Suzanne Adelson
October 30, 1989 12:00 PM

Dr. JoAnn Bitner has been on both sides of a love triangle. During her 15-year second marriage, to a San Diego doctor, she says she discovered that her husband had been carrying on a lengthy affair. Then, after the marriage ended in 1985, Bitner herself became “the other woman” when she fell in love with a married man. Having been cast first as wronged wife and later as mistress, she found that the latter role can be more psychologically punishing. “The married woman whose husband cheats on her gets support from the world, “says Bitner. “But nobody gives support to the single woman who is having an affair with a married man.”

A licensed counselor, Bitner decided to rectify the situation. She advertised for clients to join a support group and was amazed to receive 70 calls (he first day. For the next three years, dozens of women participated in sessions at Bitner’s office. When actress Michele Lee heard about Bitner’s group—the only one of its kind in the U.S.—she approached her about writing a TV screenplay. Several of Bitner’s clients agreed to be interviewed by Lee, who both produced and stars in this week’s CBS movie Single Women, Married Men. At her home in San Diego, Bitner talked about her work with correspondent Suzanne Adelson.

What problems do women having affairs with married men tend to encounter?

The “other woman” has to give up the assurance of daily contact with someone she loves, the security of being able to turn to him in the middle of the night when she wakes up with a panic attack. She has to live constantly in the moment. She’s alone on Christmas Day, on Saturday nights. And unless she has friends who accept her relationship, she has no way to share her lover with others.

What did you hope to accomplish by forming a group for such women?

I wanted to offer them a place where they could come to talk and find out how they really felt about their situations. These are women in pain, and I was sympathetic to them. I knew when I was in that situation that I wasn’t trying to harm anyone, and I don’t believe I did.

Does this imply you approve of such affairs?

Everyone’s morality is their own responsibility, and it’s not my job to judge. I certainly would not recommend having affairs as a first choice. But if you need somebody in your life to talk to and provide affection that you’re not getting, it’s hard to turn that down. I think these relationships are inevitable until everybody finds Mr. or Mrs. Perfect.

Who were the women in your groups?

There were a few in their early 20s, but most of them were from 35 to 50 years old. Most had been married, had children. They got divorced. Eventually they found themselves in an affair. Many of these romances come out of office situations, where people are similarly educated, have the same values and interests—the things that build relationships. There aren’t many single men out there for women over 35 these days.

Were their relationships with married men always sexual?

No. An emotional affair—where all your psychological and nurturing needs are met but sex is not involved-can be almost more devastating than a sexual affair. And that’s happening more and more in offices across the country.

Was your goal to help these women accept “other womanhood” or to find ways to get out of the situation?

I wanted them to take it where they wanted to take it. In our group, if the women wanted to stay in the relationship, we would offer support for that decision. Several did decide that, but most of them left the relationship, even if it took a real act of will. One woman had to change the structure of her life in the workplace to avoid contact with her former lover.

What about women who don’t leave—what keeps them in these relationships?

They are getting affection, nurturing, a person who is there for them at least some of the time. Very often women who are divorced have come from very unhappy relationships, and here is a person who loves them and gives them attention. This can be very healing.

But aren’t affairs with married men doomed to fail?

No. There are situations where the husband does leave the wife, although they are in the minority. Statistics show that if a husband’s extramarital affair doesn’t break up a marriage in the first couple of years, it won’t ever. Overall, fewer than 25 percent of the men involved in affairs leave their wives.

What kind of women accept those odds?

Women who are strong, have their own social network and their own sense of self, don’t need constant attention, don’t need social approbation. For those women I think it can be a healthy relationship. The women who can’t handle it are usually women who need to be taken care of, women who are possessive, who want to have children, to start their own families.

How can women avoid ending up in these painful situations?

That’s a hard one, but the answer is something like this: If you feel yourself turning to a married man as the central focus in your life—if you run to them first when something happens—then it’s probably time to move on.

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