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The Cornerstones of Marriage – Fidelity

How important is it to be faithful in a marriage?

Having a partner who is faithful is an entitlement of marriage. Fidelity on its own won’t necessarily guarantee a marriage will remain intact, but infidelity can surely end one. In fact, it’s one of the greatest threats to marital stability. Nothing breaks down trust and commitment more, and there’s no violation harder to overcome, than cheating. In our book, “Making Marriage Work”, we consider fidelity as one of the cornerstones of marriage, as essential as emotional support, trust, and commitment.

The taboo against cheating is so strong that even those who have done it still regard it as wrong. While their beliefs are inconsistent with their actions, they get around that with some rationalizing. In principle they agree infidelity is unacceptable, but they can excuse their own as a special case. It’s because of flaws in their marriage or in their own personalities. They also believe that, taken on a case by case basis, others who have cheated probably also had good reasons, so at least they’re not hypocritical.

There are lots of reasons why people have affairs. They may do it out of curiosity, a desire for something new and exciting, to boost their ego, because of an emotional or intellectual connection with another person, because of a disconnection with a spouse or because they’re emotionally or physically unfulfilled at home. Some may do it to advance their careers, while others to get revenge on their spouse for some wrongdoing. For some men, there’s also a sense of entitlement; they regard cheating as culturally acceptable for their gender.

There are different kinds of affairs. Some are purely physical, some purely emotional, and some are a combination of the two. Men and women differ in terms of which ones they tend to experience. Men mostly take part in the purely physical, while affairs for women usually include at least some emotional connection. Affairs that include emotions tend to be more damaging, because they often include a corresponding emotional break-down with one’s spouse.

Emotional affairs start out differently than strictly physical ones. Physical affairs are often spontaneous and based on mutual attraction and availability, and love has little or nothing to do with it. Those that include emotions, on the other hand, take time to develop and aren’t typically planned or actively sought. They might happen as two people get to know each other, and their relationship often begins innocently as a friendship. Sex can be the result of developing a stronger connection.

Generally speaking, extramarital affairs don’t just happen by chance. There’s often something wrong with the marriage. Sometimes it’s hostility or unfairness that makes a marriage unhappy, but sometimes it’s ambivalence. Marriages that have partners who are emotionally disconnected and uninvolved in each other’s lives are just as vulnerable. Additionally, there’s a greater risk of infidelity if one partner feels the other is not fully committed. Both may cheat in this scenario: the more committed partner to protect themselves, and the less committed partner because they’re more likely to consider alternatives.

One partner might have personal issues that make them more prone to consider an affair, regardless of how they feel about their marriage. One such issue relates to attachment styles, which refers to how we bond with other people. A person with an avoidance attachment style maintains an emotional distance in all their relationships. Because they can have trouble building a strong personal commitment to their partner, they leave themselves open to consider other relationships. At the same time, because they’re married, they know they’re not free to build an emotional connection to another person. Affairs actually work quite well for avoidance attached people. They can satisfy their sexual needs while carrying on emotionally disconnected relationships with both a spouse and a lover.

Another that’s conducive to infidelity is an anxiety attachment style. Those with an anxiety style worry about abandonment. They typically doubt their partner’s feelings and their commitment to the relationship, and so they in turn limit their own commitment. But an emotional bond is important to maintain their self-esteem, so they look for it with someone else, and use their fears about their spouse’s intentions as justification. And because self-esteem and fear of abandonment are the primary motivators, the affair is usually not just physical. It’s the emotional connection that they want, not just sex.

However they get there, partners usually cheat to make themselves feel better. Unfortunately, things almost never turn out that way -- they’re likely to feel worse, not better. Most people experience guilt and some suffer bouts of depression, and virtually all spend their lives in fear of being found out. Emotional affairs might not be quite as problematic for a cheating partner as are purely physical ones. There tends to be less remorse, possibly because love is used to justify the affair, and that’s especially so if the cheating partner is emotionally unfulfilled at home. However, regardless of whether the affair is physical or emotional, no one gets off entirely from feeling badly after the fact.

If you’re considering an affair and at the same time you want to keep your marriage, you’d be better off trying to understand why you feel that way rather than look for a willing prospect. Sometimes that can be difficult because the issues that lead to such desires can be complex and not always obvious. However, even if it’s hard to figure out the reasons, you should still consider this path, because you’re likely to find that an affair will make you feel worse, not better, and the problem that led you in that direction will still be there.

Given how damaging infidelity is to a marriage, should a cheating spouse confess? While honesty is the best policy in most situations, we’re not so sure that applies here. Certainly, there are some benefits to owning up and for a few marriages, the outcome might even be positive. Partners might be forced to deal with problems they weren’t aware of and as a result have a chance to develop a closer and more honest relationship.

However, the downside is much more extreme. A partner’s infidelity hangs like a dark cloud over a marriage, casting a shadow over every aspect of the relationship. It’s likely to scar the faithful partner emotionally and it can take years, if ever, to re-establish trust, and without trust commitment is likely to break down. At the same time it adds other problems to the marriage without doing anything to alleviate the problem that led to the affair. On the other hand, letting the episode pass unannounced, while seemingly sleazy, may be the best chance you have to move forward together to make your marriage better, provided you’re willing to put the effort in to fix what’s wrong.

Books by the authors:

On Marriage

On Emotions and Control of your Life

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
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