Extramarital affairs can be devastating to everyone involved, most of all the cheated partner.
It’s estimated that roughly 30 to 60% of all married individuals in the U.S. will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage.
What’s disturbing is that affairs can happen even to self-described happy couples. One of the first things people ask is “how could this happen?”
The truth is, there are risk factors. Research has pointed to identifiable characteristics most often linked with infidelity. And those who’ve been involved in an affairs are often able to see the signs in retrospect.
What makes a marriage prone to extramarital affairs?
- Chronically stressed marriages: This is fairly obvious. Happy marriages are not immune to affairs, but unhappy marriages are indeed more at risk due to a desire to “escape” unpleasant dynamics. People feel more justified in breaching trust when they are unhappy in the relationship.
- Familiarity with affairs growing up: If you grew up in a family where affairs are considered normal, you are at much higher risk of engaging in affairs yourself. The possibility for duplicity feels familiar and acceptable, and subconsciously we are always drawn to what we know.
- Excitement-driven personality: Statistically, people who tend to value excitement and risk-taking over stability are more likely to stray outside the marriage. This is not to be confused with the normal transition from excitement to predictability that occurs in all relationships. For certain personality types, the “old married couple” syndrome is painful, rather than a source of comfort. In these cases, individual therapy is the best bet for prevention.
- Social environment that condones affairs: If your identity is tied to your workplace relationships, AND your co-workers think that it’s ok to stray, you are less likely to remain faithful.
- Lack of emotional closeness with partner. Those who feel emotionally distant from their partners are more likely to look outside for closeness with another. It is only human to seek intimacy and connection. If one partner is feeling lonely or unloved, they are vulnerable to the pull of positive attention from others.
- Entering into “secrets” with someone who is not your partner: In her book Not Just Friends, Shirley Glass showed how partners can unwittingly put their relationships at risk by forming secret emotional attachments with others. This can happen by crossing small boundaries that are needed to protect the marriage. For example, instead of saying to your partner: “I had the most intense conversation with Tom at work today and it made me realize I am missing that with you,” you might keep it to yourself out of fear of conflict. But then you have a secret with another person, and that is the start of bringing somebody else inside the relationship.
- Tendency to avoid conflict: Couples who are prone to avoiding conflict are more at risk of affairs. This is because keeping the peace at all costs thwarts self-expression. If you chronically side-step disagreements, you are more apt to withhold unmet needs and prevent getting to know each other better. This creates loneliness which is linked with unfaithfulness.
How to Prevent Extramarital Affairs:
If you see your relationship reflected in any of the above seven items, you should get proactive. The first thing is to have an honest conversation about your risks with each other. Even if it’s hard (and it will be).
Here are some proven techniques that keep relationships out of the “affair-prone” category:
- Know yourself and create open lines of communication with your spouse. Honestly assess if you may be vulnerable to an affair. Are you angry with your spouse? Do you feel resentful or disconnected? Also, know what’s important to your partner and make time to discuss your shared goals. Remind yourselves of the unique history you have and consider developing traditions that support your future. There is something very bonding about discussing your past and your future.
- Create a “relationship vision.” Write a very specific vision of what a fantastic partnership looks like to you. After you define your own vision, share it with each other, find the common ground, and create a shared vision from the areas that overlap. Write this up and hang it in a place where it will be seen everyday. This will serve as a reminder of your shared goals and commitments.
- Make your relationship a priority. Life is busy and it’s easy to get caught up in the demands of daily life. Don’t let your relationship fall lower on the priority list and take your partner for granted. Set aside DAILY time to reconnect with your spouse, if only just for a short while. Even 15-20 minutes a day alone together can make a big difference.
- Discuss your feelings or concerns with your partner. You may find it helpful to meet with a couple’s counselor in order to find support in approaching difficult subjects. Learn to use “I statements” rather than “you statements” to keep it successful.
- Discuss together how to “affair-proof” your marriage. Find out what your partner is ok with in regard to relationships with others, and set guidelines for how each of you will behave in these situations. For example, you may agree that neither of you goes to dinner alone with a colleague while traveling for work. Discuss the boundaries and expectations of your relationship in terms of fidelity.
- Share with your partner whenever you feel attracted to another person. People in happy marriages may occasionally be attracted to someone else. By mutually acknowledging this, partners can redirect themselves and be reminded of their boundaries. By avoiding these issues, they become “secret” and pave the way for the start of an affair.
- Make time for doing fun things in the marriage. Try to keep a ratio of 5:1, positive to negative. Having fun helps keep your relationship strong. Consciously decide to create good times together and expand on the positive that already exists.
- Have a good sex life and sense of romance. Learn what each other’s idea of romance is and discuss what feels romantic to you. Be imaginative and creative. Also, identify the barriers to connecting sexually. Are you too stressed? Are you harboring resentment? If so, be open about it. Let your partner know how attractive they are to you. And if you don’t have the time, you may have to put it on the calendar. In long-term commitments, we sometimes have to plan for our priorities.
Remember, extra-marital affairs don’t “just happen.” There are clear steps and choices that lead into an affair. By following the above tips you can “affair proof” your marriage and prevent infidelity before it begins.
If you’ve already been impacted by an affair in your relationship, you may decide it’s a deal breaker. Or, you may decide to stay and rebuild trust.
Should you decide to stay after an affair, check back later this week to find out how to rebuild your relationship after an affair in my next week’s blog!
Good luck to you and keep up the good work!