Marriage Advice for Newt Gingrich

For starters, writes Jeremy Adam Smith, how about some honesty?

When President Clinton cheated on his wife with a White House intern and then publicly lied about the affair, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led the campaign to impeach the president in 1998, positioning himself as a champion of “traditional values.”

Now, of course, everyone in the world knows that Gingrich himself was having an affair at the time, then lied about it to both his wife and the public.

When the affair was discovered by his wife, he reportedly asked her for an open marriage—that is, one in which they could both have multiple sexual partners; she declined. (This is part of a lifelong pattern. He cheated on his first wife with the woman who became his second, then cheated on his second wife with the woman who became his third.)

These bare facts do not seem to have hurt Gingrich’s campaign to become President of the United States. Right after his second wife, Marianne Ginther, gave a devastating interview with ABC News, he handily won the South Carolina primary and went on to give a widely praised performance in the Florida GOP primary debate. For many GOP voters, apparently, being an untrustworthy husband does not make him an untrustworthy candidate for President.

Politics isn’t our forte here at the Greater Good Science Center, and we will let Republican voters decide who will best represent them against President Obama later this year. However, we do specialize in translating scientific research into tips for having better relationships with spouses and other people in our lives, and we’ve been especially interested in the role of trust in healthy relationships. So, whatever our personal failings, we feel somewhat qualified to provide marriage advice to Newt Gingrich, as well as to anyone else who might be facing similar issues in their marriages. What can we learn from Mr. Gingrich’s mistakes?

1) Put trust first. When researcher John Gottman and colleagues studied couples around the country, he found that the number one most important issue on their minds was trust and betrayal. As Gottman said in a talk for our Science for a Meaningful Life series, spouses want to know, “Can I trust you to be there and listen to me when I’m upset? Can I trust you to choose me over your mother, over your friends? Can I trust you to work for our family? To not take drugs? Can I trust you to not cheat on me and be sexually faithful? Can I trust you to respect me? To help with things in the house? To really be involved with our children?”

If Gingrich really believes, as he has stated many times, in the ideal of lifelong, monogamous marriage, then he probably shouldn’t have undermined the trust that is at the core of such a relationship. Gottman’s graduate student Dan Yoshimoto broke the foundations of marital trust down into seven components with the acronym ATTUNE, which stands for:

  • Awareness of your partner’s emotion;
  • Turning toward the emotion;
  • Tolerance of two different viewpoints;
  • trying to Understand your partner;
  • Non-defensive responses to your partner;
  • and responding with Empathy.

“Trust isn’t just important for couples,” Gottman reminds us. “It’s also vital to neighborhoods and states and countries. Trust is central to what makes human communities work.” Something, perhaps, GOP primary voters should bear in mind.

2) If you do betray your partner, make amends—as opposed to, say, first asking for permissionto sleep with other people, as Gingrich did.

Studies consistently show that around 15 to 22 percent of people have ever had an extramarital affair. (Incidentally, people routinely overestimate the amount of cheating that is going on. One 2007 survey, for example, found participants “guessed that twice as many people are having extramarital affairs as really are.”)

According to marriage and family therapists, if those marriages end, it’s likely because of the problems that triggered the affair in the first place. “I see a lot of couples in my psychotherapy practice whose relationships have been rocked by infidelity,” writes therapist Joshua Coleman in his Greater Goodessay “Surviving Betrayal.” While many of these marriages dissolve, Coleman has found that “people on both sides of a betrayal can work to restore feelings of trust, and so repair their relationship.”

Coleman’s first advice for the betrayer is to take complete responsibility for your actions. “No matter how driven you felt to have the affair, nobody made you do it,” writes Coleman. “The more you blame your partner, the longer it will take him or her to believe that you are trustworthy and to want to forgive you.”

In that light, Gingrich’s explanation of why he had an affair seems like a clear violation of this principle. “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” he explained in 2010. While Gingrich may indeed have been driven by his passion for the US of A, it is unlikely that that “this country” is responsible for his actions.

3) Look at the root causes of the betrayal. Gingrich no doubt has a story to tell about his marriage(s); there are nuances to relationships that might be invisible to outsiders. It may be the case that a spouse cheats because he or she feels emotionally, sexually, or financially abandoned, or feels trapped in a relationship with an unreliable or problematic partner.

In his essay, Coleman describes a couple, Janice and Robert, troubled by infidelity. In therapy, he writes, “it became clear that it wouldn’t be enough for Robert to end the affair with his co-worker, rededicate himself to Janice, and repair how hurt and humiliated she felt. It was also necessary for Janice to admit that she had shut down sexually since she had become a mother and had ignored Robert’s complaints about their sex life. Janice had to acknowledge that Robert, in his own way, felt hurt and betrayed by her turning away from him and neglecting what had been an important form of connection with her.”

“There’s no singular root cause for betrayal,” says Coleman. “Ideally, both people have to look at the ways both might have contributed to the conditions that made the affair more likely. For me the biggest predictor of whether a marriage can recover from betrayal is if both people can talk about the underlying dynamics and how it came to happen.”

4) If you do want an open marriage, ask for one before you cheat. Research into the success of open or polyamorous heterosexual marriages is rare, but studies of gay men in open relationships suggest certain guidelines that Gingrich might have followed. Nearly all emphasize a very high level of transparency and equality as a prerequisite for opening a relationship to other sexual partners, as inthis list from psychotherapists Michael Shernoff and J. Morin:

  • Both partners want their relationship to remain primary;
  • The couple has an established reservoir of good will;
  • There are minimal lingering resentments from past hurts and betrayals;
  • The partners are not polarized over monogamy/non-monogamy;
  • And the partners are feeling similarly powerful and autonomous.

By the account of both Gingrich and his second wife, most of these preconditions had not been met. “He wanted an open marriage, and I refused,” Marianne Ginther told ABC News. “That is not a marriage.” With two such polarized views on monogamy, it is unlikely the marriage could have succeeded as an open one.

“There may be occasions where opening the marriage up is the best thing for a couple,” says Joshua Coleman. “But it has to be something that really works for both people and is good for both people, and is coming from a place of health and trust. It can’t be something that one spouse imposes on another.”

Newt Gingrich has systematically lied to at least two of his wives. People do learn and evolve, but does Gingrich’s private behavior make him more likely to lie to the American people?

That’s not for us to say, but it’s worth mentioning that trust has been declining in America for decades, quite often in response to the behavior of its political leaders.

As sociologist Pamela Paxton and I write in our essay “America’s Trust Fall,” the General Social Survey, a periodic assessment of Americans’ moods and values, shows a 10-point decline from 1976 to 2006 in the number of Americans who believe other people can generally be trusted. The General Social Survey also shows declines in trust in our institutions, although these declines are often closely linked to specific events such as Watergate or church sex scandals. As we argue, declines in trust have had measurably bad effects on our economy, democracy, and society.

If we are going to restore trust in America, leaders like Newt Gingrich are going to have to earn our trust, and we’re going to have to ask more of ourselves.

Originally appeared at Greater Good.

—Photo AP/Paul Sancya

About Jeremy Adam Smith

Jeremy Adam Smith is the author of The Daddy Shift, co-editor of the new anthology Rad Dad: Dispatches from the Frontiers of Fatherhood and founder of the blog Daddy Dialectic. He lives in San Francisco and works as Web Editor for the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. Follow him on Twitter at @jeremyadamsmith.


  1. Several folks questioned the infidelity rates mentioned in this piece. While researching another article, I came across a new study of cheating in monogamous heterosexual relationships:

    I recommend reading the whole piece, if you’re interested in the topic. But here’s the point most relevant to our discussion: “The study found little difference in rates of infidelity reported by men and women (23 and 19 per cent, respectively). ” This is consistent, more or less, with every peer-reviewed study of infidelity that I’ve ever read. But they also found different things predicted cheating for men and women; as I said, follow the link if you’d like to learn more.

  2. Oy, Richard. What I discovered is grounds for solidarity between breadwinning moms and breadwinning fathers. Maybe you were born knowing that, but I wasn’t, and neither were the writers you admire, I’m sure; in my case, it’s something I learned about through dozens of interviews, when I was still a relatively new father (this happened four years ago). All journalists (and psychologists who become writers), if they’re worth two cents, go through some process of research and documentation.

    So…I can see you have a chip on your shoulder. That’s OK. I have a few of my own.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Jeremy you “discovered”. Not to be mean about it, but why did you need to “discover” it?
    I know feminists pretend all men start out their work day with a breakfast catered by a five-star restaurant, followed by a really keen downsizing–somebody else’s–followed by a management retreat to Tahoe, but surely every actually knows better.
    The reality is that Dad has a job which sucks, hurts his dignity, isn’t as stable as he allows his family to know so he is constantly afraid. That he skips lunch so he can get to the DMV to be dissed by the government workers there. And when he comes home, he’s given a list of the kids’ misbehaviors which he’s supposed to address. It’s conceivable, if he’s a veteran, that he may be remembering fondly when he was somebody, got respect as, say, a corporal. Or some compliments for having the battalion’s best-organized supply room.
    Plus, he’s an oppressor and a misogynist and a patriarch.
    Years ago, when Gray’s “Men are from Mars, etc” came out, I ordered it from the library. Turned out there were seventy-six holds before me and six copies in the system. So I ordered a number of books over the next couple of months which sort of fit the category. You’d be surprised at the number of writers who didn’t need to “discover” certain things. “The Hazards of Being Male” by, iirc, Goldberg was interesting.

  4. Richard and Marie: When I was writing my book The Daddy Shift, I discovered that most primary breadwinning moms struggled with the issues Richard describes. They felt like slaves to their jobs; they lived in fear of losing them. This caused me to look at the challenges men face (including my own challenges) with new eyes; but I also think it revealed the degree to which women are changing their views of work. For a long time, feminism presented paying work as a pathway to independence and power. It is that, of course–at least on a social level–but as more and more women are becoming the primary breadwinners, I think views on work on shifting to account for the fact that jobs can sometimes suck, and that supporting a family is a huge, scary responsibility. These feelings have only sharpened in the recession. This has put huge stresses on families — sex-killing stresses, if you want to look at in that domain.

    And equality doesn’t always help; it’s better than inequality, but it’s not utopia. There are many couples today who split paid and unpaid work, so that their burdens and their decision-making power are roughly equal — and many of those couples find themselves burned to the absolute limit, both man and woman, as they find themselves in an endless daily grind of getting the kids up and to school, commuting, working, doing the dishes, helping with homework, etc. The relationship dies, unless the couple fights to keep it alive. I’m not at all suggesting the feminist revolution is finished; women as a group, and many women as individuals, still struggle with inequalities in pay, social status, etc. This is still a minority group I’m describing — though a dramatically larger minority group than even a decade ago. But we can’t neglect the challenges faced by couples who have constructed lives of rough equality; not dealing realistically with the problems they face limits the appeal of such relationships.

    Incidentally, Marie, I think Joshua Coleman would strive pretty hard to get to the issues you mention:

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Marie. Should Robert confess to these only if he’s done them, or as a general principle? We don’t know, for example, what Janice’s career was. Lawyer. Receptionist at an insurance agency. Teacher. Philosophy professor. You imply that raising a kid is a come down. And that showing up for work every day with the pressure of being the sole breadwinner, on whom everything depends, who has to take whatever the boss hands out in order to keep his job, is some kind of really, really keen fun. Maybe he worked in a sheet metal plant. Yeah, just what he always dreamed of, but he can’t afford to follow his dream because a family depends on him. Hell of an oppressor.

  6. “It was also necessary for Janice to admit that she had shut down sexually since she had become a mother and had ignored Robert’s complaints about their sex life. Janice had to acknowledge that Robert, in his own way, felt hurt and betrayed by her turning away from him and neglecting what had been an important form of connection with her.”

    Did Robert admit that after the child had been born, he didn’t do half of the housework and childcare? Did he admit that after the child had been born, he kept the career but she made the career sacrifices?
    Did he admit that he didn’t take any responsibility for birth control?

    If a husband does not treat his spouse as an equal leader, she will sexually shut down.

  7. Mark Ellis says:

    As one who regularly engages in political sword play, and one who comes to the Good Men Project for respite from partisan rancor, I would just say, one man’s opinion, the The Project should think twice before going there.

  8. @ThursdayFae: Gingrich built a career based in part on championing “traditional values,” and he has helped craft policies designed to enforce a particular vision of what family should look like, including policies affecting reproductive freedom, gay and lesbian civil rights, and so on. As President, he’d wield an enormous amount of power. If he’s saying one thing and doing another–that’s fair game and a cause for concern; the argument is a pathway into offering a different, competing vision of family life, one that allows for different kinds of families and couples. Including non-monogamous ones!

    I will say that my own marriage is not perfect–far, far from perfect. A great deal of the marriage advice in this piece is really directed at me, and my wife and I have discussed it and together we have read many of these pieces I linked to. All writing of this type is aspirational, from the writer’s perspective. And who knows? Perhaps that’s what’s going on with Gingrich. He’s fighting to become the man he presents to the public. Good luck to him. Good luck to us all.

    @wellokaythen: That’s what the studies say, my friend: less than a quarter of married heterosexual couples–the figure is considerably higher for girlfriends/boyfriends. The studies also predict your reaction: most people think there’s more cheating going on than actually is going on.

    Also, Good Men has published quite a bit about cheating Democrats. Here’s one recent piece that a quick search turned up:

    • ThursdayFae says:

      I agree, and the big problem is that these people say one thing and do another. But I think that the way that Americans devour media devoted to it, the sort of cult of personality built around it, overshadows the bigger issues at times. (With whom someone is sleeping rarely affects things like economic policy, for instance. Unless perhaps one is sleeping with an economist. :P)

      I agree with the advice laid out, as general advice. I know my beau (not yet fiance, but we’ve talked about talking about it) and I have addressed issues of trust, communication, openness, etc. and how important those conversations have been to the functionality of our relationship, and I saw what my parents went through (married now 32 years) to maintain THEIR relationship (they had their fair share of problems, though infidelity was never one of them). So the advice is definitely sound, and mostly, common sense.

      Out of curiosity, though, can you clarify whether the comment about ‘research into the success of open or polyamorous heterosexual marriages is rare’ means that the research is rare, or that according to research, the success of such open (heterosexual) relationships is rare?

      • wellokaythen says:

        Frankly, it’s unclear whether it would be better or worse for the country if the President was sleeping with an economist, as economists would be the first to tell you….

      • Hey ThursdayFae. I meant that not a lot of research has been done into heterosexual open relationships. Not that I was able to find anyway.

        You know, I agree with you that we spend too much time obsessing about celebrity relationships. Of course. But I actually think this is a somewhat separate issue. Paris Hilton doesn’t, as far as I know, pretend to be a role model, and her celebrity doesn’t depend on her ability to shape public policies affecting families and relationships. If she came out in favor of “Purity Balls” and against abortion, or something like that, and used her celebrity to raise money for such causes–well, I think we should write about the contradictions involved.

        • ThursdayFae says:

          Do you know if the reason for that is a lack of interest in researching the topic, or perhaps a lack of willing participants in such a study? I’m interested in the dynamics of plural relationships, and have personally witnessed a few (perhaps several) functional, happy heterosexual plural relationships, so I’m curious if the lack of information is because no one wants to research it, or no one wants to be researched?

  9. erin theb says:

    people who live out the ideal of a married lifetime together without adultery are a minority. to castigate this guy in such a condescending manner – for being no better then most of the rest of us – is precisely the kind of hypocritical nonsense that makes me allergic to conservative values, and here is this organization doing it. “marriage advice” my butt, how dare you. this guy fell in love with someone else while he was married. and then he left the person whom he didn’t love to be with the one he did. it happens. this is a heck of a lot better than somebody who is married, pretends to love his wife, and treats women on the side as objects of sexual gratification. It’s less good than being committed totally, and less good then asking for permission to cheat, or separating before launching into another relationship. that said, it’s how MOST people would behave in gingrich’s shoes.

    this whole project is a bunch of preachy, paternalistic, and unrealistic bullsh*t. which is why you ain’t turning anyone: condescension and shaming people into better character DOES NOT WORK.

    but good luck anyway.

  10. ThursdayFae says:

    I think the obsession that we have with the marriages of our politicians and our celebrities in America is rather pathetic, personally. Most married people struggle at some point or another–it’s a relationship, it’s going to happen. No relationship is perfect and happy all the time. Unless one or both of the partners is an android.

    That being said, the fuss that was made over the allegation from his second wife that he asked for an ‘open marriage,’ was priceless if only for the fact that it made conservative heads explode.

    I would like clarification on the assertion that ‘Research into the success of open or polyamorous heterosexual marriages is rare.’ Is the research rare, or is the article stating that successful open/poly/non-monogamous/choose-your-own-label relationships are rare?

  11. erin theb says:

    this is such bs. this issue – as is everything surrounding gingrich – is first and foremost political, and for this organization to weigh in on it at this particular time, and in such a not-so-subtle “this presidential candidate is an SOB” manner, is revolting to me personally. and I’m a liberal.

  12. What’s the big deal? He made a “Contract” with America, he didn’t say “Married” to America….

  13. wellokaythen says:

    If he became president, he would only be the second divorced man ever to be president. The first: Ronald Reagan.

    He missed a great chance to blame gay marriage as a scapegoat for his rocky relationships. He would say it’s those same sex civil unions that are destroying the fabric of marriage in America. Poor Newt must be one more victim of the gay agenda that’s out to ruin marriage. Those devious gays even drew his own daughter into their nefarious cabal. Where will it end? (Please note my sarcasm.)

    I vote Democrat, so I’m definitely not trying to be partisan in his favor, but I wonder, in the interest of fairness: Has the GMP also given relationship advice to John Edwards? Perhaps some advice about paternity as well?….

    The stat of 15-22% seems awfully low. The figures I see batted around suggest it’s more like 80% of marriages have some sort of infidelity issues at some point. Then again, I don’t know where these numbers come from. The 80% number is tossed around like the “half of all marriages end in divorce” cliché, but I’ve heard that’s actually on the high side. Whom to believe?

    • ThursdayFae says:

      I know his half-sister (Candace) is a lesbian and LGBT activist, I didn’t think either of his daughters is, though…

      • wellokaythen says:

        Shoot, am I getting him mixed up with Goldwater? Or maybe Cheney? If so, I apologize for the error.

        • ThursdayFae says:

          I think you mixed her up with Dick Cheney’s daughter, Mary. 🙂 (But Gingrich is against granting his own sister marriage, whereas Cheney changed his mind on the subject when his own daughter put him on the spot.)

          • wellokaythen says:

            Thanks for setting me straight. This “being wrong” is such a weird feeling. I’ve never felt it before…. : – )

    • erin theb says:

      the statistic quoted by this article is bogus.

      Percentage of marriages where one or both spouses admit to infidelity, either physical or emotional: 41%

      Percentage of men who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 57%

      Percentage of women who admit to committing infidelity in any relationship they’ve had: 54%

      READ: most people cheat. Very few, however, marry the ones who they cheat with. Nobody seems to be picking up on that with Newt: he followed his heart. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, and the wives on whom he cheated certainly don’t see it that way. but reality is people fall out of love. MOST people. what is so awful about this guy as opposed to the rest of us – NOTHING. except may be the jackass comment about America.

      people who live in glass houses…

      let him who is without sin throw the first stone…

      I’m disappointed and angry at this article, and its holIer-than-thou author, for the same reasons that hypocritical and judgmental conservatives piss me off.

  14. “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

    Oh, come on. What an asshole, trying to put a positive spin on his ill self-discipline.

    • He’s not a cheater, he just loves America too much!

      It’s hard work that does it, you see… so for the sake of his current marriage, he should avoid stressful jobs like the presidency.

  15. Tom Matlack says:

    Thanks you Jeremy this piece is AWESOME. And just on time.

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