Almost all adults (90%) disapprove of marital infidelity, but as many as one-quarter engage in extramarital affairs (Allen et al., 2005). There are many types of infidelity, ranging from all-out sexual relationships to simple fantasizing. People engage in extramarital affairs for many reasons, but lack of sexual and emotional satisfaction are among the top two.
For many couples, relationship satisfaction tends to drop slowly over the early years of marriage. The stress of transitioning to parenthood also places a burden on a couple, potentially leading the partners to become involved either in arguments or withdrawing emotionally from each other. Decreases in relationship satisfaction and increases in divorce rates accumulate over time as a result of the interaction between a couple’s risk factors and current life stresses. It is possible for partners to maintain their satisfaction despite these stresses, but it’s a challenge nevertheless.
One way to repair a hurt or broken relationship is through couples therapy which, to be effective, takes a minimum of 20 sessions. Before reaching that point, couples can take preventative action to keep their bonds strong and healthy. Relationship education (RE) provides couples with knowledge and skills that can help them communicate more effectively and manage the ways they interact with each other. Based on a solid research evidence base, relationship education is relatively short, with a curriculum amounting to a mere 12 to 18 hours. It’s a small effort to invest in order to ensure that couples will remain as committed to each other over the challenges that the years ahead can bring. Even for couples who aren’t able to find a relationship education course, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the research based on its principles. More to the point, according to the family psychologist who developed the basic method, University of Denver’s Howard Markman (2005), relationship education can “affair-proof” a long-term relationship.
In RE, couples learn both knowledge and skills pertaining to the quality of marriage (or long-term cohabitation). They learn that having a shared sense of commitment to the relationship is essential to its continuing. Couples also learn the benefits of having realistic expectations for their relationship. In other words, no relationship is perfect. Even great relationships, realistically, are likely to mellow out over time. The lust of that first year or so transforms into a quieter form of satisfaction as they learn to appreciate each other as companions. Communication, problem-solving, and coping are the three relationship skills that couples work on through RE. Couples interested in these programs can find an educator who can provide training, but they are increasingly becoming available in online and DVD versions.
Well-known authors in the field of long-term relationships, W. Kim Halford and Guy Bodenmann summarize the results of 17 empirical studies evaluating the effectiveness of three variations of relationship education in a June 2013 article published in the prestigious Clinical Psychology Review. These RE versions include the Prevention and Relationship Education Program (PREP), Couple Commitment and Relationship Enhancement (Couple CARE), and Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET). Halford and Bodenmann applied criteria for evidence-based interventions to test whether RE lives up to its claims. This meant that they only included studies in which researchers carried out at least two trials in which they randomly assigned couples to control vs. treatment groups.
PREP emphasizes the ways that couples can build a sense of commitment and learn to engage in positive behaviors with each other that emphasize its plusses (such as having fun, enjoying sexuality and sensuality, and protecting friendship). In CCET, couples learn to develop coping skills that can help them reduce the stress of daily problems (“hassles”). Couple CARE programs help partners identify and implement changes in themselves as a way to enhance their relationship in a process known as “self-regulation.” In other words, couples learn to monitor what they say and do around their partner, making them less likely to lose control, for example in angry outbursts.
In their review of the research evidence, Halford and Bodenmann found that programs lasting 10 to 20 weeks had more positive effects on couple communication and satisfaction than those lasting less than 10 weeks. They also noted strengths and weaknesses of the studies carried out to date, concluding that relationship education works best on couples who are at high risk in the areas that the program targets- namely, communication, problem-solving, self-regulation, and coping with stress. The results were not universally favorable, then, but the evidence in favor of RE outweighs its limitations.
Turning to its “affair-proofing” possibilities, what can RE do to help reduce your chances of experiencing extramarital infidelity, or at least overcoming its effects should it happen to you? Markman regards several elements of RE as providing the best insurance against infidelity with the following six components:
1. Learn more effective ways to handle conflict
To the extent that marital infidelity is caused by distress, PREP teaches partners to handle conflict and negative emotions. Couples learn problem-solving skills through didactic instruction along with behaviorally-oriented examples.
2. Be able to talk about extramarital affairs
One of the most difficult aspects for couples (the betrayed and the betrayer) is to figure out how to communicate with each other about the affair. Once couples learn how to handle conflict, they can also be better prepared to deal with the issues associated with the infidelity, such as loss of trust, feelings of betrayal, and even transmission of sexual diseases). Because couples learn constructive instead of destructive ways to resolve conflicts in general, this particular conflict becomes more manageable.
3. Strengthen the bonds of commitment
PREP includes modules on strengthening feelings of commitment to one’s partner. In these modules, couples learn that checking out or being attracted to other people is a normal part of everyday life. However, people who are dissatisfied are even more likely to let their eyes and minds stray. PREP teaches couples the cognitive behavioral method of “thought-stopping,” meaning that when you start to fantasize about someone else, say “STOP.” Then, refocus your attention to your current partner. Send an email or call your partner expressing a loving message. Family researchers know that couples in a long-term relationship have that relationship as their first priority. By refocusing their attention to their partner, they’re acting in their best interests.
4. Practice forgiveness
Infidelity isn’t the only behavior that may require forgiveness in a long-term relationship. However, when it occurs, there are ways to recover should the couple desire to work on their marriage. PREP teaches couples to practice forgiveness in general. In general, by maximizing their emotional and sexual intimacy, the couple builds a natural buffer against the affair occurring in the first place.
5. Recalibrate expectations
Each partner enters into a long-term relationship with a set of expectations about what will happen in the coming years and decades. These expectations include ideas about marital fidelity. No one enters into a committed long-term relationship expecting infidelity. However,if one does and the other doesn’t, this means that they will have some readjusting to do. At the very least, this divergence needs to be discussed and the conflicting expectations resolved. Through the general conflict resolution methods that couples learn in PREP, they can discuss their expectations for fidelity in a way that allows them to handle negative emotions safely and without fighting. Because we know that most people do not approve of marital infidelity, it’s reasonable to assume that they don’t expect it will happen to them either. By building into RE expectations of infidelity, and what to do when it happens, couples can preventatively address what could ultimately end their relationship should it occur.
If you're looking for more information on RE, the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center contains information about RE and related topics. This organization's agenda is to promote marriage as a stabilizing force in society. Not everyone would agree with their policy agenda, but their website contains useful information on topics relevant to today’s families, including issues in long-term relationships for military families. The National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) is a professional scientific organization promoting the interdisciplinary field of family science and contains a wealth of resources ranging from family health to religion and families. RE is on the agenda for both organizations, though the policy implications of healthy marriage seem to be more prominent for the Marriage Resource Center.
Whether or not you’re married, RE can help you improve the satisfaction you get out of whatever intimate partnership you’re in now. As we can see from Markman’s thoughtful analysis of “affair-proofing,” or recovering should it happen, by mastering both the knowledge and skills you can keep your relationship satisfying and resilient.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Allen, E. S., Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., Gordon, K. C., & Glass, S. P. (2005). Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Contextual Factors in Engaging in and Responding to Extramarital Involvement. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 12, 101-130. doi: 10.1093/clipsy/bpi014
Halford, W. K., & Bodenmann, G. (2013). Effects of relationship education on maintenance of couple relationship satisfaction. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 512-525. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2013.02.001
Markman, H. J. (2005). The Prevention of Extramarital Involvement: Steps Toward 'Affair Proofing' Marriage. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 12, 134-138. doi: 10.1093/clipsy/bpi016