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FOR three decades, Frederick Humphrey, a professor of family studies at the University of Connecticut and a marriage and family counselor, has studied extramarital affairs and counseled people who are having them. Extramarital affairs, he said, break up more marriages than anything else. Often, the affairs do not even involve sex. In an interview in his office on the Storrs campus, Dr. Humphrey, who has been married for more than 30 years, talked about his work on extramarital affairs and the reasons people have them. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:.

They are Mr. Average America. They are in their late 30's. They have one, two, three. They've been married 13 years. They're just before what some people call the midlife crisis. We're talking about just plain average people. The reasons for affairs are multitudinal. You always think about sex, but many affairs don't even involve sex. In some of the most dangerous affairs there's never even any sex. I divide affairs this way: those with sex and those without sex; those with love, those without love; short-term affairs under six months, long-term affairs. And then you get mixtures of those.

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One of the most common reasons people have affairs is they say they can talk to the person and they can't talk to their spouse. So it's not that the other person's so sexy or exciting or rich. Now, sex is also a reason sometimes. Most Americans have some trouble with their sex lives. The sex life of the average couple varies from O.

And they often say maybe it would be better with somebody else.

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Then there's what I call the cup-of-coffee syndrome. Women more so than men have an affair with somebody they know, like a friend or Connecticut married but looking. Men are more apt to have an affair with a perfect stranger. With this co-worker deal, you see it in all offices and factories, you see it in the church choir, you name it.

People work together, they get to know each other, they may meet for something like coffee, and they get into what is called a wheel of love. They discover there's some rapport there. They begin to tell each other about their families about their likes and dislikes. Then they get into a mutual dependence; they depend on seeing each other.

The last stage is love and sex. Lots of clients have said over the years, ''I never believed I'd be sitting here telling you I'd done this. They believed in fidelity. People who are very active with multiple partners before marriage do get involved in extramarital affairs more so than those who were not. Maybe they're more sexy. Maybe they have a different kind of conscience. I've been a marriage and family therapist for 30 years.

And I teach marriage. I teach family and I teach human sexuality. These things all go together. Back in the early 70's while preparing a lecture for students one night, I went through some of my own closed cases to give graduate students an idea of what it's like to be a therapist. And I discovered that well over half the cases involved affairs. I had not realized that such a large did. Then in the mid's, I did a nationwide sample of therapists to find out what their cases were like.

And out of that I discovered how very common extramarital affairs were. Then I repeated that study a few years ago, thinking 10 years out of the so-called sexual revolution maybe things would be different. But I didn't find any changes. Other surveys have shown that at least every other household is affected by this. I sent out several hundred questionnaires to established professional marriage and family counselors.

It asked them to analyze their last closed case where the husband or wife had an affair. So they weren't reporting the most juicy or the most dull or the most successful case. Just the last one they were no longer seeing.

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One, it showed, as I said, that this is a very big proportion of the work of these counselors. Two, well over half the couples they saw either got a divorce or at least split up.

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So I would say extramarital affairs is one of the most dangerous problems in American marriage today. As expected, we found that husbands had affairs more often than wives, although women are catching up. But something we didn't even think of was the large proportion of marriages where both the husband and wife had affairs. Why is there an increase in the of women engaging in extramarital affairs?

I think they're more susceptible. They're more available. They're more vulnerable. I'm sure contraception has had an impact, because you used to always worry about getting pregnant.

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I think both good contraception and legal abortion has probably played some role, as has the woman's liberation movement, which tells women they are as entitled to good times in life as men are. Men are looking for someone to talk to, somebody more exciting than their wife.

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They're looking for somebody to listen to them. The affairs vary from purely sexual to like second marriages. Women are looking for attention, thoughtfulness and caring usually more than they're looking for sex. A very small of affairs result in the marriage becoming stronger. But that's a very small.

They may have better sex relationships. They learn, they respond or do things with their lover they would not think of doing with their spouse. And they reflect on just how important their partner really is. So they appreciate them better. Sometimes if your spouse has an affair, it leaves a person to try harder, to be a better spouse. How forgiving do you have to be to stay married to a cheating spouse? Extremely forgiving, because the first reaction when you learn your spouse has had an affair is broken trust.

The second reaction is anger. So this broken Connecticut married but looking. will not be regained in weeks or months, it takes literally years to regain that trust. Therapists disagree on this. Some of my colleagues say they should always be told.

I say no. For two reasons. One, I don't feel we have any right as therapists to tell someone they must do something. Secondly, I think once it becomes known it changes forever the marriage. So if it doesn't become known and the person works through their ambivalence through therapy and decides they want to stay with their mate and have a better marriage, I think that couple will have a much better chance of making it than when it's forced out in the open. A lot of these affairs are never revealed.

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According to various studies, when husbands have affairs, 46 percent of the times they tell their wives; when the wife has the affair, 36 percent of the time she tells her husband. Well, before people criticize others who have an affair, they ought to look at the circumstances. Let me give you an example. Take a man who has become disabled. He may be in a coma. His wife, because of her religious teaching, because of finances, because of the kids, wants to stay married.

But she's 35 years old. Does that mean for the next 40, 50 years she's supposed to do without any love or affection? I think that presents ethical values that are far different than in the situation where there are Connecticut married but looking. healthy people. Is it harder to deal with a spouse who has a homosexual affair than a heterosexual one?

What happens with homosexual affairs is the spouse not only is angered and trust-broken and shocked, but the spouse wonders what kind of man or woman he or she is to lose their spouse to a man or woman. They feel this reflects on their sexuality. The shock and the anger are more intense with these kinds of affairs because on top of everything else you have the threat to your own self-esteem.

Do you think AIDS will make people think twice before having an affair? Everybody wonders about that. My clinical impression is that it hasn't made much difference yet. What happens in an affair is very similar to alcoholism. It's what psychologists call idealization and denial. You cannot imagine that this wonderful guy could give you AIDS or this beautiful woman would be horsing around with anyone else and have a sexually transmitted disease.

So there's this denial process where you idealize and glorify your extramarital partner.

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CONNECTICUT Q & A: FREDERICK HUMPHREY; 'A Lot of These Affairs Are Never Revealed'