Dark end of the street

Butte County’s back-alley affairs take a hidden toll

“The husband who decides to surprise his wife is often very much surprised himself.”

Here’s a flash: People are committing acts of infidelity right here in white-bread Butte County each and every day—even the day after Valentine’s Day. Professors are sleeping with students, doctors are sleeping with nurses, ministers are sleeping with members of the choir, lawyers are sleeping with clients, and plumbers are sleeping with desperate housewives, all without the knowledge or permission of their primary partners.

It ain’t news, so let’s call it a review. If the statistics run roughly true, more than half of the people reading this piece have been simultaneously involved with both a significant other and a somewhat less significant other. Or are doing so. Or will.

They’re cheating up in Paradise, the land of a thousand churches, and over in Oroville, the town without pity. From the mountains to the valleys, they’re breaking their vows, complicating their lives, and adding to the divorce statistics. And they’re lying about it, too, lying as fast as a dog can trot, because lying is part of the scenario, and the scenario doesn’t vary all that much from case to case.

It ain’t news, though high-profile cases regularly hit the front pages. On the national scene, there’s the recent case of Lisa Nowak, the Florida astronaut and married mother of three, who seems to have lost all reason in a love triangle that included a fellow astronaut.

Infidelity is right up there on the top 10 list of things the Almighty viewed with disapproval, if that list of commandments Moses brought down from the mountain is any indicator, and Shakespeare had it right long before there was a marriage-counseling industry, a California, or a Butte County. In sonnet 129, Shakespeare wrote:

‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame is lust in action …”

Confirming everything we still know to be true, he continued:

‘and till action, lust

Is perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame,

Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;

Enjoy’d no sooner, but despised straight;

Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,

Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,

…Before, a joy propos’d; behind, a dream:

All this the world well knows; yet none knows well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”

And the cheat goes on. Politicians, for example, don’t just screw the electorate. A president gets impeached for extramarital fellatio, an act he determinedly refuses to classify as sexual relations. More recently, the mayor of San Francisco loses his campaign manager when the guy quits in a huff, outraged at having been cuckolded by his boss.

No matter how common infidelity is, even people who deal with the matter professionally are reluctant to talk about it.

A Chico psychic/fortune teller, with a long history of peering into other people’s lives, says she gets clients who want to know if their partners are straying, “but it’s not a regular thing.” She can, however, pick up that information in her readings—can, she says, psychically determine when philandering is going on—reading the cheating in palms and auras and tarot cards. “I can read that,” she said, “but I really don’t want to be part of your story.”

In pursuit of this piece, calls were made to nearly every psychologist, counselor, shrink and family adviser in the Butte County phone book, but mental-health professionals who routinely deal with the emotional wreckage of infidelity mostly didn’t want to talk about the subject for print attribution, and the suspicion lurks that their reticence is not based solely on fears of breaching client confidentiality.

Dr. Jennifer Kennelly, a clinical psychologist based in Chico, was one of the few willing to return calls. “Infidelity can be devastating to a marriage,” she said, “and it’s one of the most frequent causes of divorce. The betrayed partner often experiences feelings of abandonment, depression, anger and victimization. An affair shatters trust and stability in the marriage.”

That loss of trust is illustrated in observations made by a Chico motel owner, a guy with 15 years of experience checking people into and out of his motel on The Esplanade. He didn’t want his name or the name of his motel revealed, but he’s seen lots of cheating spouses.

“We used to have one couple that came every week,” he said, “like clockwork, for years. Everyone knew they were married to different people, and they always left a large tip for housekeeping.

“We had another guy, a fairly notable individual from L.A.—he’s probably in the history books, he’s that famous. He came here with his secretary lots of times. Then, on another occasion, he called to book a room with his wife, but he wanted to make sure no one mentioned his previous visits.”

One obvious way that a motel operator can tell who the cheaters are is that they tend to show up in the morning. “They ask for an hourly rate,” he said. “Some are fairly brazen about it, but if they’re going to use a room, they have to pay the nightly rate, though that doesn’t usually deter them because there’s someone out in the car patiently waiting.”

That Chico motel manager sees predictable patterns: “Cheating is more common in the spring and summertime. I see cars driving through the parking lot, real slow early in the morning. They’re looking for a spouse who’s been missing all night. See quite a bit of that, especially in the summer, for some reason. I guess it’s those hot days and warm evenings.”

Another motel operator out in Orland—a man who also prefers anonymity—attests to occasions when the police had to be called because wives or girlfriends showed up at his place of business to pound on the doors of rooms where their partners were cloistered with other women. “We don’t get too much of that,” he says, “but probably some of the more run-down local motels cater to that kind of activity. There’s not much room for hanky-panky at my establishment.

“We mostly cater to truckers and businessmen who want a good night’s sleep, though it’s been known to happen that people will sneak people into their rooms. After they check in, we have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude, unless there’s something unlawful that comes to our attention.”

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine the misery of those drivers, prowling from one motel parking lot to another, in search of wayward partners. Nor does it take much imagination to conjure the duplicity implicit in the act.

“This damage can feel like an insurmountable problem,” Kennelly said. “That’s why so many people end up divorcing—they can’t forget and they can’t move on.”

Though infidelity comes with heavy emotional costs, few are deterred. Private investigators report steady business from people who want to ascertain whether their partners are straying.

Robert Crain, a former Highway Patrol officer who has spent the past four years working as an investigator for A.R.C.Y. Investigations in Paradise, said there’s plenty of work for detectives. “Business is booming,” he said. “It’s not about divorce settlements anymore; clients just want to know. The important thing is proof, so they can confront their spouse, who will generally lie to them no matter what. A picture or tape cuts through the lies.”

Last year alone, Crain’s Paradise investigative operation handled a dozen such cases, but his records show 76 preliminary consultations. Those preliminary consultations are free, and by Crain’s reckoning, those who don’t follow through with an investigation either didn’t have the money or were merely shopping.

As a ballpark figure, an infidelity investigation usually costs less than $1,000, but it’s obvious to Crain that many of the people making inquiries cannot afford the fee. “Most of the cases we pursue involve middle- or upper-middle-class people,” Crain said, “and 75 percent of those investigations are initiated by women.”

In Crain’s experience, however, virtually 100 percent of those who suspect their partner of being unfaithful are correct in their suspicions, a figure confirmed by dozens of surveys, polls and studies. “Usually,” he said, “we can gather proof of cheating within three or four hours of surveillance.”

Jim Pihl, of Pihl and Associates, a Chico investigation firm, handles fewer infidelity investigations, but when he does they are always on “a need-to-know basis, usually when a spouse has been unfaithful previously and the client wants to find out if history is repeating itself.”

Such histories often do get repeated, between both straight and gay couples. Crain says he’s getting more investigative work from clients in same-sex relationships. Whatever the gender, Crain says that the image of detective work seen in “reality” TV shows like Cheaters is not an accurate reflection of the work he does.

“That host on Cheaters,” Crain said, referring to Joey Greco, “he’s always trying to provoke people, kind of like Jerry Springer. Provoking people is the last thing we want to do, but on television it’s human misery used for entertainment purposes. The reality we see is far less dramatic.”

Cheating spouses who find their way to volatile scenes in motel parking lots often do so because the culture feeds dissatisfaction.

“In today’s society,” Kennelly observed, “there is a pervasive message that something is wrong if our marriage partners fail to satisfy all of our needs. Hollywood and the media culture glorify marriage and define it as the place where we find the perfect person who understands us completely and with whom we find an inexhaustible supply of never-ending love and lust.”

Such media-fueled expectations are, of course, illusory. “If an important element is missing in the marriage such as emotional connection or lack of passion,” Kennelly continued, “many people feel justified in looking elsewhere to fulfill these needs rather than working on them within the current relationship. People deduce that they married the wrong person, and they get divorced in order to pursue the new and seemingly more exciting and fulfilling relationship.

“But, after the initial thrill wears off, people eventually end up dealing with the same problems they experienced in the previous relationship.”

Kennelly’s observation is confirmed by studies that reveal just how few extramarital affairs lead to a new union between the cheaters. And, of those new marriages that do result from an extra-marital affair, very few survive.

Frank Pittman, a writer/psychologist who specializes in relationship issues, reports that the divorce rate among those who marry their lovers is 75 percent. After all, the thinking goes, if he or she was willing to cheat with me, he or she is probably likely to cheat on me.

From the motel parking lot to a place on the docket in criminal court can be a fairly short trip. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey works at the nexus of powerful human emotion and criminal behavior.

“We continually have problems when someone tries to rectify their relationship problems with violence,” he said, “and that involves those of us in the criminal justice system. Infidelity hits at the heart of trust, at the rawest of human emotions.

“A lot of domestic violence is driven by fears of infidelity, real or imagined. Love is the flip side of hate. Generally, what we see are cases where the male in a relationship believes the female is cheating on him. There’s an ownership element to it—'you be my woman’ kind of thing. Among far too many guys, the attitude is ‘you’re mine; you’ll always be mine, or you’ll be dead.’ “

He recalls a high-profile case from nearly a decade ago in which Dennis Oates, an Oroville backhoe operator, killed a man he suspected was carrying on an affair with his wife. The DA managed to secure a conviction even though the body of the victim was never found. As it turned out, the murderer’s suspicions that his wife was cheating were groundless, though that fact left his victim no less dead.

Oates is now serving a life sentence in prison, and when his wife was later killed—run down by a car as she crossed a street—suspicion immediately arose that her husband had arranged the killing from his prison cell. That turned out not to be so, but there was every reason for the DA’s office to investigate that suspicion because the virulence of jealousy can reach beyond the walls of the most secure prisons.

It’s been a long time since California had laws on the books making adultery a crime, though bigamy is illegal. “If you fool around on your wife, that’s legally OK,” Ramsey joked. “Just don’t marry the other woman, too.”

Got paranoia? If you’re in a relationship, you probably should be a little paranoid because, if the statistics are to be believed, there’s a sizeable likelihood your significant other may be fooling around on you.

Although the vast majority of Americans (90 percent) believe adultery is morally wrong, according to a CNN poll, another study, published in The Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, reveals that 45 percent to 55 percent of married women and 50 percent to 60 percent of married men engage in extramarital sex at some time or another during their relationship.

Affairs affect one of every 2.7 couples, according to counselor Janis Abrahms Spring, author of After the Affair. Her research also shows that 10 percent of extramarital affairs last one day, 10 percent last more than one day but less than a month, and 50 percent last more than a month but less than a year. Few affairs last more than four years.

In other words, couple counseling promises to be a growth industry for as far into the future as anyone might care to look, and the Internet is helping to fuel that business. According to recent studies, 38 percent of people have engaged in explicit online sexual conversations and 50 percent of those people have made phone contact with someone they met online.

But problems created by the Internet can also be treated by the Internet. For a fee, of course. There are dozens of Web sites now devoted to helping people catch cheating partners.

One such site, going by the name FYI-SPY, pitches its services in the following badly written prose: “If you suspect they are up to something shouldn’t you know for sure? FYI-SPY will monitor everything that takes place on the computer and store it for you to view at your convince [sic]. Do they change the screen when you get near the computer? Do they erase his [sic] internet history? Are there other things they do with the computer that seem kind of fishy? Even if they are a computer wiz they will never know FYI-SPY is watching them.”

And, under the heading of paranoia, there’s the old saw that goes “mama’s baby, papa’s maybe,” a bit of folk wisdom consistently confirmed by research indicating that two or three out of every 100 children are the product of infidelity. Most of these children are unknowingly raised by men who are not their biological fathers.

Once the damage has been done, it falls to psychologists like Kennelly to help people glue the emotional pieces back together.

“Psychotherapy can help couples recover from the devastating effects of an affair,” she said. “Treatment typically involves helping the couple understand why the affair happened in the first place, generating forgiveness, rebuilding trust, and ultimately, helping the partners develop more empathy and compassion for one another.”

Rebuilding those shattered marriages is not just an issue for the spouses, of course. Claire Fields, a child psychologist in Chico for over a decade, said: “Any time there’s mistrust or disharmony between Mom and Dad, it’s detrimental to the children. They need both parents in order to grow up. If there’s divorce, it hurts the children far into adulthood.”

Fields sees that damage turn up in her office. “I haven’t kept records of how many of my cases have involved infidelity,” she said, “but trust is so fundamental, and when it is violated, then the children don’t trust themselves.

“It is a real hurtful thing when people are not faithful. If the mother doesn’t trust the father, then the children lose confidence in themselves because they’re part of their father. The part of themselves that they identify with their dad they try to squash; it makes them feel bad about themselves.”

The good news is that marriages can survive extramarital affairs.

“Unless a relationship is marked by abuse,” Kennelly said, “couples usually have a chance of working out problems if both partners are committed to the process. I typically advise couples that the decision to stay together is theirs to make, but I attempt to help them discover why the affair occurred, help them deal with the guilt, and build upon the strengths in the relationship to reclaim intimacy and connectedness.”

Sometimes, however, the affair itself is expression of one partner’s desire to end the relationship.

“Therapy can help people figure out what they really want to happen,” Kennelly said. “Saving the marriage is not always a goal both partners share, but when they do, the very fact that they turn up for counseling suggests a desire to patch things up.”

While some couples work to repair the damages, other people slip down to the dark end of the street, beginning to forge the complications that will move them toward their own future time in the offices of Butte County psychologists. And the cheat goes on.