Surviving Infidelity

Rebuilding trust and affair-proofing your marriage

The Anatomy of "One Night's Mistake"

What the affair of Pete Domenici can teach us about preventing infidelity.

Just days ago, former New Mexico senator Pete Domenici admitted to having a son out of wedlock. The conservative Republican, who voted to impeach President Clinton (for not being truthful about his affair with Monica Lewinski), revealed that, in addition to the 8 children with his wife of 50 years, he had an affair with Michelle Laxalt, the daughter of a fellow politician.

According to the Washington Post, Laxalt described her exploits with Domenici as: “One night’s mistake led to pregnancy more than 30 years ago.”

I don’t know Pete, and I don’t know Michelle, but the revelation of an affair more than 30 years ago highlights the complexities of infidelity, and the web of lies and deceit that surround affairs. Affairs involve a complex alignment of needs, events and behaviors that can lead a staunch defender of family integrity to spend a night (or many nights) under the sheets with someone other than his or her spouse.

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Whenever you see an affair unfolding—from the stairwells of the Senate to the Stairmasters at the gym -- you can be sure that it was set in motion because of a N.O.D. – an acronym for the trifecta of infidelity: Need, Opportunity and Disinhibition.

 

The Need:

As a public figure, we can only guess what Domenici’s needs were: they may not be that different from those of others in his position—infidelity can stem from a need for power, a need for comfort and understanding, a need to feel desirable, and, yes, a need for sex.  While we have no studies that specifically compare the sex drives of 26 year old single women with married women who have given birth to and are raising eight children, my clinical experience leads me to believe that perhaps Pete may not have been getting all his sexual needs met at home. It’s one possible need of many that leads to affairs.

 

The Opportunity:

The affair would never have happened if Pete had not met Michelle—the fact that she was the daughter of another US Senator meant that he didn’t have to look far for an affair mate. That course of events is hauntingly similar to other affairs: more commonly than not, people don’t seek out affairs, but find themselves in the same place at the same time. But two attractive people don’t have to end up together, if one (or both) can keep their carnal impulses in check.

 

Disinhibition:

This brings us to the third part of the infidelity trifecta: Disinhibition. This psychiatric term describes the inability to control impulses. Many medical conditions can cause disinhibition, from ADHD to head injury.  In fact, Domenici's recent diagnosis of fronto-temporal dementia commonly includes disinhibition as a symptom.  But my medical experience tells me it’s unlikely that Domenici’s current brain illness could excuse behavior 30 years ago. In truth, medical illnesses or brain diseases aren't the most common cause of disinhibition. In most cases, it boils down to a good old conservative notion: individuals must accept responsibility for their behavior.

 

Staying Faithful:

The N.O.D. has the potential to threaten every marriage. Everyone who exchanges wedding vows hopes that that union will meet all needs all of the time. Marriage doesn’t. Part of the challenge of marriage is turning to your spouse to negotiate how those needs can get met.  Preventing infidelity also requires minimizing any opportunities for an affair to happen: married guys and women should avoid intimate conversations, clandestine meetings and cozy moments together with anyone who is a potential affair mate. Finally, having a spouse at home means that even if you have unmet needs, and a great opportunity to jump in the sack with someone else, you still must be able to control your impulses. If you’re on the cusp of an affair, put your attention back on making a great marriage. If all else fails, try a cold shower!

 

Scott Haltzman, M.D., a psychiatrist and relationship researcher, authored four books during his tenure with the Brown University faculty.

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