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Why Affairs Tempt Us, And How to Prevent Them

Emotional affairs can prove as disastrous as sexual ones. Prevention is key.

Affairs, emotional and/or sexual, can from time to time tempt anyone.  Yes; all spouses and committed partners are at risk for becoming too intimately involved with another person, especially if they are naive about prevention. What do couples need to know, and preferably to discuss openly with each other, to decrease the odds that they will end up having to deal with an infidelity?

Psychologist Shirley Glass first clarified that most infidelities are inadvertent occurrences that evolve from intimate conversations in private places.  The most likely candidates for igniting sexual passions are old flames who reappear in your world, and work associates with whom there have been flirtatious interactions or intensive alone together work time. What do couples need to understand about these factors to lower the risk of their having to deal with infidelities after they have happened? 

Talking intimately, that is, about private aspects of your personal life, with anyone can ignite sexual feelings.  Verbal openness with someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse begets impulses to sexual openness.  Closeness of understanding invites impulses to become close sexually. That's not about being a moral or immoral person.  It's the reality of how we humans have been biologically programmed.

If a person with whom we have an intimate conversation happens to be either an old flame or a work associate, the odds of sexual feelings igniting zoom further upward.

Why a work associate?  Working closely together in private situations, that is, with the office door closed, and worst of all travel alone together with a work associate of the other sex, is highly likely to raise temptingly titillating sexual feelings.  Once you are in a situation where you have to rely on self-discipline, you are entering high risk territory.

Lastly, if for some reason you so find yourself in a private space, and/or talking about your or the other person's private life, two more actions can deepen the danger zone you are entering.  One is to physically touch each other, even with an "innocent" touch on the arm or shoulder.  The second is to add liquor.

Now add to the risk factors difficulties in your primary relationship such as arguments, distance, or a sexless relationship and you will hit the max of infidelity risk.

Anything that feels good invites us to experience more of it. 

The stronger the arousal of positive feelings and especially of potent sexual feelings, the more that trigger has potential to override our good judgment.  Our brains are programmed to encourage us to de what we need to do to experience good feelings again, and again, and again.

Sex can especially feel good.

That's the good news and the bad news, though it's in fact no news, just obvious, to most of us.   Herein lies the main challenge regarding delightful feelings of sexual arousal. 

As much as we may value fidelity, we are biologically designed for new sex to arouse more potent sexual feelings than old. 

Meet, for instance, Mr. and Mrs Gerbil.  Put a male and female gerbil together in a cage.  Guess what they do?  Copulate.  Many times. 

When scientists count these copulations they find a telling pattern.  Over time, with familiarity, the number of copulations gradually decreases.  Mr. and Mrs. Gerbil find a comfortable plateau at which copulation rate they have potential to live together happily ever after.  There's a gradual lowering of their average daily copulation rate over time, but wherever the plateau rests, they seem contented.

Familiarity may not breed contempt but it does lower a couple's copulation rates.  The actual satisfaction from copulation may not be lowered.  Many couples in fact find that satisfaction from sexual acts increases over time.  But the intensity of pre-copulation arousal decreases.  

Now comes the problem.  Put Mr. and Mrs. Gerbil into two separate cages.  Add a new Mrs. for him, and a new Mr. for her.  Boom.  Copulation rates zoom up for both of the new couples, rising immediately to the copulation rate of the initial pairing. 

Additional new partners or each gerbil will cause repeats again and again of the same pattern. New partner; heightened sexual interest every time.

Does that mean that mammals are meant for multiple partners?   No. 

No first of all because higher intensity of initial arousal does not mean that the sexual experience overall will be better.  To the contrary, while familiar partners may evoke lower initial levels of interest, which is the first of four aspects of sexual satisfaction, familiar partners by contrast tend to lead to more positive gratification in the other three realms. 

After initial arousal of interest, the actual stimulation phase, phase 2 of sexual activity, is generally more gratifying for sexual partners who know each other well. 

That's why phase 3, orgasm, tends to be more consistent with a long-term and familiar partner. 

And phase 4, the post-coital phase of enjoying being together, is enhanced for people in long-term commited relationships who are aware at some level that making love together has enhanced the security of their attachment to each other.

Post-coital bonding.

People are not gerbils.  People have an additional phenomenon called pair bonding. 

Not all people have the pair-bonding gene.  But most do, perhaps because it generally takes two mammals to raise offspring.  One needs to forage for food while the other protects and nurtures the young.  Or in our contemporary world, two increase the odds that they jointly will be able to earn a living effectively enough to pay for housing, food, child care, clothes, leisure and savings for old age as well as to manage child care and home care.

In addition, successful couples tend to like each other.  Like Adam with Eve, they prefer companionship to loneliness.  They treasure continuation of their partnership 'till death do us part.'  Saving sex as a pleasure they enjoy only with each other is generally part of their contract.

sex.  protecting against infidelity. why affairs tempt us.
Sexual impulses can be powerful.
So how can couples protect against inadvertent affairsHere's five essential policies that are worth discussing together before sexual enticements with new potential partners enter the picture. 

  1. Marry your loved one.  Then cherish your loved one, keeping the connection vibrant with positive interactions and rarely beset by complaints, criticism, controlling, angry or similarly negative interactions.  Sexual fidelity promises work best when they simply add to inherent feelings of treasuring a partnership.
  2. If sexual feelings come up with people outside of your marriage partnership, bring these feelings home.  That is, let them enhance your sexual enjoyment with your loved one, like a romantic movie can add to your marriage.
  3. Do not however seek out or encourage sexualized interactions with others.  Flirtatious behavior starts you down the path to infidelities. Titillating interactions may be fun at the moment but can lead to destruction of your marriage, which is no fun whatsoever. If flirtation is seeming tempting, switch to rekindling the flames in your marriage.
  4. If excessively tempting sexual feelings do come up with someone with whom you must have repeated contact, especially with an old flame or a work associate as these are the two highest risk categories, tell your spouse.  Honesty and openness have huge protective benefits.  Stay a team and figure out together a plan of action.
  5. When you are interacting with someone of the other gender, especially at the office, when you are traveling without your spouse, or if you happen to reconnect with an old flame, protect yourself with the following realistic policies.

a)  Avoid discussions of personal topics with anyone of the opposite sex other than your loved one. Talk about practical, professional or business matters with others. Save personal talks for your spouse or same sex friends.

b)   Do not play alone with someone other than your partner.  For instance, on business trips, dine in a group.

c)   Meet only in public spaces.  Stay clear of private places where "something" could happen.

d)  Avoid alcohol if you must be in a one-on-one situation.

e)  Separate yourself immediately from a situation that you may not be able to handle.


Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage.  A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive website,, that teaches the skills for marriage success.


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Trust Matters