- Prevention is the best efficacious strategy, but few couples have a personally relevant, genuine monogamy agreement.
- After an affair, it is crucial to commit either to a monogamy agreement or a consensual non-monogamy agreement.
- Rebuilding your trust bond after an affair is a self-defeating strategy. You need to create a new trust-monogamy agreement.
Affairs are an example of the paradox of sex. A trust-monogamy agreement has a small, positive role in couple intimacy and security. However, an affair is a major destabilizing experience for both the “injured” partner and the “involved” partner. Disagreements about the meaning of the affair and how to deal with it cause emotional turmoil, fear, and anger that degenerate into a power struggle with blame and counter blame. This generates a great deal of heat, but little light. The injured partner accuses the spouse of betrayal, being intentionally destructive, and destabilizing the family. The involved partner feels demonized, unfairly blamed, and accuses the spouse of overreacting and making the situation worse. Asking “why” is not to increase understanding, but to allocate blame. The injured partner demands all the details while the involved partner wants to avoid discussion, and for the drama to end. It is a destructive pattern for both partners and their marriage.
The therapist’s role is to stop the power struggle, help each spouse make genuine meaning of the affair, and to make a “wise decision” (not an “emotional choice”) of recommitting to the marriage or moving toward a “good divorce.”
This post will focus on a crucial but usually ignored issue, creating a personally relevant, genuine agreement about monogamy and a new trust bond.
After an affair, you cannot rebuild trust using your old agreement. Although some couples create consensual non-monogamy agreements or choose alternative couple sexuality, the large majority recommit to monogamy. Their new trust-monogamy agreement has to be significantly different than the old one that had been based on the simple assumption that once married monogamy comes naturally. Each person and each marriage is unique, there are no simple rules. We offer guidelines for a personally relevant, clear, genuine monogamy agreement.
First, an emotional commitment to be aware of and disclose personal vulnerabilities for an affair. Second, a commitment to tell your partner if you are at high risk for an affair. Third, if there is a sexual incident commit to disclose this to your spouse within 72 hours. These guidelines provide specificity and clarity so you don’t “fall into an affair“ or engage in a cover-up that makes the situation worse. Let us examine each guideline in turn.
Each person and each marriage has its vulnerabilities. Love, communication, good sex, and commitment are wonderful but do not stop you from having an affair. Vulnerabilities might be from your family history, cultural or religious background, sexual socialization, or traumatic experiences.
First, do this exercise by yourself and then share it with your spouse. Be honest and specific. What kind of person, mood, or situation would make you vulnerable to an affair? I have done this exercise with hundreds of couples and never found two people who shared the same vulnerabilities. An example: One spouse felt vulnerable when partying and drinking to celebrate a career success with a sexual “hook-up” as a reward. The spouse’s vulnerability was feeling upset to hear that a coworker was injured in a car accident, sex was engaged to cheer him up. A different example: A depressed spouse who experienced an affair as a boost to feelings of desirability. The spouse saw an affair as a reward for being a “road warrior” and the loneliness of travel. If you can’t be honest with yourself, you cannot be honest with your spouse. An example is a man who was dedicated to his wife and family but used paid sex to act out a variant arousal pattern.
Share your vulnerability with your partner. This requires courage but is crucial. Your partner needs to be aware so they can help you meet the challenges of monogamy.
The second guideline involves recognizing you are in a vulnerable position—whether person, mood, or situation. Rather than feeling embarrassed or ashamed, ask your partner for support so that you don’t fall into an affair. Maintaining a monogamous agreement is a couple challenge, turn toward your spouse and not away. The spouse wants to know, engagement is much superior to avoidance. Share the high-risk situation and ask your partner to be an intimate sexual ally. Although these are difficult issues, they build rather than diminish your trust bond. Most couples have a system to deal with hard financial, parenting, work, and in-law issues. That system can be valuable in dealing with affair issues. In our marriage, difficult issues are discussed on walks, a good strategy for dealing with trust and monogamy issues.
The third guideline is the hardest to implement. If there is a sexual incident (including erotic sex, paid sex, intercourse sex, online sex, or any type of affair) disclose that to the spouse within 72 hours. The cover-up and avoidance cause more disruption and feelings of betrayal than the affair itself. You break not just a sexual agreement, but your trust bond. Disclosing the sexual incident demonstrates the involved partner’s willingness to deal with the reactions of the injured partner (including hurt and anger) without counterattacking. The injured partner is glad they were told. Making meaning of the sexual incident is best approached as a couple issue. It can mean changing your agreement, but more often results in clarifying and reinforcing the monogamy agreement.
An example of reinforcing the agreement is when the sexual incident is a result of feeling depressed and isolated. An example of the need to change the agreement is the realization that the involved partner does not value a satisfying, secure, and sexual marriage.
Creating a new trust-monogamy agreement is a challenge. Have a clear, genuine, personal dialogue. As in other aspects of sexuality, “One size never fits all”. The agreement does not mean you can treat couple sexuality with benign neglect. Sexuality requires awareness, energy, openness, and being intimate and erotic friends.