A Love Doctor Advises the Truth Hurts, but It Also Heals

updated 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/18/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The first sign may be as elusive as a distracted look in a spouse's eyes. Confirmation may come a day, a month, a year later—as direct as a confession or as clichéd as a smudge on a collar. Few things are more devastating than discovering sexual betrayal. What should one do? What can one do? Dr. David Viscott, 48, a psychiatrist who also issues advice as a host of ABC Talkradio Network, has listened to many such questions in his 23 years of practice. "The cases are complicated, but infidelity is a sign that something is wrong with the marriage," he says.

Viscott speaks from experience. A graduate of Dartmouth and Tufts Medical School, he married his childhood sweetheart at 21, partly out of love and partly out of a sense of responsibility after her parents were killed in a car accident. Viscott established a flourishing practice in Boston, but 17years later his marriage faltered. "I felt love for her, but I wasn't in love with her," he has observed. He met his second wife, designer Katharine Random, in a ski-lift line in Vermont. After 11 years together, three of them married, Viscott says, "I am still passionately consumed by this woman, but any marriage always involves work." Viscott discussed the terrain of faithful and faithless love with Correspondent Eleanor Hoover at his Los Angeles home.

Is infidelity about sex?

Infidelity is about wanting to be accepted. It's a multifaceted problem that takes many forms—from the classic mid-life crisis syndrome to a more disturbed need for compulsive sex. But people usually leave relationships to find the parts of themselves that they don't feel free being at home.

Do women have different reasons for infidelity than men?

Generally yes. Often with men, infidelity is a matter of trying to prove their masculinity. I remember one patient who had attended an orgy. He said, "What other 50-year-old man do you know who could be with eight different women in one evening?" I replied, "Or had to be...."

Women's reasons tend to be more subtle. Women are drawn to someone who understands them. One woman in her early 30s kept telling her husband for a year how she felt uncared for. He never took her seriously. She took a lover. The husband found out and said, in effect, now I'll love you. But he couldn't reach her. She felt he was just competing with another man and besides, she had already shifted her allegiance. Often people will have affairs because communication in the marriage is so blocked.

What leads someone to cross the line from flirtation to infidelity?

Sexual energy runs through us all, and it's harmless most of the time. I call it watercooler sexuality. For flirtation to turn serious, the situation has to be right. When does that happen? When you lose the belief in the love between you and your spouse, when you think the other person is no longer special, when the other person's feelings no longer matter to you and when your feelings no longer matter to the other person.

Is that falling out of love?

Isn't that what love is, caring about the other person's feelings? A relationship gets very difficult when one person is continually living according to his or her own agenda rather than trying to understand the partner. In any situation where love is difficult, infidelity becomes a possibility.

If you suspect your spouse of being unfaithful, is there a "right" time to say something?

The minute you think it's going on is the right time. There are no strategies for saying the right thing or easing into it. Whenever you postpone honesty, you are being dishonest. You have to admit your own hurt and that you have hurt each other. The willingness to confront the issue is the severest test a relationship faces. Most people don't want to do this.

What are motivations for infidelity?

Having an affair consumes you and focuses you. It has the same effect Samuel Johnson ascribed to a hanging. Johnson said, "... when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Often on a very simple level, infidelity is the need to feel attractive. I remember a bisexual man who told me he had been with thousands of men and women. I asked him what did it all mean? He said, "It meant I was attractive." He needed to have it confirmed by other people.

Don't we all feel that way to some degree?

Of course. A lot of people aren't getting what they need. We need support. We need pats on the back. We need someone who loves us to whisper in our ear something so risqué we can't believe it, and we're almost outraged—except that 15 minutes later, it sounds like a good idea.

Can infidelity ever lead to productive ends?

Indirectly, I suppose. Some people are just not married to the right people and are too afraid to move. It happened to me and to most of the people I knew or grew up with. It sometimes takes stumbling on the real thing to make you wake up. Most of the time we are not that lucky.

Do people who are unfaithful subconsciously want to be found out?

I would say so. It's a complicated situation. Sometimes when men feel guilty, they want to be caught. On the other hand, at a deeper level, there are men who would like to have an affair and have it all right with their wives. But of course it never is. In most cases, they are angry at their wives and the discovered affair brings that anger out in the open. I remember a prominent lawyer married his high school sweetheart who was a ravishing beauty, but she was cold. He was asking for things in the relationship that she wasn't willing to confer because she thought they were dirty. So he got into a relationship with a young woman in the office who wanted to do everything. He was suddenly more deeply involved in his fantasy life than he ever was in his marriage. Finally, though, he became so burdened with guilt that he spent most of his day in a near psychotic state. Overwrought with grief, he calls up his girlfriend. He's shaking in the telephone booth. He tells her, "I don't love my wife and I love you, but I'm crazy and I can't see you anymore." He bursts out crying, and suddenly he hears a voice on the other end of the telephone. He realizes in a panic that he called home. How's that for a Kafkaesque turn?

Is there ever any justification for keeping an affair secret?

Generally not. The energy that's used to withhold the secret also withholds the love you have for your spouse. The best way to have an affair is to tell the truth. The best way to deal with an affair is to tell the truth. The best way to let your children understand what's going on is to tell the truth. When there's a great deal of pain potentially involved, honesty is the only policy.

Can a couple who have come through one spouse's infidelity resume a fulfilling relationship?

If people are willing to confront the issues immediately that led to it. The truth heals. One of the most touching things in the world is watching an older couple in their 70s walking hand in hand. They stop and one of them pulls the other and points to something. They share it and move on. We all want that. Knowing that you are a pair gives people the strength to be free.

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