My Personal Story of Dealing with Affairs

I've had this website since 1996, but since 1980 I've been trying to help people (both men and women) deal with the devastating impact of a spouse's affair. The main reason for my commitment to this effort is that I've "been there" myself—and know how it feels. None of us thinks this will happen to us, and I certainly never imagined this issue becoming the dominant focus of my life.

What happened to me was accurately described by a journalist as part of a positive review of my book, The Monogamy Myth, when she said:

    "When some women's husbands have affairs, they get a divorce.
    Others stay married, but suffer in silence.
    Peggy Vaughan's husband had affairs—and she made a career out of it!"
Here's my story...

My husband and I had been childhood sweethearts and married in 1955 at age 19. I assumed our marriage would always be monogamous—but my expectations of monogamy were shattered after eleven years of marriage. It was at that point that James started having affairs. When I first began to suspect it, I couldn't bring myself to believe this could happen. He was a pre-ministerial college student when we married, and we shared the same traditional values of marriage and monogamy.

James' affairs continued for seven years, and during that time my suspicions grew stronger and stronger. But I found myself incapable of confronting him. If it were true, I felt I'd have to get a divorce to save my pride. And I felt anxious and uncertain about my ability to make it on my own with two small children.

A lot of attention has been focused on the pain of discovering an affair, but very little on the pain of suspecting it. Only about twenty percent of those whose spouses are having affairs ever find out for sure. That leaves eighty percent of us who supposedly don't know and therefore "can't be hurt." But we do hurt. It becomes a silent, creeping cancer that affects everything we do. It's always there—the fear, the anxiety, the uncertainty, and the enormous drain on our pride. I felt alone and helpless. All this seemed like a nightmare. I went through all kinds of emotions: wanting to die, wanting amnesia, wanting to run away…

So the worst times for me were before I found out for sure—during those 7 years of suspecting (almost "knowing") but not wanting to face it. I was so embarrassed and ashamed that I was unwilling to confide in anyone. I did not tell my best friend or a family member or a counselor—or anyone. I kept it completely to myself. And one of the primary reasons (other than my fear of how I could do anything other than get a divorce, which I didn't want to do) was my overwhelming sense of failure. I felt that "I" had failed, that there must be something wrong with me or with my husband, or with my marriage, etc.
(See the bottom of this page for more about how the secrecy about affairs contributes to this sense of personal failure.)

On the other hand, once James told me about his affairs, I felt a sense of "relief." In fact, his telling me allowed me to feel a degree of "power:" now no one else knew anything about his actions that I didn't know—because I knew everything!

Fortunately, by the time he told me about his affairs (in 1974), I had grown strong enough to face the situation and see if we could work through it. By continuing to talk about everything related to the affairs and our feelings during that time, we were able to develop an honest, monogamous marriage again.

Nevertheless, it took me several years to begin discussing my own experience. I didn't just wake up one day and decide to pour out my whole story. It was a very gradual process of telling a few people and getting such positive reinforcement for the value of the sharing that I increasingly expanded my openness in talking about it.

We gradually began using our experience in dealing with affairs in some of the workshops we were conducting in our work as corporate consultants—to illustrate how honest communication can allow people to work through problems and differences, regardless of how difficult or seemingly insurmountable. The positive reactions to what we had to say gradually led us to begin writing a book about our experience, a process that took six years. It was 1980 when Beyond Affairs finally came out.

We appeared on about a hundred television and radio talk shows, from "Donahue" to "To Tell the Truth," to publicize the book. In fact, when we appeared on "Donahue," James and I were the first couple to appear on a daytime talk show discussing their personal experience in dealing with extramarital affairs and staying together as a couple. ("Donahue" was the only daytime talk show on the air in those days. Almost everything about that 1980 show was different from today's daytime talk shows. We were the only 2 guests for the entire hour.)

I didn't realize at the time just how unusual it was for a couple to talk personally about their own experience with affairs, but the reaction from the media was overwhelming. This allowed us to reach a large number of people. I was proud of the show and of what I think we accomplished by appearing on the program. While we had a strong belief in what we were doing, we were surprised by some of the reactions we received.

This decision to "go public" completely changed my life. It not only led to changes in my personal life, but led me to make this issue the focus of my life's work. Since 1980 I have written many books based on what I've learned from all the people who have shared with me. I'm convinced that the more we understand about affairs in general and our own experiences in particular, the better we can recover. And one of the keys to this happening is to work toward breaking the "code of secrecy" that surrounds the issue of affairs.

Here's an excerpt from The Monogamy Myth:

    One of the major consequences of the code of secrecy is the way secrecy compounds the problem for people trying to cope with their partners' affairs. The secrecy leaves them alone with their anxiety if they suspect and alone with their pain if they find out. It's quite possible that this isolation threatens a person's sanity even more than dealing with the affairs themselves.

    It's clear that the secrecy in dealing with affairs is a critical factor in a person's struggle to recover from the emotional impact of this experience. Most people keep their pain hidden, if at all possible. Some people become obsessed with the idea of keeping their experience secret from others. One man said this was his most pressing concern, that, in fact, he had become almost paranoid about other people "knowing."

    The process of keeping this information from others increases the feelings of shame and embarrassment (because if it weren't seen as shameful, it wouldn't need to be kept secret). And the longer it's kept secret, the stronger the feelings of shame. So the secrecy and the problem with self-esteem serve to reinforce each other.

The bottom line is that you are not alone—and I hope that my efforts to share my own experience and the expertise I've accumulated through the years will help each of you deal with your own personal situations.

Finally, if you are interested in more personal information, see: About Us.

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