updated 3/21/2008 5:40:11 PM ET 2008-03-21T21:40:11

Every so often, says Marla Felcher, something happens that makes her realize again that she made a great choice of husband, lo these 29 years ago. One of those moments was the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal.

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“We talked about it, and realized we were really on the same page,” says Felcher, a consumer advocate, author and teacher based in Cambridge, Mass. “These issues don’t come up that often, and this gave us a chance to articulate them.”

What did the couple agree on? That the line Spitzer crossed with his secret life frequenting prostitutes was unforgivable. That neither of them would have been able to let the other off the hook in similar circumstances. That they couldn’t have stood by in silent support, as Silda Wall Spitzer did in those two painful public appearances.

“Maybe some men and some women wouldn’t agree,” says Felcher, 50. “But this story is like a Rorschach test for people. It was good to know we felt the same way.”

In New York and across the country, the still-stunning Spitzer scandal — and the “mini-scandal” it spawned, with revelations of infidelity by the new governor, David Paterson — has had many couples discussing and debating. For some, it’s just been the oh-my-gosh-can-you-believe-it talks in front of the TV. For others, it’s been deeper discussions of feelings about (or experiences with) infidelity, betrayal, loyalty and the like. It’s come up in counseling sessions, too.

“Certainly in my clinical practice it’s been mentioned more than a few times,” says Jay Lebow, a psychologist and professor at the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “It’s stimulating, it’s provocative, and it gets people thinking about their own lives. It’s prompting an awareness among people that life may be more complicated than they thought it was.”

In other words, some people are asking, “Does my spouse have secrets that I don’t know about?” Another uncomfortable scenario, Lebow says, plays out with those who’ve already had painful experiences with infidelity. “This reopens it for them,” he says.

The prostitute angle
Is the Spitzer scandal a Mars and Venus moment? Certainly there are many points of possible contention between the sexes. One is the fact that Spitzer’s betrayal involved prostitutes.

“Men in general are more understanding, more accepting of the prostitute angle than women,” says Lebow, who adds that the same holds true of casual sex, as in the one-night-stand after meeting someone at a bar.

Many women, though, tend to focus on the depressing grunginess of prostitution, as well as the risks to a spouse or partner. Prostitutes “have been with all kinds of people, so of course there could be some type of disease or infection,” says Sylvia Clark, of Dallas. Her husband, Roy, calls prostitution “the lowest of the lowest, and a total disrespect for the wife.”

Together, the Clarks run a company, Total Dimensions Family Services, that seeks to educate people about relationships. They hope to use the Spitzer scandal as a future teaching tool. “I’m quite sure it will come up,” says Randy Clark. “It shows that everyone is vulnerable.”

The two have discussed it as a couple, too. “I told him, there’s no way I would stand there with you,” Sylvia says. “He’s shown her total disrespect. I would not be there.”

On the airwaves, where talk shows addressed the scandal nonstop for days, Mars and Venus moments have abounded. Some women were greatly annoyed by all the talk of a “victimless crime.” And they laughed when Joy Behar of the all-female gabfest “The View” proclaimed that “Viagra is destroying our government.”

“I’m sure couples are in discussion, but gingerly, about this topic,” Behar wrote in an e-mail message. “Every married couple fears this type of thing happening. Maybe it’s inevitable that when you get married fairly young, you will be tempted to stray after a certain number of years.”

How common is infidelity? A highly regarded survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has found that 22 percent of men have had a sex partner other than their spouse while married, compared to 13 percent of women. (The figures are an average of the years between 1991 and 2004.)

Paterson ‘not as bad’?
But the Spitzer scandal was about far more than garden-variety infidelity — which is why many who were stunned by that scandal had a fairly blase reaction when Paterson revealed his extramarital dalliances.

“It’s not as bad,” says Megan Trask, 30, of Westfield, N.J. “Paterson didn’t run on a platform of being ethically superior to everyone else, like Spitzer did.” The thought of the prostitutes was troubling to her, too: “(Spitzer) was bringing diseases home to his wife, and he was objectifying a woman, like in a business transaction.”

Most disappointing of all, says Trask, who works in advertising, Spitzer’s actions were “a slap in the face” to those, like her, who had high hopes for him. “Down under it makes you question your judgment of people,” she said. “I really had him wrong. Who else did I have wrong?”

Trask’s husband, Steve, 33, isn’t nearly as outraged. Not that he condones the behavior. But, he says, “If we expected our politicians to be perfect, we’d never have a president. We hold them to a higher standard, and we should, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to be perfect. Are you going to forget all the good things he’s done?”

His wife, told of his comment, laughs. “Steve doesn’t judge people. He doesn’t want to put himself in someone’s shoes. I guess that’s one of the reasons I love him.”

Though the Trasks are engaging in a good-natured debate, family counselor Elana Katz has come across couples who are deeply disturbed by the Spitzer scandal.

“I think it’s really shaken people up,” says Katz, who counsels families and couples at New York City’s Ackerman Institute. “There are a lot of people trying to understand this out there. It’s been very distressing to people to see the strain on a relationship made so public.”

Seeking to address those feelings, one rabbi at a New Jersey synagogue wrote to her congregants.

“There are families in our community who have struggled with infidelity,” wrote Rabbi Elyse Frishman of the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J. “No doubt that Gov. Spitzer’s public behavior has struck a deeper chord in your homes. It may be hard to even look at your spouse, or to discuss the governor’s behavior with your children ...

“None of us is perfect. Marriages, families, friendships can heal over time.”

Frishman says she heard back from several people who had experienced infidelity — from different sides — and were experiencing severe distress over the scandal. “They were so grateful that I had affirmed their reality,” she says.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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