nurse said she’d never seen anything like it. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the child’s neck four times.
Hospitals don’t have a separate wing for stillbirths, so you just have to lie there enduring the sounds of healthy newborns crying.
They held the child. She had Gina’s long toes and a dear little face, but no heartbeat, no humid breath. They took her plaster footprints and said goodbye. Not wondering, at this point, whether their marriage would survive.
When they left the hospital, Bryan was mindful of the odds–40 percent more likely to divorce now–but by then he had no heart for statistics. He was thinking about Gina, pale and fragile, still in shock. One thing he’d learned is that couples don’t always move forward together. They take turns leading, depending on who is strong at the moment. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other. He had been learning to recognize when Gina was the strong one, and making use of her strength when his own was failing. In this way they moved forward, from strength to strength.
Now it was his turn to carry the load. In the cruel weeks that followed, grief yanked them in different directions, but he held on, anchored by a vision of themselves he had preserved against the darkness. One day replaced the next. And when enough time had passed, they began to emerge once more from the misfortune that fate had dealt them. It was then, in the midst of an American day’s routine beauty, that a new thought dawned on him, and he began to perceive our national motto’s hidden flaw. Because it’s not a question of happiness, really, or its pursuit–it’s a question of deciding the kind of person that you want to be. Weak or strong. Furtive or steadfast.
Happiness is never the object. It’s just an incidental side effect that comes with living bravely, and well.