Why Jesse James and Mark Souder cheated
Every male politico and celebrity seems to be two-timing on his wife these days, or admitting to it at least. But unlike his counterparts in the recent confederacy of celebrity cheaters, Jesse James channeled Freud to explain his adulterous behavior. In his interview on Nightline, which appeared last night, James said that as a result of childhood abuse, he feared that his actress wife Sandra Bullock would eventually dump him:
“I grew up with a huge amount of shame and fear and abandonment on my shoulders from a very young age and I think…the way my mind rationalized [cheating on Bullock], ‘Well, you know, I might as well do whatever I can to like run her off cause she is going to find out what I am anyway and leave me anyway.”
James’ alleged fear of abandonment cannot be dismissed as a reason for his behavior; a lack of trust of others can’t help a marriage. But his explanation is pretty hollow. It’s not just that James’ father denies abusing his son. Even if James feared that Bullock would abandon him during their marriage, his fear didn’t stop him from marrying her. Where was his fear during his engagement and first years of marriage?
Perhaps his fear returned while Bullock was spending her days and nights on the sets of “Blindside,” “Miss Congeniality 2″ or any other of her recent films and he wasn’t with her. I say this in jest, but my point is a serious one. For most married couples in the United States, past trauma is not the chief reason for couples’ divorce. A lack of time together is.
One spouse is devoted to his or her career, friends, or hobbies, while the other is devoted to other things. The result is predictable: A couple becomes not “one flesh” but two. Despite James’ claim that his marriage to Bullock was “amazing,” the evidence suggests otherwise. As Jeffrey Dew, an assistant professor in the department of Family, Consumer, and Human Development at Utah State University, in an interview with me wrote,
Explaining infidelity by pointing to childhood abuse sounds dubious to me.
Infidelity is typically a process, not an event or “it just happened out of the blue”. Typically, people who are happy in their marriage don’t have affairs. Experiments have even shown that people who are happy in their marriages pay less attention to the opposite sex and rate attractive members of the opposite sex lower than those who are dissatisifed. Further propinquity (both geographic and temporal) has a lot to do with who people have sex with – I think that’s part of the way that we’re put together biologically.
Failing to spend an adequate amount of time together is a key reason for marital dissatisfaction, Dew added:
I found that the more time that spouses spend together, the happier they are in their marriage. In fact, spending time together was one of the strongest predictors of marital happiness. The reverse is also true – the happier that people are in their marriage, the more time they will spend with their spouse.
This finding holds over time too. When spouses increase the amount of time they spend together, their marital happiness increases (on average).
Dew is hardly alone in his conclusions. Nationally-recognized marital counselors like Dr. Willard Harley and Dr. John M. Gottmann agree with the quantity-quality link, although Gottman is less explicit in his endorsement. Rep. Mark Souder and E.J. Dionne concur. And successfully married celebrity couples do too. Linda and Paul McCartney, for example, spent almost every night of their 29-year marriage under the same roof. As Paul McCartney explained,
“Whenever I was working late somewhere, I just never fancied it,” McCartney told Chrissie Hynde in the USA Today article “Tears and Laughter,” which appeared in the Oct. 30-Nov.1, 1998, edition. “I thought: Well, I could stay overnight in this posh hotel, or I could go home to Linda. And it was always the brighter of the two options: Yeah, go home to Linda.”
Quantity alone won’t make a marriage great. Quality is also key; couples need to be thoughtful and considerate of each other. But quantity increases the odds that quality time will satisfy each partner. That’s time couples can spend meeting each other’s most intimate emotional needs and make deposits in each other’s love bank. Think about it. If you spent only one hour a day on your job, how successful of an employee would you be? (For what it’s worth, Harley recommends that a married couple spend two hours alone with each other every night).
Why Americans don’t spend sufficient time together is a bit of a mystery. Spending too much at the office isn’t necessarily the reason, as we work fewer hours each week than our counterparts in the 19th century. Perhaps we spend too much time watching television and therefore fail to give our spouses the undivided attention necessary to meet their emotional needs.
Critics might attack my argument on the grounds that I am privileging a “soulmate” model of marriage in which couples split up if they don’t feel at one with each other. And it strikes me as inarguable that the triumph of the soulmate over the institutional model of marriage has destabilized marriage in America, especially among the poor and working classes. But unless American married couples spend more time together, and learn to turn that quantity time into quality time, explanations like Jesse James’ will get the wide hearing they don’t deserve.