Infidelity in a marriage can be remarkably predictible. Prevention sure beats having to suffer and be sure your marriage survives after an affair has happened. If you learn to read correctly the signs of where the road you are on is heading, you can make decisions that will keep you and your marriage safe. If not, there's danger coming up.
Most infidelities are inadvertent. Most married folks don't intend to be unfaithful to their partner. They did however turn a naively blind eye to warning signs pointing to danger ahead.
My posting several weeks ago on How to Get Back an Ex included excerpts from emails sent to be by one of my clients, Peter. Peter has continued to journal to help himself heal and grow after his wife told him to leave their home when she discovered evidence that he had had an affair.
Peter now is doing much better emotionally. He has recovered enough from the initial shock of the banishment from his home to be able to move to the next steps of the healing process. Now he is reviewing the mistaken actions that resulted in his fall off infidelity cliff. One theme that now is dramatically obvious to him with hindsight is the huge role of secrets in the downfall of his marriage.
Looking back at his lack of transparency with his wife, Peter at first felt overcome by guilt and shame. The point of guilt, he gradually realized however, is not to self-flagellate. Making himself feel bad does little good. Rather, the point of guilt is to figure out how to prevent similar mistakes in the future.
Peter again offered to share his thoughts with PT readers in hopes his own mistakes can help others avoid similar errors. I especially appreciate his generosity because his errors were totally typical of the errors of so many people I work with who naively ended up violating their marital vows to cherish and protect their spouse.
From Peter’s email to me:
1st Danger Sign: Continuing to talk together, email or work together in private places once interacting has begun to launch sexual feelings.
I hadn’t heard from Georgia, the woman with whom I had the infidelity, in over 30 years. When she contacted me via Linked In there was a sense of titillation. She then continued to reach out to me.
In the future I want no more playing with the fire of titillation. It’s too dangerous to be worth the mini-delights of minor sexual feelings or of feeling attractive to someone.
Therapist note: Titillation becomes a huge secret that splits the bond with one's spouse. At the same time, titillation addicts a person to the excitement of new romance. Note also that old flames are especially easily re-ignited.
My plan: No more secret contacts for me with Georgia, or any female friends from my past. Reconnecting socially even with a trusted old friend like Georgia isn’t worth the dangers of another seductive involvement that could lure me to dangerous territory. I love my wife and value my marriage too much to put them at risk.
2nd Danger Sign: A fragile marriage situation
When Georgia first contacted me, my marriage was already in a state of crisis, although I failed to acknowledge it and the role I was playing.
My wife Paulette had long ago withdrawn emotionally and more recently had withdrawn physically, so our sexual relations were fairly minimal. I had failed to communicate with her to discuss our problems or to tell her how rejected I was feeling, so I was already in a state of some emotional and physical need when Georgia contacted me out the blue.
I should have recognized that I had a problem and that Paulette was NOT the problem. She was simply pointing out the problems that resided in me.
Therapist note: Again, secrets played a huge role. Peter was not sharing with Paulette how distressed he had become at the growing distance between him and his wife. He argued with her but he kept his profound loneliness secret.
My plan: So going forward, to avoiding falling off future infidelity cliffs I must learn to engage in open and frank communication with my wife. For me, that especially means listening to understand Paulette instead of blocking to dismiss her concerns about our relationship.
3rd Danger Sign: Hiding that I was married. Georgia asked me what I was doing. In the course of our discussions, I mentioned the divorce from my first wife, BUT FAILED STRAIGHT OFF THE BAT TO MENTION THAT I WAS CURRENTLY MARRIED. A BIG NO-NO.
Therapist note: This is yet another moment when up-front transparency can save the day for you, for your spouse, for your marriage, and even for the potential seductress or seductor.
My plan: In the future when I communicate with any woman who is in any way potentially attractive to me I will mention early on something nice about my wife. That way she will know that I am married and that the marriage is healthy and strong. And I will be strengthened by the reminder to myself of how much I value my wife and our marriage.
4th Danger Sign: Enjoying and then craving flirtatious talking. My secret exchanges with Georgia over the Internet became increasingly flirtatious, so in a big sense, emotional infidelity was already taking place. I was like someone fishing for affection and appreciation. Then I was the fish that got hooked. The sexual feelings became like an addiction. I kept wanting more and more.
Therapist's note: The more pleasurable, the more likely illicit conversations (conversations that your spouse would feel threatened by) are likely to become addictive. Titillation is a trap. New love is always more intense than familiar love. And dangerous liasons are especially titillation.
My plan: Starting now, I’ll make post-working-hours internet activity minimal, and definitely not something I do with women or to enjoy titillating conversations.
I need to be especially careful when I’m alone, as I am now since Paulette made me leave the house and as I am when I do business travel. The internet is too full of tempting titillating options. I don’t want to go to any of them ever again, so for now at least, while I’m still vulnerable, the less I open my computer the better. Books, TV, music, phone calls with family members and male friends all are far safer. So is going to the gym or playing tennis or basketball.
5th Danger Sign: Meetings in private places.
Georgia lived in Chicago and I'm in another city. We agreed to meet for dinner during a subsequent business trip.
In the future I will arrange no social meetings with single women when I am on business trips. Being away from home in a far-off city makes it too easy to forget the rules by which I normally live my life. My new rule is to stay far from any activity that I would be uncomfortable telling my wife about.
The fact that I was in a hotel made a sexual encounter especially easy. In practical terms, when I am travelling it is usually impossible to me to avoid staying at a hotel, but I have tried to set up additional “hedges” when I’m in Chicago by staying at the homes of friends so as to avoid a convenient locale for a potential infidelity.
I am already reflecting this course of action. I’m stll banished from living at home but I have decided to move out of the small apartment I rented when Paulette asked me to leave. Though it’s not a classic “bachelor pad,” an apartment where I live alone could make it too easy to bring in a woman.
My plan is to move as soon as possible into a house with a male friend. This solution also will give me increased social interaction and less loneliness, as loneliness/isolation and boredom are two other triggers which could lead me down a path toward more destructive behavior of the sort that led me before to an infidelity.
Closing observations from Dr. Heitler
As Peter is learning the hard way, falling off an infidelity cliff is typically the end result of a slippery slope phenomenon. As the saying goes, slippery slopes initially feel neither slippery nor sloped. Then suddenly, one step later, the slide begins. By then it’s all-but-impossible to catch yourself and pull back before tumbling off the cliff. The damage has been done.
Titillating interactions may seem fun and harmless. In fact, they tend to be one of the first invitations to secrecy, and secrecy leads to distance from a spouse. More distance makes more mistakes likley.
Falling from monogamy off the infidelity cliff ends up being self-destructive as well as extremely damaging to loved ones. Better to stay far from the cliff’s edge.
Related articles on my PsychologyToday blog include:
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a graduate of Harvard with a doctorate from NYU, is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in marriage therapy. Her book and workbook, The Power of Two, and her online program for couples, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, teach the skills for long and loving relationships.