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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.

This post is in response to
Who Is Most Likely to Cheat on a Partner?

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?

Beware of emotional intimacy, that is of personal sharing, with someone of the other sex other than your spouse.

Talking about private aspects of your personal life such as your marital or financial problems invites feelings of intimacy. Verbal openness with someone of the opposite sex who is not your spouse begets impulses to sexual openness. That's not about being a moral or immoral person. It's the reality of how we humans have been biologically programmed.

Psychologist Shirley Glass once pointed out that if a person with whom we have an intimate conversation is either an old flame or a work associate, the odds of sexual feelings igniting zoom further upward.

Why old flames? Old sexual feelings seem to reignite especially easily because ot the feelings of intimacy that arise from longevity of the relationship. A shared history enhances feelings of closeness.

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 especially 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 do find yourself alone as a couple, 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.

Add to these risk factors current difficulties in your primary relationship such as arguments, distance, or a sexless relationship. Now you have 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.

Here's the problem: As much as we may value fidelity, we are biologically designed for new sex to arouse more potent sexual feelings than old.

Meet 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, that is, with familiarity, the number of copulations gradually decreases. There's a gradual lowering of their average daily copulation rate over time.

While familiarity may not breed contempt, it does lower a couple's copulation rates. That is because pre-encounter sexual arousal decreases with familiarity in a secure relationship.

Interestingly, many couples report that their overall feelings of sexual enjoyment from sexual encounters actually increase over time in the relationship. It's just the intensity of pre-intercourse arousal that decreases with familiarity.

Now 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 these new couples, rising immediately to the copulation rate of the initial pairing with their former partner.

With each new partner, gerbils repeat again and again of the same pattern. New partner; heightened sexual interest. Familiar partner, a gradual slow-down in copulation rates. Every time.

Does that mean that mammals are meant for multiple partners?


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.

In phase 2 of sexual activity, physical stimulation, sexual partners who know each other well generally experience more sexual intensity.

In phase 3 of sexual interactions, orgasm, a long-term and familiar partner tends to be associated with more predictable successful outcomes.

Phase 4 of sexual activity is the post-coital phase of enjoying being together. Couples in long-term committed relationships generally find that making love together has enhanced the bond of their attachment to each other and their overall feelings of mutual love.

sex. protecting against infidelity. why affairs tempt us.
Sexual impulses can be powerful.

So how can couples protect against inadvertent affairs? Here'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 love-making.
  3. Do not however seek out or encourage sexualized interactions with others. Flirtatious behaviors start 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.

Most importantly, separate yourself immediately from a situation that you may not be able to handle. Prevention beats clean-up after mistakes.


(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

Susan Heitler, PhD, a Denver clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage and The Power of Two Workbook.

A graduate of Harvard and NYU, Dr. Heitler writes her books and her interactive website,, to teach the skills for marriage success.

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship quiz.