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Originally published Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 4:45 PM

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Don't try this at home: Adultery in the marital bed

Even in a sexually liberal culture, the home is still usually off-limits for affairs, and the marriage bed remains a sacred object.

The New York Times

The woman who came to see Ken Altshuler, a divorce lawyer, had reason to be enraged: Her husband was not only having an affair, he was having an extravagant, money's-no-concern, fabled-and-faraway-beaches affair. He had taken his girlfriend to Tahiti, he was sending her flowers. But the thing that infuriated his wife the most was where he had often made love to his girlfriend: their marriage bed.

"She was totally fixated on that," said Altshuler, who practices in Portland, Maine, and is president-elect of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. "'You had sex with that woman in our bed' — that was overriding everything else. For a year in the divorce, every time an issue came up, that was part of it. We'd need to talk about placing the house up for sale, she'd say, 'You mean that house where he brought that so-and-so to our bed?' Or, when we talked about personal division of property, 'He can take the bed and shove it' or 'He can use it with his next whore."'

How did Altshuler's client find out her husband was using their bed?

"He admitted it when he got caught," Altshuler said, in the tone of one who has spent two and a half decades observing the stupidities of humankind and still retains a touching ability to be amazed. "I think she found some of the charges on the credit card, so he fessed up. And she said, 'Where did you have sex with her?' And he goes, 'In our bed, where else?' Then it's, 'Oops, did I say that?"'

Conventions change. A woman no longer earns a scarlet letter for having a child out of wedlock; divorce is not synonymous with scandal; and it is no surprise to find, when a marriage comes apart, that a third person was involved. But even in a sexually liberal culture, the home is still usually off-limits, as if protected by an invisible force field. And the marriage bed — a phrase that in itself seems quaintly out of date — remains a sacred object.

All but one of a dozen and a half marriage counselors and divorce lawyers interviewed for this article said they saw at-home adultery rarely, if ever, although the divorce lawyers saw it more often than the therapists. When it does happen, however, the consequences are usually dire: Affairs are painful in a marriage, but affairs that take place in the marriage bed can be lethal.

In an informal, unscientific survey (http://www.cafemom.com/group/112285/forums/read/12945314) conducted at the request of The New York Times by the website CafeMom.com, which draws young married women, more than half of approximately 500 respondents said their marriages would "definitely not" survive if their partner made love to another person in the marriage bed. By contrast, less than a third of approximately 700 respondents to another question said that their marriages would "definitely not" survive an affair outside the home.

"It would hurt no matter where it happened," one anonymous respondent wrote. But "if he did it in my own home," she added, "it would feel more like a slap in the face."

Few marriages survive such an affair — and even fewer marriage beds.

Richard Roane, a 52-year-old divorce lawyer in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he had seen a dozen such cases in the estimated 2,200 divorces he has handled. He jokes that he always tells clients that at a minimum, they'll have to get a new bed.

Roane recalled one betrayed spouse telling him to burn the bed, and another putting the bed in which her husband had cheated in the driveway of their house, which was in an upscale suburban neighborhood.

Roane said he also had a case in which the wife never found out that her husband, who was his client, had been cheating on the living room sofa — something Roane himself learned during a property settlement negotiation.

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"The husband whispered in my ear, 'She can have the sofa; I don't want it,"' Roane said. "He was taking some pleasure in giving the sofa where he made love to his girlfriend to his wife. The wife didn't know it, but he did. We see a lot of bad behavior in divorce."

Randall M. Kessler, an Atlanta divorce lawyer who is the chair-elect of the Section of Family Law of the American Bar Association, has seen his share of rage around the marriage bed. He remembered an incident involving a local lawyer — not, he hastened to add, at his firm.

"They were dividing the marital furniture," Kessler said. The husband "was having an affair, and he got the bed. When he and his girlfriend go to use the bed for the first time, they see his wife has carved the girlfriend's name in the headboard: S-L-U-T."

THE LEGAL ASPECT

Kessler, who notes that all 50 states now have no-fault divorce, said that whether or not someone had an affair was irrelevant in terms of their entitlement to a divorce. But he pointed out that divorce laws vary from state to state, and adultery can affect financial and child custody issues.

"In Georgia, a person who has an affair that causes the divorce is not entitled to alimony," he said. "Adultery in some states is relevant with respect to the division of property. But in the most simple terms, family law cases are determined by human beings, and when you are asking a human being to decide in your favor, you want that human being to like you and dislike the other side. The fact that the other side had sex with someone other than the spouse in the marital bedroom might make the judge dislike them is Common Sense 101."

And yes, lawyers say, they have seen married people who had affairs in their homes punished.

"In my experience, the affair that takes place in the marital home shocks the conscience of everyone involved — and the judge," said Roane, the divorce lawyer in Grand Rapids. "I have represented the wandering spouse, and that's where I strongly encourage my client to get this thing settled and give slightly more than 50 percent of the assets to keep it out of court."

He added: "Home is where your children are. When you find your spouse is stepping out, and it occurred in the most personal space in your home and your bed, it's a breach of trust. It's about as mean-spirited and insensitive as it can be."

REMEMBER THAT TIME 40 YEARS AGO?

Ask lawyers and therapists why someone might cheat in their own home and you will get a range of answers: hostility to the partner; a desire to be found out; it's more discreet than a hotel; it's convenient; it's a decision made in a perfect storm of impulsivity, impunity and availability; home is where the nanny is.

All agree on one thing: Once it is discovered, it is not something the person who has been betrayed is likely to forget.

Don-David Lusterman, a psychologist in Baldwin, N.Y., and an author of books on marital and family therapy for the American Psychological Association, once saw a couple who had been married for 30 years. At their first meeting, Lusterman said, the husband's eyes were popping out of his head to such a degree that he asked if the man had been examined for a physical problem.

It turned out that the husband was simply extremely agitated. He had told his wife he intended to have an affair and that she would have to accept it. His wife demanded that they go to marriage counseling in hopes of discovering why her husband was making a demand so alien to his professed beliefs.

"We worked and worked, and one day she said, 'Do you think this has anything to do with the thing that happened the first year of our marriage?' " Lusterman said. "He said, 'I don't think so.' I asked, 'What happened?' Dead silence. Then she says one day he was ill and came home to find her in the marital bed with some guy, I think it was the painter. He says to the fellow, 'Get out of my house and never return,' and turns to her and says, 'I never want to hear a word about this again,' and very obediently, they never talk about it again."

The husband's anger about the affair, Lusterman continued, never went away. Recently, he had met a woman he was attracted to, which distressed him, as having an affair would have violated his ethics. But once he had expressed his rage to his wife, he found he did not need to have an affair. The marriage survived.

A MATTER OF CONVENIENCE

Susan Bender, of the New York firm Bender, Rosenthal, Isaacs & Richter, has been a divorce lawyer for 31 years. She estimates that 10 percent of her firm's clients or their spouses have engaged in infidelity in the home. She cites a number of reasons, including an obvious, pragmatic one: In New York, hotels are expensive.

Sometimes there is also less risk of being discovered at home than at a hotel, she added. That was the case with two married women with children in Westchester, who had an affair for years. At least until one of the husbands came home unexpectedly and found the two together in bed.

"They weren't having sex, but they were naked," Bender said. "They denied they were having an affair. I represented the husband, and I looked at the attorney and I said: 'Don't even bother, don't waste your time on a denial.' In matrimonial, you get private investigators. We had the goods on them."

Bender also noted that making love in the marital bed and being discovered was one way to force a reluctant spouse to agree to a divorce in New York before no-fault divorce was adopted by the state last fall.

"I had a woman come in to see me who goes home earlier than expected and hears a lot of noise in the bedroom," Bender said. "Her husband walked out in his bathrobe, and who is in the bed but her first cousin? The sad part is, my client was trying to have children, and he would not have sex during the time she could conceive."

The husband was extremely arrogant, Bender continued. "He had lots of extramarital affairs and she would not leave him, so he could not get a divorce under the old law, because you needed grounds and he had no grounds for divorce," she said. "He humiliated her so much, she had no choice but to crawl into my office. The husband eventually married another woman who was not the cousin, but he continued having relations with the cousin."

Another client, who learned what Bender called "the classic thing — her husband was having sex with the nanny," did not make the visit to the divorce lawyer her first course of action.

"She goes to bed with her husband that night, doesn't complete the sex act, took a match and she threw it on the bed," Bender said. "Of course, he flips out. The story ends with her walking out of the bedroom naked and him trying to put out the fire."

Did she explain why?

"She was angry," Bender said. "The problem with litigation is that it takes a long time. You've got that need for instant gratification, that need to get you back — some people need that, they need to get you back right now."

But tossing a lighted match onto a bed with your husband in it, especially with children in the house, would seem to work against you in court.

"No, I don't remember that," Bender said. "The judges are probably jaded; they've heard it all. Like most of my cases, it was probably settled. Remember, people don't want this in the papers, they don't want this to go to court, they don't want it out there."

IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT THE BED

Dwight Grisham, a psychologist who runs the Couples in Conflict Clinic in San Francisco, said he had seen only one case of infidelity in the marriage bed in 23 years in practice. In this case, it was the wife who had the affair.

"I don't think it had gone on very long, only a month or two," Grisham said. "I'm remembering that he wasn't so focused on the bed, he was focused on the whole apartment. The apartment became the traumatic trigger. He argued for and got an agreement to move out as quickly as they could. I think they even abandoned the last few months of their lease."

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE BED

Esther Perel, the author of "Mating In Captivity," is a marriage and family therapist who has been in practice for 27 years. Like Grisham, she said that in all her years of practice, she had seen just one instance of adultery in the marital bed. But even in cases of affairs that take place outside the home, she said, couples who stay together often redo their bedrooms.

"It gives them a sense of reclaiming the relationship," she said.

SOMETIMES, IN SOME CASES, IT MAY BE ABOUT THE BED

A South Dakota divorce lawyer, Linda Lea Viken, who helped draft her state's no-fault divorce law as a member of the Legislature, said she had a theory about what becomes the focus of outrage: "Women feel it about the bed; the guy feels it about their home — you have invaded my territory. Women are more people-oriented, involved in those kinds of details: 'This is the very bed in which we make love' — that is more of an injury to her. For the guy, it is 'this guy is in my house with my wife, with my property.' "

THE POOL TABLE ALSO COUNTS

"We had a case where we represented the wife years ago," Kessler, the Atlanta divorce lawyer, recalled. "She caught her husband having an affair on their pool table. In court, she asked the judge for the pool table. She was asked why, since she did not play pool. She said it was the principle: He should not have the table that caused the divorce. She was awarded it, then told us she didn't want it and we could have it or sell it. We had it delivered to a charitable organization."

WE MAY HAVE SEEN THIS ON AN EPISODE OF 'THE SOPRANOS'

"Some years ago, I was representing a family of gangsters — make that, 'they allegedly had ties to organized crime,' " said the New York divorce lawyer Raoul Felder. "The boy who I was representing is explaining he had this affair: When his wife was away, he brought this woman to his home in Bay Ridge. And his father stood up and slapped the boy's face and said, 'Certain things you don't do.' So even amongst lowlifes there is some kind of code."

THE 25-YEAR SECRET

And, of course, there are the cases of infidelity in the marriage bed that therapists and divorce lawyers — and partners — never find out about. "I did that," one woman in her late 70s told the reporter when she heard about the article. "I don't think I ever told my therapist. I'm saying 'I don't think,' but I know I never told her."

The woman, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, was married for more than 50 years, and halfway through the marriage she had an affair. Her husband was jealous and possessive; the woman, who had married and had children when she was very young, wanted freedom and a career.

She told her husband about the affair, and she and her husband went into therapy and resolved their problems. But she did not tell her husband everything about the affair: She didn't tell him that once, when he was out of town on business, she had made love to the other man in their bed. How did it happen?

"I had a cold," she said. "He-who-shall-be-nameless came by to check on my health and that's where the one moment took place. I feel, looking back on this, where was my moral value measure? I had a twinge, but there I was, I did it."

She does not recall, she said, "being overwhelmed with my lack of integrity," but she does think that she must have had feelings about her husband that were "monumental."

"It is the ultimate giving the third finger to your partner, if you would do it in the bed, under the roof," she said. "When I talk about this, I am appalled and horrified and don't quite connect to the feeling of outrage in myself."

She did not get rid of the bed after the incident. "That's emblematic of how out of touch I was with what I had done," she said. Her husband died without ever finding out. No one — until she blurted it out to the reporter — had ever heard about it.

Really, she said, she does not know why she has spoken of it now.

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