When President Clinton cheated on his wife with a White House intern and then publicly lied about the affair, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led the campaign to impeach the president in 1998, positioning himself as a champion of “traditional values.”
Now, of course, everyone in the world knows that Gingrich himself was having an affair at the time, then lied about it to both his wife and the public.
When the affair was discovered by his wife, he reportedly asked her for an open marriage—that is, one in which they could both have multiple sexual partners; she declined. (This is part of a lifelong pattern. He cheated on his first wife with the woman who became his second, then cheated on his second wife with the woman who became his third.)
These bare facts do not seem to have hurt Gingrich’s campaign to become President of the United States. Right after his second wife, Marianne Ginther, gave a devastating interview with ABC News, he handily won the South Carolina primary and went on to give a widely praised performance in the Florida GOP primary debate. For many GOP voters, apparently, being an untrustworthy husband does not make him an untrustworthy candidate for President.
Politics isn’t our forte here at the Greater Good Science Center, and we will let Republican voters decide who will best represent them against President Obama later this year. However, we do specialize in translating scientific research into tips for having better relationships with spouses and other people in our lives, and we’ve been especially interested in the role of trust in healthy relationships. So, whatever our personal failings, we feel somewhat qualified to provide marriage advice to Newt Gingrich, as well as to anyone else who might be facing similar issues in their marriages. What can we learn from Mr. Gingrich’s mistakes?
1) Put trust first. When researcher John Gottman and colleagues studied couples around the country, he found that the number one most important issue on their minds was trust and betrayal. As Gottman said in a talk for our Science for a Meaningful Life series, spouses want to know, “Can I trust you to be there and listen to me when I’m upset? Can I trust you to choose me over your mother, over your friends? Can I trust you to work for our family? To not take drugs? Can I trust you to not cheat on me and be sexually faithful? Can I trust you to respect me? To help with things in the house? To really be involved with our children?”
If Gingrich really believes, as he has stated many times, in the ideal of lifelong, monogamous marriage, then he probably shouldn’t have undermined the trust that is at the core of such a relationship. Gottman’s graduate student Dan Yoshimoto broke the foundations of marital trust down into seven components with the acronym ATTUNE, which stands for:
- Awareness of your partner’s emotion;
- Turning toward the emotion;
- Tolerance of two different viewpoints;
- trying to Understand your partner;
- Non-defensive responses to your partner;
- and responding with Empathy.
“Trust isn’t just important for couples,” Gottman reminds us. “It’s also vital to neighborhoods and states and countries. Trust is central to what makes human communities work.” Something, perhaps, GOP primary voters should bear in mind.
2) If you do betray your partner, make amends—as opposed to, say, first asking for permission to sleep with other people, as Gingrich did.
Studies consistently show that around 15 to 22 percent of people have ever had an extramarital affair. (Incidentally, people routinely overestimate the amount of cheating that is going on. One 2007 survey, for example, found participants “guessed that twice as many people are having extramarital affairs as really are.”)
According to marriage and family therapists, if those marriages end, it’s likely because of the problems that triggered the affair in the first place. “I see a lot of couples in my psychotherapy practice whose relationships have been rocked by infidelity,” writes therapist Joshua Coleman in his Greater Good essay “Surviving Betrayal.” While many of these marriages dissolve, Coleman has found that “people on both sides of a betrayal can work to restore feelings of trust, and so repair their relationship.”
Coleman’s first advice for the betrayer is to take complete responsibility for your actions. “No matter how driven you felt to have the affair, nobody made you do it,” writes Coleman, author of The Lazy Husband and Imperfect Harmony. “The more you blame your partner, the longer it will take [them] to believe that you are trustworthy and to want to forgive you.”
In that light, Gingrich’s explanation of why he had an affair seems like a clear violation of this principle. “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” he explained in 2010. While Gingrich may indeed have been driven by his passion for the US of A, it is unlikely that that “this country” is responsible for his actions.
3) Look at the root causes of the betrayal. Gingrich no doubt has a story to tell about his marriage(s); there are nuances to relationships that might be invisible to outsiders. It may be the case that a spouse cheats because they feel emotionally, sexually, or financially abandoned, or feels trapped in a relationship with an unreliable or problematic partner.
In his essay, Coleman describes a couple, Janice and Robert, troubled by infidelity. In therapy, he writes, “it became clear that it wouldn’t be enough for Robert to end the affair with his co-worker, rededicate himself to Janice, and repair how hurt and humiliated she felt. It was also necessary for Janice to admit that she had shut down sexually since she had become a mother and had ignored Robert’s complaints about their sex life. Janice had to acknowledge that Robert, in his own way, felt hurt and betrayed by her turning away from him and neglecting what had been an important form of connection with her.”
“There’s no singular root cause for betrayal,” says Coleman. “Ideally, both people have to look at the ways both might have contributed to the conditions that made the affair more likely. For me the biggest predictor of whether a marriage can recover from betrayal is if both people can talk about the underlying dynamics and how it came to happen.”
4) If you do want an open marriage, ask for one before you cheat. Research into the success of open or polyamorous heterosexual marriages is rare, but studies of gay men in open relationships suggest certain guidelines that Gingrich might have followed. Nearly all emphasize a very high level of transparency and equality as a prerequisite for opening a relationship to other sexual partners, as in this list from psychotherapists Michael Shernoff and J. Morin:
- Both partners want their relationship to remain primary;
- The couple has an established reservoir of good will;
- There are minimal lingering resentments from past hurts and betrayals;
- The partners are not polarized over monogamy/non-monogamy;
- And the partners are feeling similarly powerful and autonomous.
By the account of both Gingrich and his second wife, most of these preconditions had not been met. “He wanted an open marriage, and I refused,” Marianne Ginther told ABC News. “That is not a marriage.” With two such polarized views on monogamy, it is unlikely the marriage could have succeeded as an open one.
“There may be occasions where opening the marriage up is the best thing for a couple,” says Joshua Coleman. “But it has to be something that really works for both people and is good for both people, and is coming from a place of health and trust. It can’t be something that one spouse imposes on another.”
That’s not for us to say, but it’s worth mentioning that trust has been declining in America for decades, quite often in response to the behavior of its political leaders.
As sociologist Pamela Paxton and I write in our essay “America’s Trust Fall,” the General Social Survey, a periodic assessment of Americans’ moods and values, shows a 10-point decline from 1976 to 2006 in the number of Americans who believe other people can generally be trusted. The General Social Survey also shows declines in trust in our institutions, although these declines are often closely linked to specific events such as Watergate or church sex scandals. As we argue, declines in trust have had measurably bad effects on our economy, democracy, and society.
If we are going to restore trust in America, leaders like Newt Gingrich are going to have to earn our trust, and we’re going to have to ask more of ourselves.