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Marriage fidelity: ​The best offense is a good defense. Do your castle walls need a few more stones?

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I had flown home to visit my parents over the summer a few years ago when a family’s worst nightmare almost happened.

It was the middle of the morning during the middle of the week. My dad had already gone to work, and mom, who was on summer break from her job at the high school, was at home with me.

I was packed up to head to the gym, but not before making my way upstairs to say goodbye to my mama. I then implemented one of my habitual routines before leaving any house, which was making sure our house was completely locked up, as I had customarily done while living in my parents’ house growing up, and which I now did at my own house out of state.

After all three entries were secure, I hopped in my mother’s cross-over, which she had graciously lent me that morning (since I was vehicle-less, having traveled there by plane), pulled out of the garage, and drove towards the gym. The garage and driveway were now completely empty.

After my workout, I headed home, and upon arriving, it was revealed by my mother that someone had tried to break into the house while I was gone, and even more alarmingly, while she was home.

In our Pleasantville-like neighborhood, with neighbors who looked out for one another, garages regularly kept open during the day, and crime often residing apathetically on the back-burner of peoples’ minds, though vehicle and vacationer break-ins were an occasional thing, what happened that day was seemingly an anomaly.

Here’s what had happened: after I had closed the garage door, and drove away, not 2 minutes had passed, when my mother reported hearing the usual squeak of one of the screen doors. Thinking I had forgotten something, she came downstairs, walked towards the door leading to the garage, and halfway there, noticed in her peripheral a hooded figure standing behind the door to the back porch, ‘jiggling’ the entry door knob. Thankfully, upon seeing my mother, they fled quickly. Later, after breaking down the situation, we deduced these would-be thieves staked out our house (and others), waiting for all vehicles to depart from the household, which then communicated complete vacancy. They then assumed an empty house would await them as they entered.

Shortly after this, my parents wisely invested in a home security system, creating a clear boundary between would-be thieves and those living within their home. Though we hope this security system simply deters potential individuals from breaking in, rather than having to notify police of their entry, this system is in place in the event that it is needed. Though my family was aware of potential offenders in society, such as thieves, making sure to secure the house with locks, they had not ever experienced a would-be home-invasion before, thus, the urgency to install such a security system wasn’t in the forefront of their minds at the time.

It’s not senselessness or foolishness to not have done so, it’s just that experience of having never had experienced a break-in played a part in their action not to have an alarm up until that moment; that is, their attitude towards home break-ins were limited due to experience (which is a good thing in this case), and in turn, influenced their behavior of not having an alarm. It wasn’t until there was a potential break-in did they finally feel the obligation to purchase one.

Similarly, as married couples implement clear boundaries for their relationship collectively when communicating with others outside their marriage, they provide a security system around that relationship, not simply protecting others from infiltrating that system, and causing relational harm, but also protecting those within the marriage, from going against relationship self-control, giving into conceivable emotional and sexual temptations. Though there is a distinction between protection and possessiveness, the line is stark. Let’s look at an example:

Each marriage relationship can be viewed as a medieval village. There are commonalities, correlations, and connections with all those living in the village together, that brought them together in the first place. They care for one another, and want the best for each other individually and for their town collectively. However, without a proper fortification, or, the governing body providing a boundary wall, protecting the village against opposition from the outside, the village could easily and quickly be dissolved by even the weakest enemy. Without such a wall and a lack of defense, many within the village might be tempted to leave, fleeing to another village for more stable protection. So, this wall is two-fold.

With a tall, fortified wall, including a drawbridge to the outside world, the village can then go about its development and management with a slight fear of what’s on the outside. However, if the commonalities, correlations, and connections with all those residing within this fortified wall, become tainted with characteristics counter to healthy relationships such as selfishness, envy, and anger, for example, the villagers may turn against one another, setting ablaze one another’s respective homes, burning the village from inside its own protective walls.

Bringing this discussion back to boundaries and marriage, we can see the connection here: Married men and married women seeking extramarital affairs do so for endless specific reasons but do so generally based on one reason, which is selfishness. I explore this topic, and the characteristic most needed for a successful marriage here: The Most Important Relationship Characteristic You Must Have.

However, marriages affected by infidelity have one thing in common: lack of boundaries; whether the unfaithful husband or unfaithful wife sought or gave into emotional or sexual desires by crossing discrete, abstract, rarely discussed (if at all) marital fidelity boundaries, or, a man or woman outside of the marriage, entered into the unfortified, defenseless town, and set it on fire without even a hint of opposition from those within the marriage.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking, “it hasn’t happened to us before, and thus, we feel no need to formulate spoken boundaries for communicating with the opposite sex.” Similar to my security-alarm illustration, often we need to feel a threat to be motivated. Unfortunately, the action that comes forth from threat is often what happens first; that is, the threat is hiding in what I refer to as a blind spot of your communication. Just as objects in your car’s blind spot need to be anticipated as you drive, they sometimes can seemingly come out of nowhere and take you by surprise, requiring you to make an erratic, last-second maneuver to avoid disaster, it’s important to be prepared for the potential road hazards, and to anticipate the moves of other drivers.

Similarly, it’s crucial for the protection of marital fidelity that blind spots be anticipated before hazards appear. Having a sit-down conversation with your spouse regarding the types of verbal, nonverbal, and online communication behaviors are permissible while together and apart from one another, should be what you do after reading this article. It’s that important.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from formerly married men and women concerning their perceived inability at the time of infidelity to anticipate particular infidelity behaviors with the opposite sex. Many research participants I’ve interacted with communicate various consistent infidelity ‘breadcrumbs’ as I call them (i.e. variable consistency leading to extramarital affairs): 1.) Exercised the pride element: It can’t happen to me 2.) Communication through text messaging or private messaging on Facebook was seen as trivial and harmless compared with in person 3.) Emotional and sexual detachment from their spouse occurred simultaneously with their attachment with their extramarital man or woman 4.) Emotional confiding and/or sexual disclosures 5.) Lack of spoken guidelines with their spouse regarding acceptable communication habits with the opposite sex.

Boundaries are important to set. Think about boundaries you have in your own life.

Deadlines you need to meet at work or school requires you to set boundaries in your personal life in order to achieve them. Similarly, goals within your marriage relationship such as effective and full emotional and sexual disclosure between spouses have difficulty coming to fruition due to a lack of communication boundaries set in the marriage relationship.

Substantial research demonstrates the power text messaging has to garner strong emotional and sexual connection between users, whether on Facebook, smartphone texting, email private chat, and so forth.

For instance, a married man communicating outside of his marriage through self-disclosure text messages, containing feelings, emotions, and even sexual disclosures, runs an exponential high risk of detaching from his marriage relationship emotionally and/or sexually, while attaching emotionally and/or sexually with the person he is regularly self-disclosing with through text-messaging. Thus, preventing the burning of this man’s respective village from an outside invader, he and his spouse would ideally have a sit down, face-to-face conversation about expectations for all social and digital media private text messaging communication with the opposite sex outside of that respective marriage relationship, discussing types of topics that should remain solely under the umbrella of marital communication.

The need for boundaries extends far beyond digital and text messaging, and into the every day for any married man or married woman. Message content sent and received from sender and receiver can easily be manipulated, either intentionally or unintentionally for self-gain; that is, words and topics sent through verbal messages, if containing sensitive material such as feelings, desires, sex, can quickly snowball attachment between sender and receiver to a parallel level as seen within the separate marriage relationships of that respective sender and receiver.

When this attachment occurs between a sender and receiver, unmarried to one other, but married another, emotional and sexual detachment from their respective marital relationship often quickly follow. Thus, content sent and received verbally outside of a marriage relationship should not reflect subject content typically reserved for your marital partner.

A large body of research confirms the dangers of confiding in one-on-one opposite-sex relationships outside of a marriage. I discuss one-on-one opposite-sex relationships, and the risk they pose to marriages in my article "1-on1 Opposite Sex Friendships: A Blind Spot Threat to Marriage."

Think nonverbal communication. As a large majority of our communication with others is nonverbal; 93 percent sent through nonverbal messages, such as eye contact, body positioning, posture, voice tone, touch, time spent with another, and endless others, and much research indicates all of the above, if not monitored strategically when in the presence of another, may lead to unanticipated (or anticipated) emotional and sexual attachments outside of a marriage. More information can be found in my article titled "3 Nonverbal Behaviors That May Destroy Your Marriage." Therefore, marital guidelines established between partners in a marriage relationship long before in-person interactions with someone of the opposite sex who might have conscious or unconscious plans of charging the village, and burning it to the ground, may help to elicit habitual routines of marriage relationship protection, long before protection is necessary. Just as I unconsciously made an effort to ensure the locks were secure in my parents’ home before leaving, this effort was first based on a longevity of conscious efforts to secure the house consecutively years before.

Much behind the development and management and eventual consistency within a subconscious behavior first is founded through conscious behavior. Establishing a new routine, such as a bedtime, brushing your teeth, driving to work, adapting to a new semester class schedule, all require mindful awareness before the behavior can become regular.

Even adapting with each new season, for instance, colder weather, as much as you might be dreading it, it’s coming. With regard to winter necessities to cope—warm clothes, fireplaces, hot chocolate, window defroster fluid—and even a psychological acceptance of the weather, realizing the necessity to adapt mentally, encouraging a vital physiological adaptation tolerance towards it, increasing your body’s receptivity reaction to temperatures as they fluctuate, and then embracing them conditionally as they level out with seasonal averages—all require conscious effort to accept, familiarize, and train yourself to what is annually entailed within each respective season. Though conscious effort to train yourself may seem unnatural at times, you must do so in order to survive, with regard to cold temperatures. Your marriage needs to survive, too, and thus, a conscious effort is needed at times, even if it might go against natural inclinations.

Equally important, is a spouse’s responsibility to recognize marital behaviors needing to be trained, both individually with themselves, and collectively with their partner, which are vital to the relationships development, management, and successful longevity over time. You wouldn’t walk outside in sub-zero temperatures without a protective winter coat, shielding you from the elements, nor would you, or should you travel without emergency items in your trunk, in case you slide into a snow-drift, such as a blanket, flashlight, flares, and jumper cables. Though you may never need those emergency items, they are there to help protect you in case one ever arises.

Equally important, verbalizing with your spouse agreed upon guidelines for interacting outside of a marriage, both in person and in social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc) and digital media (texting, email, blogs, pictures, etc), is essential for placing boundaries which act as a protective guard that you may never need to employ, but it’s there to prevent temptation on the part of the individual, or outside intruders from breaching the village.

Below are some key boundaries every marriage should have, and how you should go about establishing them:

  • Have a sit-down, face-to-face discussion with your spouse regarding communication habits with the opposite sex. Discuss social and digital media interactions you have with them. Be open. Self-disclose. Be honest about insecurities and anything you’re uncomfortable with. Be willing to change communication habits with the opposite sex following this discussion. You chose to marry, thus, there may be some freedoms you’ll need to part with in order for your marital relationship to be fully protected.
     
  • Communicate with your spouse often about new communication changes with the opposite-sex. That is, be open, periodically discussing new co-workers, or co-workers in general, or a new opposite-sex Facebook ‘friend.’ Conversations with your spouse don’t need to be in-depth, unless there’s an issue, but rather, these conversations are meant to provide self-disclosure opportunities—I call it delivering information through the ‘front door’—that is, disclosing information about someone of the opposite sex, or something he/she may notably do during your day to day—entering through the front door with information (i.e. ability to brace for potential hazards down the road—‘back door’) that may communicate a discrepancy in behavior (e.g. flirtation with you). Telling your spouse this information when this particular event happens, places a boundary for when/if something vastly inappropriate happens. Not telling them up front, and then something happening later, may catch them off guard, and marital trust may be compromised (i.e. the back door).
     
  • Monitor who you choose to be ‘friends’ with on social and digital media, as well as who you choose to text message with. Conversations through text can quickly go from innocent topics of discussion to more emotional disclosing, and often times, sexual. Many times, people are finding themselves in extramarital affairs brought on by a lack of communication stewardship on social media and through texting. Consider combining social/digital media accounts with your spouse, or consider deleting them altogether, especially if this type of communication becomes an issue. Here are some additional tips in another article of mine: Facebook Infidelity: 10 Safeguards Your Marriage Needs Today 
     
  • Be cognizant of your nonverbal communication. We all put a heightened emphasis on certain nonverbal behaviors and less on others. Be aware of those nonverbals such as eye contact, touch, proximity to another, time spent, etc…and be willing to modify the quantity used during your interactions with the opposite sex.
     
  • Emotional confiding happens quickly. If you had a big fight the night before with your spouse, the next day you may still be emotionally raw, even if you reconciled the night before. Be aware that emotionally confiding with the opposite sex outside of your marriage can quickly detach you from your spouse. Save important topics of discussion for your marital relationship, and continue any uneasiness with the conversation the night before that day.
     
  • Avoid social comparison online. Media bombards us with lives that are not ours and forces us to compare those with our own. This psychological variable can devastate not only marriages but yourself. Limit your social/digital media usage time, and consider deleting and even blocking certain individuals you find you compare yourself and/or your marriage with.
     
  • Be careful not to apply your personality type as an excuse for your behavior outside of your marriage. Just because an online personality test says you’re extroverted and feeling does not permit you to tightrope walk the line of faithfulness and flirtation. Loyalty to your spouse is first and foremost, and your communication behavior should reflect this, regardless of how you’re ‘wired.’ Introverts, as well as extroverts, have equal opportunity to disregard boundaries in marriage, but both equally have an opportunity to mind those boundaries, especially when they’ve been formally established by both spouses.

Look at establishing fidelity communication boundaries in your marriage as a home-security system. The initial investment will cost something: self-disclosure, vulnerability, and some confession of insecurities, but once installed, will help monitor and track your communication behavior, acting as preventative protection against an unpredictable world. Though it will take conscious effort at first to set the alarm, over time, you’ll find it happens naturally, and the peace of mind for marriage security will surpass discomfort from here on out.

No marriage is impenetrable to infidelity. Infidelity is a heart issue. Boundaries may be established, and infidelity still might poke its ugly head in. However, setting boundaries that align with both you and your spouse now, will significantly boost the likelihood of marital faithfulness and success in the future.

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For more articles written by Zack Carter, Ph.D., regarding how to steward well your communication in an effort to improve your self and your relationships, please check out his Psychology Today blog column by clicking the link below:

Clear Communication: Avoiding Blindspots in Your Words and Actions:

Clear Communication deals with the day-to-day blind-spots in communication. Blind spots in communication are defined as those thoughts, words, or actions you may or may not be cognizant of as you live day-to-day, but often times can negatively affect you and others in the long run. Want to know how to avoid communication blind spots in your personal and relational development? By raising your awareness of these blind spots, in both every day and in social and digital media settings, you can potentially elude relationship heartache and devastation. Achieving relationship success in this 21st-century environment requires healthy, consistent communication stewardship. This blog will help you learn about how to apply social psychology in your personal and relational settings to avoid these blind-sided communication moments. My goal is to educate my readers on how strategy and intentional communication behaviors are necessary to the development and management of your self, and your relationships. 

References

Afifi, W. A., & Faulkner, S. L. (2000). On being ‘just friends’: The frequency and impact of sexual activity in cross-sex friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17, 205-222.

Carter, Z. A. (2016). Married and previously married men and women's perceptions of communication on facebook with the opposite sex: How communicating through facebook can be damaging to marriages. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 57, 1, 36-55.

Clayton, R. B., Nagurney, A., & Smith, J. R. (2013). Cheating, breakup, and divorce: Is Facebook use to blame? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16, 717-720

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