Couples Sought At UNC-CH For Research On Extramarital Affairs

October 27, 1997

By David Williamson

CHAPEL HILL -- Couples struggling through the aftermath of an extramarital affair may find help through a new study beginning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Free confidential counseling will be offered to volunteers, along with a treatment program designed specifically for couples trying to recover from troubles an affair generates.

"Recent statistics from major surveys suggest that affairs occur with surprising frequency in marriages," said Dr. Donald Baucom, professor of psychology and director of UNC-CH's clinical psychology program. "Data from the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago indicate that about 37 percent of men aged 50 to 59 and 20 percent of women aged 40 to 49 report that they have had an affair at least once during marriage. It is likely that these numbers are underestimates."

Marital infidelity is the second leading cause of divorce for women, and the third leading cause of divorce for men, Baucom said. Partners who have discovered an affair report violent emotions, rage, depression and anxiety comparable to post-traumatic stress disorders.

"Despite the evidence that this problem is worthy of attention, very little research has been done on it," the psychologist said. "Therapists report that it is extremely hard to treat, and no studies exist that show whether available treatments are adequate to handle this volatile and difficult situation."

The new UNC-CH study, which Baucom and doctoral student Kristina Gordon are leading, is designed to change that.

Its chief goal will be to develop and test a treatment and recovery program that should help couples understand what led to the affair, cope with its immediate impact and manage negative emotions, Gordon said.

"Sessions should help them learn how to avoid subsequent affairs, determine whether they want to remain in the marriage and, if so, rebuild trust and strengthen their marriage," she said. "If they decide that they wish to end the relationship, they will get help doing that with as little distress and acrimony as possible. We just want them to have a good outcome."

Treatment is expected to last about five months and will consist of 24 sessions, Gordon said. Couples will be seen by the principal investigators and advanced graduate students who have had extensive training with the treatment. Periodically couples will be asked to fill out questionnaires designed to determine how well the methods work.

For more information, call Rosa Swanson at (919) 962-5082 and ask about marital study No. 97-047.

The UNC-CH psychologists are collaborating on the research with Dr. Douglas K. Snyder, director of clinical psychology at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, and plan to expand the work if early efforts succeed.

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Note: Gordon can be reached at (919) 962-5082 (w) or 419-7299 (h) or via e-mail at Baucom is available at 962-5035 (w) or via e-mail at

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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