Barry McCarthy, Ph.D.

Barry W McCarthy Ph.D.

What's Your Sexual Style?

Preventing Extra-Marital Affairs

35-45% of marriages involve a sexual or emotional extra-marital affair.

Posted Jan 02, 2012

The most common way that people end a dating relationship is to begin dating (or at least flirting) with another person. When married most people (80% or more) assume that they will have a traditional monogamous marriage. However, the couple does not engage in an explicit discussion about extra-marital affairs (EMA). They mistakenly believe that EMA occurs after 10-20 years of marriage and that the prime cause is sexual boredom. In reality 35-45% of marriages involve a sexual or emotional EMA. These are most likely to occur in the first 5 years of the marriage, especially in the first 2 years. Sexual boredom is rarely a prime cause.

EMA is a very complex, value-laddened issue. Contrary to the traditional belief that happily married couples are not vulnerable to an EMA or that sexually functional couples would not have an EMA, the reality is that most people including happily married, sexually functional couples are vulnerable to EMA's.

EMA is an example of human behavior being multi-causal and multi-dimensional with large individual, couple, cultural, and value differences. To add to the complexity, cohabitating couples have the highest rates of EMA's, followed by dating couples, with married couples having the lowest rates of EMA, especially after 20 years of marriage It is important to be aware that the majority of marriages survive EMA , especially the most common EMA-the high opportunity/low involvement male EMA.

The most common female EMA is a comparison EMA-where more emotional and/or sexual needs are met through the EMA than in the marriage. Surviving a female EMA is certainly possible, but is more of a challenge for the man and couple. Although understanding data and broadening perspective about the roles and meanings of EMA it is important to be aware that "sexually one size never fits all."

The majority of people prefer a primary prevention plan rather than having to deal with an EMA and work to rebond the marriage. The mainstream prevention EMA agreement typically involves three components. The first is based on the assumption that EMA can occur with most people and most marriages. Thus recognition and processing of individual and couple vulnerability factors is crucial. Specifically, each spouse identifies what type of situation, mood, or person would make them vulnerable to an EMA. These vulnerabilities are shared with the spouse so that both are cued into potential high risk people, situations, and moods. Interestingly, few people share the same vulnerabilities. Sharing and processing personal vulnerabilities is therapeutic in itself as well as increasing each person's awareness.

Second, the couple makes an emotional commitment to verbally alert the spouse if they are in a high risk situation rather than impulsively or secretly acting out the EMA opportunity. This agreement makes clear the importance of doing an emotional cost-benefit assessment of the potential EMA and its impact on the person, spouse, and marriage. This makes the potential EMA a conscious and planful process, and robs it of secrecy, spontaneity, and an illicit transgression. EMA is approached as you would other important individual and couple choices/decisions.

The third component is the commitment to tell the spouse within 72 hours if there has been an emotional or physical EMA incident. As in politics, the cover-up is usually more damaging than the actual incident. With EMA, the injured spouse's feelings about lying and betrayal grow over time. Often, this results in giving the EMA more power than it deserves. A major challenge for couples who successfully heal from an EMA is to create a genuine narrative about the EMA which empowers them to make meaning of the EMA, identify positive and negative personal and couple learnings, create a healthier trust bond, and a couple sexual style with stronger, more resilient sexual desire. This is easier to do if the participating and injured spouses deal with the EMA in a timely and efficacious manner.

The key to an EMA prevention agreement is to confront denial ("it could never happen to us") and make a clear, positive agreement which recognizes personal and couple vulnerabilities while affirming the value of the couple trust bond, sexual style, and commitment to a satisfying, stable marriage.