Of Troubled Marriages, Sexual Compulsions and Depression

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News headlines are packed with information about the life and loves of athletic hero, Tiger Woods. Many other celebrities and national leaders have been caught in extra marital affairs. Men such as former President Bill Clinton, former Governor of New York Eliot Spitzer, present day Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, and many others, have been forced by the media to confess to their extra marital sexual escapades.

Regardless of political views,most people start out admiring these people who are viewed as successful, with wealth, power, happy marriages, and healthy and well adjusted children.


That is why people are perplexed by the basic question that these lurid affairs raise: Why?

At first glance, it is easy to demonize these people for having committed such offenses against their wives and children. They become further examples of the stereotypical view that men simply cannot keep their pants on and their "zippers zipped."

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However, this immediate reaction is neither fair nor accurate. First of all, men are not the only people who have problems with extra marital sex. Wives can be guilty of this as well and studies show that women are quite capable of engaging in multiple sexual liaisons while married. Therefore, rather than blame one gender or the other, it is more important to explore what might really be happening to cause these painful problems.

Possible Explanations for Multiple Sexual Affairs:

It might come as a surprise to the reader that many of the types of people who seemed to go from one person to the next in the pursuit of sexual pleasure are really depressed.

Before any of you protest against this hypothesis by stating something like, "Oh sure, Dr. Schwartz, Bill Clinton was really depressed! Are you kidding?" No, I'm not kidding.

Depression can express itself in many ways. Low self esteem along with fears of rejection, often do form the basis of why some people cannot seem to be involved in truly intimate relationships.

It is true that many depressed people can be shy, passive and unassertive. This is the type of individual whom many will refer to as a "nice person who never hurt anyone." This is also the type of individual who could, and often does, pursue prostitutes and pornography even if they are married. In other words, the individual lives with the chronic fear that they are inadequate. In the search for reassurance as to their masculinity, they go from one sexual partner to the next. At home, their wives and children fail to be the source of self confidence and self esteem.

Paradoxically, the another type of depressed person is the one who is aggressive and gregarious. They compensate for their fears and self doubts by pursuing power, wealth and sexual conquests. This is why it is within the realm of possibility that a man like Bill Clinton, and the others, can be depressed.

Here is Tiger Woods, the source of admiration and envy for millions of people. Yet, his sexual activities captured the headlines because they are so much in opposition to what everyone expected of their golf hero. However, it is true that even a man like Tiger Woods can live with depression, low self esteem, deep self doubt about masculinity and have a constant need for reassurance.

I can anticipate some of my readers scoffing about this by saying such things as, "Oh come on Doc, what about the hurt he caused to his family. Besides, didn't he know the hurt he would cause? Isn't it the same with Bill Clinton and the others?"

The answer to that protest is, no, they did not know they could cause such hurt.

The people who are sexually compulsive, such as the ones who are being discussed here, are guided by such powerful forces that very little thought is given to consequences and if those thoughts do occur, they are quickly dismissed.

It must be emphasized that only some of these men are sexually compulsive or "addicted." The others avoid sex and tend to go to prostitutes because they are timid around women and out of feelings of guilt.

Whether avoidant of sex or sexually acting out, both types of men feel guilty about their sexual feelings and that is why they avoid intimacy at home. Over the years, I have spoken to many wives who expressed deep frustration with their men for not having sex with them. When they arrive in the consulting room, many of these men admit that it is easier for them to have sex with anonymous women than with their wives.

In some ways, this goes back to what is called the "Madonna-Whore Complex." These are people who think of their wives as mothers to their children and are, therefore, pure, just like the "Madonna." To admit to having sexual strivings toward them and to even understand that their wives could have sexual strivings, is too much for them. As a result, they reserve the major part of their sexual lives for pornography or for prostitutes. 

Extra marital affairs can occur for other reasons than depression or compulsive sexuality. If one or both of the people in the marriage is unhappy and is not expressing it, there is fertile ground for an affair. One reason for an unhappy marriage sometimes has to do with the fact that partners have very different libidinal drives. If one of the dyad likes frequent sex and the other does not, trouble can quickly set in. By the way, it is not only the husband who can have this complaint. Over the years of my practice, plenty of wives come to the consulting room with the complaint that their husbands never want sex.

Regardless of the factors that caused an extra marital affair, the consequences are always devastating. Volcanic eruptions of feelings of hurt, betrayal, disbelief, fear, outrage and rage all come flooding in. Deep distrust and resentment also set in. Children are caught in the middle of the maelstrom resulting from the deadly secret being divulged. No one is spared, including the one who is blamed.

Can marriages survive an affair?

Statistics show that a large percentage of marriages disrupted by an affair end in divorce. However, there are marriages that are able to continue and even improve after the crisis passes. A lot depends upon who had the affair and for what reasons.

It is said that it is easier for a marriage to survive if the sexual tryst was with an anonymous person and no relationship was formed. Another way of saying this is that if the affair did not involve a romance but was in the nature of a "one night stand," it is much easier for the partner to be forgiving. If there was a romance, one or both partners may prefer divorce.

Another important factor is the extent to which a couple wants to repair the marriage and is willing to go for help. Help may come in the form of  individual psychotherapy as well as marriage counseling.

For psychotherapy and marriage counseling to succeed, everyone needs to have a lot of time to work on and resolve feelings of anger, guilt and betrayal. There is no short term solution to this.

Perhaps the deepest issue the couple will have to face, if they want the marriage to succeed, is to work on the problem of trust. A sexual affair outside of the bounds of marriage always creates feelings of betrayal and distrust. This, along with anger, takes a long time to resolve. The deep wounds of hurt do not just disappear.

There is also a need for the couple to explore what went wrong in the marriage that might have caused the affair. It is often said that an extramarital affair can be a cry for help.

I always point out, when working with intimate couples, that problems in the relationship are never the fault of one person. Even in the face of an affair, it is a mistake to demonize that person and to place all the blame on him or her. By and large, people in a relationship mutually make their own contributions to the problems that are disruptive.

Iraq and Afghanistan:

Some have said that the discussions about Tiger Woods are a waste of time because of deeper and more troubling issues such as unemployment and war.

However, the deep crisis created by both wars and the economy are having devastating effects on many marriages. Veterans, both female and male, are coming home to marriages that are in a state of ruin because the husband or wife has moved on to another partner and now wants a divorce. With regard to the economy and such problems as unemployment, I do not know if there are any statistics on the rate of divorce or affairs but my guess is that the economy is not helping, to say the least.

What are your comments about this painful and difficult topic? I am not referring to Tiger Woods or other celebrities but to your own personal experiences with discord in marriage caused by sexual acting out. Your comments, questions and experiences are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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