It might have been an interesting column. Certainly, the topic is compelling.
A husband is caught having an affair. He and his wife work to put their marriage back together. They live happily ever after… or so it seems.
Unfortunately, columnist Elizabeth Bernstein turned it into a train wreck. Normally, Bernstein writes brilliantly about relationship problems and difficulties.
But not this time. On this matter, one would do well to ignore her advice.
Bernstein tells the story of a couple from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the Rothrocks.
Mr. Rothrock has an affair, except that it is not exactly an affair. It is a cyber-affair, a virtual affair, one that takes place entirely online. Apparently, the affair was so good that the cheating husband had made plans to meet his cyber-paramour for a more real encounter.
Is a cyber-affair the same thing as a real affair? The question has been kicking around for some time now. It should not be a surprise that men and women see it differently.
Here, Bernstein takes the wife’s side: a significant emotional connection coupled with extreme flirtation, culminating in “virtual sex” … counts as an affair.
For the record, as I understand it, true cybersex would involve a sexual act performed by two avatars in cyberspace.
The cheating husband and his alluring siren had something that was more like phone sex: real self-pleasuring in the presence of the image and/or voice of one’s beloved. For my part I would not call it virtual sex.
One commenter sagely asked whether the virtual affair produced any virtual children or even whether it transmitted any virtual viruses.
Since the affair was never really consummated—the happy couple never met in person— the risks and consequences were quite different from what they would have been if there had been real sex.
It was also convenient that the man’s lover lives very far away. If she had been his real lover and if she lived in town, it would have been far more difficult to sever ties with her.
On the other hand, despite the optimism that Bernstein seems to feel, whatever makes you think that these virtual lovers will never find each other again?
Unfortunately for Mr. Rothrock, Mrs. Rothrock is a mental health crisis counselor. I will call her Mrs. Rothrock, out of respect for their marital status, and not Ms. Rothrock, as Bernstein does, for reasons that escape me.
In Bernstein’s account the wronged wife deploys all of her professional skill to manage the crisis and to restore good feeling to their marriage.
She threatens her husband. She browbeats him. She forces herself to read through the entirety of the amorous correspondence, in his presence. She forces him to tell her in agonizing detail everything that went on. She forces both of them to go to therapy. She forces her husband to tell all of their friends and family of his indiscretion. For good measure she humiliates him in front of the public at large, including his business colleagues and associates, by telling their story to the Wall Street Journal.
If you accept the premise that the man had an emotional affair online, you need also ask about his wife’s emotional support and affection? What was the nature of her emotional attachment to her husband?
Was she loving and caring or was she a nasty scold?
Bernstein describes the scene at home prior to the affair:
When he was home, he found the din of family life hard to take. He started to think of his wife as a mother. When she became irritated with him, he felt scolded like a child. He withdrew emotionally and began to snap at her. When Ms. Rothrock asked him what was wrong, he replied: "I don't know what you mean."
As one expects, this account is skewed against the husband. Bernstein makes it sound like it’s all his fault, as though he is seeing things that are not there, and as though he is failing to communicate with his loving and caring wife. .
Obviously, this exercise in male-bashing is designed to cover up his wife’s complicity.
The story makes the wife out to be a suffering mother and housewife, a woman who gave up her career to stay at home and raise her children. It does not suggest that she is in any way responsible. It places the fault entirely in the lap of the cheating husband.
Of course, if you were Mr. Rothrock and you were being blamed for everything that was going wrong at home, wouldn’t you seek emotional solace elsewhere?
If you have doubts about what provoked the affair, simply think through the measures that Mrs. Rothrock employs to punish her husband after she finds out.
Now that Mr. Rothrock has received a severe public and private beat down and has suffered an excruciating humiliation, don’t you think that at some point he is going to start thinking of payback? How soon will it be before a comely woman sidles up to him at a bar and commiserates with him over the pain that his wife has inflicted on him?
Or, he might be thinking that for all the pain he has received, he might as well have consummated the affair. Or else, he might be saying to himself that he will have to do a better job of hiding the evidence next time.
Besides, doesn’t the wife’s approach bear an eerie resemblance to the technique that was tried on Tiger Woods? How well did public humiliation work for his marriage?
Neither the wife nor Bernstein has anything to offer to those who want to repair their marriage after an affair. They are colluding in destroying a man who made a mistake, but who was certainly not the only one at fault.
Bernstein and her experts err most seriously when they countenance washing the dirty linen in public and in private.
Amazingly, Bernstein writes this:
While re-establishing trust and communication, each spouse has a difficult task, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and Rutgers University research professor. The betrayer has to be willing to answer questions honestly. The betrayed has to stop asking questions eventually and never mention the affair again.
Ms. Rothrock spent hours reading her husband's correspondence with the other woman, at times crying, while he sat by her side, she says. "I was completely devastated."
If she was going to be devastated, why did she read it? And why did she read it in her husband’s presence? Did she think she was reading the sequel to Fifty Shades of Grey?
I am even more surprised to find Helen Fisher, an esteemed expert in this field, offering incoherent advice.
After recommending complete disclosure, Fisher says that the betrayed wife has to stop asking questions and never mention the affair again.
To me this feels like too little, too late. Do you think it will be that easy for the wife to erase her husband’s affair from her mind after wallowing in every sordid and non-sordid detail for hours on end? How do you go about never mentioning it again when you have announced it to the world?
When Tiger Woods went to be treated for his supposed sex addiction, one aspect of the treatment was that he confess in detail what he was doing with his erstwhile lovers.
At the time I wrote that this was a bad idea. It is still a bad idea. How did it work out for Tiger and Elin?
The more you think about the affair and the more you know about it in vivid detail the more it will be imprinted in your memory.
Where did anyone get the idea that, after an orgy of full disclosure, you can wave a wand and make it all go away?
Heaven knows why this woman thinks she will establish trust by exposing the extent of the husband’s affections for another woman and the depth of his attraction to her.
According to the Journal, the last time the errant husband went to a convention his trusting wife accompanied him… to keep an eye on him.