Newhouse News Service - May 9, 2008
(Peggy's contributions are in italics)

The Psychology Behind The Secret Life

What drives a man like U.S. Rep. Vito Fossella to live a double life - a wife and three kids on Staten Island, another woman and child in the Washington suburbs?

Part of it stems from human nature, the urge to procreate and the allure of variety, say those who study these matters. Part of it is rooted in a society that glamorizes sex and gives powerful men anything they want.

But psychologists, while cautioning that they are not privy to the specifics of Fossella's relationship, say a subset of the population is especially well-suited to leading secret lives, because they thrive on risk and don't believe they'll get caught or hurt anyone.

"It's got to be pretty thrilling to have a woman who loves you enough - a second wife in a sense - to have a baby with you in secret,'' said Frank Farley, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who studies risk-takers and politics. "It's kind of exciting to think you are capable of doing this, and it's so different than the norm in America, plus the sex, the fun, the joy.''

Fossella's acknowledgment of his child with a woman not his wife caps a week of speculation in the wake of his arrest for driving while intoxicated in Alexandria, Va. The 43-year-old Republican congressman, whose New York district includes Staten Island and part of Brooklyn, told police officers he was going to see his daughter, and hours later, the girl's mother, Laura Fay, picked him up from jail.

The revelation is the latest in a string of scandals involving politicians, from the association of U.S. Rep. David Vitter of Louisiana and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer with prostitutes to Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick having affairs with employees.

"Politicians aren't like the rest of us,'' Farley said. "Most Americans do not have these kinds of double lives.''

Politics attracts people with a thrill-seeking personality type, who are more likely to drink, smoke, and have affairs that endanger their careers. They may even thrive on the danger of exposure: "They know it's going to be very difficult to keep it secret, given the media scrutiny, and they still do it,'' Farley said.

Studies of infidelity find that men are more likely than women to cheat on a mate. Scientists attribute this to biology rewarding men who have multiple partners.

"It makes perfect sense; that's male sexuality for you,'' said David Barash, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and co-author of "The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People.''

Women, on the other hand, face physical and time investments in carrying a child. "What does it mean to be a sperm-maker versus an egg-maker?'' Barash said.

Experts say that entanglements like Fossella's typically expand in a series of rationalized steps.

"You don't have to be a psychologist to know that if there is a very strong urge to do something, you will find a rationalization to do it,'' said Arnold Buss, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Start with the premise: A man has an affair. Maybe the next level is to maintain a household with the other woman, or have a child with her. If he believes his wife will never find out, he may be willing to escalate the affair.

And, the more involved the affair, the harder it is to undo.

"They get in so deep that all of a sudden, there they are; they have no clue how they got there and they don't know how to get out,'' said Ruth Houston, New York-based author of "Is He Cheating on You? 829 Telltale Signs.'' "The easiest thing to do is continue.''

At that point, there's too much to lose.

"They don't want to pay the price,'' said Joel Block, a practicing psychologist based on New York's Long Island and author of "Broken Promises, Mended Hearts: Maintaining Trust in Love Relationships.'' "Divorce is costly - financially and reputation-wise - especially for a politician.''

At a certain level of society, powerful men are never denied anything they want, so they can't imagine depriving themselves of sexual variety, said Peggy Vaughan, San Diego-based author of "The Monogamy Myth'' and host of

"It's the exception for a very strong powerful man to be monogamous across the many years of the marriage,'' Vaughan said. "They don't think, 'Am I willing to take the risk of losing my position, of losing my family?' ... Men compartmentalize. They will legitimately say it had nothing to do with their wife and their love for them.''

It's important to look at the broader context of a society with a hypocritical view of sex, she said: "We glamorize it and then when he's caught we say, 'He's awful.'''

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