Beyond Affairs Network group opens in ToledoWritten by Caitlin McGlade | | firstname.lastname@example.org
You want to hide in your bedroom. But you don’t because it reminds you of your spouse.
You want to be stronger. But you can’t stomach the idea of eating food, and haven’t for weeks.
You want to scream. Cry. Go out and buy Victoria’s Secret lingerie or expensive cologne.
Months could have passed since you discovered your spouse had an affair. Or years. Or just days. It doesn’t matter. When your friends look at you with those sullen eyes or pat you on the shoulder and open their lips to utter, “It’s time to get on with your life,” you suppress a desire to smack them.
Started in the 1980s by a woman named Peggy Vaughan after she discovered her husband cheated, Beyond Affairs Network (BAN) comprises a chain of support groups linked by a common grief: infidelity.
The network has since expanded to 15 countries and territories, reaching nearly 100 cities across the United States, five of which are in Ohio, including the recently opened chapter in Toledo.
Only betrayed spouses can start a group and only those betrayed may join. For each meeting, the group leader will open a discussion on topics approaching anything from forgiveness to the stages of healing to empowering literature. The objective is to help the individual on his or her path to wellness. This may or may not lead to reuniting with his or her spouse.
The organization is also deeply rooted in anonymity — you can even introduce yourself to group members with a false name. The Toledo BAN leader has asked Toledo Free Press to grant her anonymity to protect her children and her recovering family. We’ll call her Jane.
She said one of the most powerful tools of the group is its ability to help people realize that they are not alone. At a related seminar she met women who bonded over their reactions to infidelity.
“We found out we had spent more money on lingerie trying to deal with it in the past three months than ever before,” Jane said. “And we thought we were all going crazy — other people were repulsed by what we were doing but it was totally normal.”
Until death do us part?
The divorce rate among baby boomers has doubled within the past two decades, while the rate among younger generations has flattened, according to Susan Brown, a Bowling Green State University professor who co-wrote the paper “Gray Divorce Revolution.”
She and BGSU faculty member I-Fen Lin examined data from the 1990 U.S. Vital Statistic Report and the 2009 American Community Survey. Their results recorded that one in four people who get divorced are 50 or older.
A lot of this has to do with the nature of the baby boomer generation. Flip back through history and you’ll quickly make the connection — this was the first demographic that made divorce popular. Consider, then, that many of these people got remarried. Sociologists contend that you’re more likely to get divorced if you’ve been divorced before, so it follows that many people 50 or older are now exemplifying the statistic.
And now we have a society in which the threshold for divorce is relatively low compared to the baby boomers’ parents’ generation, Brown said.
“We basically have a different view on marriages and it’s about what the marriage can do for me,” she said. “We’ve ratcheted up what we expect from marriage. In the 40s and 50s, we had much more modest expectations. Whether I’m in love with this person or if I’m happy or depressed, that was a nonstarter.”
Extramarital affairs raise the odds of divorce by about two-thirds, said Alfred DeMaris, also a BGSU professor and a statistician for the Center for Family and Demographic Research. DeMaris reviewed data on 1,270 spouses — 492 men and 778 women — who responded to a study beginning in 1980, and followed up by phone or mail in years that followed. The group he analyzed in 1980 reported no extramarital sex during their marriage.
He has found that the length of the marriage tended to reduce the likelihood for extramarital sex and that the quality of marriage, including how much time couples spent together, was an indicator of how at-risk the couple was for affairs.
He cites a theory that two people feel passion for each other when they rapidly grow intimate with each other. Over time, there is less to learn about each other so passion ebbs.
“The stuff that fuels romance is desire and longing and uncertainty and if you look at all the great romances in history through literature they all have these qualities,” DeMaris said. “And marriage is about obligation and predictability. The two are fundamentally incompatible. But in return for that you get something that is really more valuable, which is a life partner.”
DeMaris has also documented the effect infidelity has on marriage. Being religious, for example, seemed to exacerbate the effect of the affair. He had hypothesized that the quality of marriage before
the affair might have some bearing on consequences, but found out otherwise.
The only circumstance that lowered the likelihood of divorce after infidelity seemed to be if the wife was unemployed prior to the affair and then got a job afterward, he said.
“Very few things seemed to buffer the affair,” he said.
Growing despite despair
Anne Bercht knows that there is no buffer. The organizer of Beyond Affairs Network, who took over for Vaughan in the mid-2000s, travels the country to give seminars on how to take your life back after an affair or how to prevent affairs in the first place.
“Our culture has created perceptions about affairs and why they happen and most of those are false. I go sit on an airplane and people ask ‘What do you do?’ and I tell them and they get this almost offensive response and they’ll tell me how great their marriage is,” Bercht said. “All of the people in our group are people who would have said that before it happened to them.”
She said that we tend to conjure an image of the “cheating type” and assume that as long as we meet spousal needs then affairs couldn’t possibly strike our marriages. She can say this because it happened to her.
Bercht recalled a day when she was driving in her car, belting out the lyrics to “Unbreak my Heart” by Toni Braxton. She thought about how depressing the lyrics were and then felt lucky that she and her husband shared a good marriage.
That night her husband confessed to her that he’d been having an affair.
Years later, the two are back together and have met with hundreds of troubled spouses. She went back to school. She wrote a book called “My Husband’s Affair Became the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me.”
This is how she does it.
First, never underestimate the shame and terror that comes along with talking about betrayal.
Bercht could offer numerous accounts of individuals who want to come to BAN meetings. They drive to the site of the meeting. They try to get out of the car. But instead, they sit in their cars. And wait until the meeting lets out. And leave.
This reaction is wrapped up in the stigma that marks people who have suffered from spousal betrayal.
“There is hope that you can have a monogamous marriage by being uninformed [about others’ affairs] so when it happens to someone else we tend to make some judgements,” she said. “If I only had a penny for every time I heard ‘I wonder what you did to cause your husband to have an affair’ or ‘I know how men are with sex!’”
Those who have not experienced this tend to shrink away when they hear about affairs. They tend to avoid the word altogether. It’s almost as though they are afraid it will happen to them if they hang around for too long, Bercht said.
Another misperception commonly faced by members of BAN involves the rate at which their friends expect them to ditch their grief. It could take a minimum of two years to recover. Bercht recommends a victim of infidelity not make any decisions in the three months following the news. But all too often, Bercht said, friends will try to talk logically about “being a smart person” or “everything becoming OK soon.” She said the victim’s life is falling apart. He or she doesn’t need this.
Reacting to an affair is like reacting to a death. This is, in fact, the death of a relationship as both parties know it. Friends who have never experienced affairs don’t understand that the victim has to go through the stages of grieving and may often suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, Bercht said.
“If only people would treat it the way that they treat the loss of a spouse to death or a loss of a child,” she said. “If you lost a child, no one would ever come to you three months later and say ‘Why are you so sad? Your kid is gone — it’s time to get on with your life.’”
Do you really complete me?
Bercht recalls a marriage counseling exercise that required she and her husband to mash together a hunk of yellow and a hunk of blue PLAY-DOH to make green. The combination of the two colors symbolized the unity of marriage.
But this didn’t seem right.
“Don’t tell me at this point that I’m nothing but a half-green and Anne ceases to exist,” she said. “Each person has to avoid losing their identity in their marriage. People get too enmeshed in their identity as who they are as a husband, father, wife, mother and the very things that were special and unique about them — the thing that their spouse was attracted to in the first place — they tend to lose sight of.”
The “you complete me” mentality of relationships is what Bercht tries to move away from. She teaches affair prevention seminars across the country and this is one of her major points. The program encourages couples to embrace their differences. This is about having a voice in the relationship and how to lighten preexisting baggage.
A lot of Bercht’s job is to deconstruct the misconceptions surrounding relationships. Another loaded falsehood, she said, is expecting that one spouse can change the other.
She leads a “take back your life retreat” for the betrayed and said most people respond with similar desires when she asks what they want.
“They say ‘I want my spouse to change this, that and the other thing’,” she said. “I spend a lot of time saying, ‘You don’t have control of that; what do you want without your spouse?”
By the end of the weekend retreat, the individuals see that they need to make themselves whole and make improvements on themselves. And the next thing she knows, the betrayed and his or her spouse are signing up for couples’ seminars.
She said that betrayed spouses have the tendency to obsess over saving the marriage at first — but this comes across as needy. When they finally reach the “aha” moment and realize they cannot control their spouses’ behavior, more often than not there is a positive change in the other person, she said.
Her book is called “My Husband’s Affair Became the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” because her husband’s affair forced her to realize that she had to build herself up independently of her spouse. Once she began to do that, her marriage improved.
Jane, the leader of Toledo’s chapter, said Bercht’s story helped her and now she wants to help others.
“I want people to know that this happens far too regularly in our society and there is a process to go through,” she said. “There are people out there that care in a nonjudgmental way.”
Contact Toledo’s BAN at email@example.com. Jane is open to questions and/or inquiries as to how and where to join the group.