Dear Suzie, I want to rebuild my marriage, but I’m afraid of being blindsided again. I know things have to change, but I’m not sure which things. Should I be stricter with him? Or should we just let go and let whatever is going to happen… happen?
Here’s the thing…
When a marriage is rocked by infidelity, the two most common questions couples find themselves facing are: What went wrong? And, Why didn’t I see this coming?
In an effort to fix what went wrong and to prevent being blindsided again, many people inadvertently make one of the following mistakes:
THE TWO BIG MISTAKES
Rebuilding Mistake #1: They overcorrect by becoming too controlling.
Rebuilding Mistake #2: They overcompensate by changing too much.
Unfortunately, both approaches have ways of backfiring. Let me give some examples, beginning with couples that overreact by becoming too controlling.
Let’s go over each one.
Overcorrecting by Becoming Too Controlling
There’s no disputing it – Infidelity is a violation of the exclusive boundaries of a relationship. And so, it comes as no surprise that many couples simply assume that the way to prevent it from happening again is to impose tighter boundaries and restrictions.
And in doing so – they focus rebuilding efforts on two key things:
1. Becoming more hyper-vigilant, more controlling and more restrictive.
2. Devising tactics to help enforce and police these tighter boundaries.
But there’s a twist, because although all of the above seem like effective preventive methods to use when rebuilding a marriage after infidelity – they really aren’t.
Why? Because, the astonishing fact is….(brace for it):
don’t just happen in bad marriages (gasp!). They happen in both good and poor marriages.
And what’s more… it’s likely that the infidelity is NOT the real problem. It’s more likely to be a symptom of the real problem. Let me explain.
My Broken Windows metaphor
Law enforcement will tell you that buildings with broken windows are twice as likely to be burglarized as those without; but they wouldn’t say that having broken windows is the cause of break-ins.
And keeping that this in mind…
Think of a marriage like a mansion with lots of windows. In this scenario, healthy relationship habits equal healthy windows and unhealthy relationship habits would mean broken windows. The more broken windows in your marriage-mansion, the more vulnerable it is to infidelity.
A broken window in a marriage can be range from petty things – like constantly leaving dirty socks on the floor – to major things like lack of communications, or lack of emotional control.
However, there’s the twist.
Since there are no perfect marriages. (Marriages are made up of people and there are no perfect people) This means that every marriage has some type of broken window. Hence the reason I say that while broken windows in a marriage can make that marriage vulnerable to infidelity – they don’t cause infidelity. You with me so far?
It’s been my observation – that there are four major broken windows in relationships that makes them vulnerable to infidelity.
The broken window theory
4 things that makes a marriage susceptible to infidelity
Here’s how I break them down:
A – Attention (perceived lack of attention).
B – Boredom (taking the good for granted)
C – Controlling (rather than partnering with each other)
C – Communications (Poor, hostile or deceptive)
Now, right off the bat, it’s easy for most of us to see why poor communications is an obvious broken window to have in a marriage… but what might be harder to see is why control also plays a part in this.
So, let me take it one step further and explain why being overly controlling in a marriage often leads to broken windows that makes the marriage more vulnerable to infidelity.
Why being overly controlling makes your marriage more vulnerable -not than less vulnerable to infidelity
Here the thing.
We all have a hard-wired hierarchy of needs, and one of our highest human need is the need for freedom and self-expression. My fellow Americans know what I’m talking about here… because perhaps in no other culture in the world is there the need to express one’s self stronger than right here in America. We are fierce about our freedom, aren’t we? We don’t like anything or anyone taking it away… and that extends to our relationships. However, freedom is not an American value; it’s a human need. We all yearn for the freedom to express ourselves — the freedom to choose, to say no, to change our minds and to be ourselves.
The trouble is that sometimes, it’s difficult to know how to balance that need for freedom with our deep-seated need for safety. Oftentimes, in our effort to meet one’s needs, we suffocate the other. And that’s how we end up stifling each other’s independence, or why we try to control or limit each other’s freedom. Not because we don’t care, but because we’re trying to preserve our way of life and meet our need for safety and security.
What’s wrong with this picture?
The problem is this: We can imagine, think or even make ourselves believe it’s possible to control another human being, but we cannot make it true.
The reality is – you can’t control people any more than you can control the weather. And here’s another thing: Instead of creating safety, all that being overly controlling does is breed rebellion. Because like I said, we all long for freedom, so it’s only a matter of time before we begin to resent those who try to take it away from us.
Control doesn’t create security; control creates compliance. What lurks under compliance? You guessed it. Defiance! And guess what? Defiance is a major broken window! And I have seen many affairs erupt out of rebellion, moments of defiance, or a passive-aggressive attempt to push against feeling controlled.
So how do you avoid falling into this trap- as you rebuild your marriage?
Remember that fidelity is a personal choice and a personal commitment neither of which can be forced or enforced by you.
And, with this in mind, I would prefer you to rebuild your marriage from the perspective that people are faithful by choice, not by control. And that you while you can’t command loyalty or fidelity; there are things you can do to inspire it. For more on how you can inspire more loyalty after infidelity – read my article
On to the next major mistake…
Overcompensating By Changing Too Many Things
This mistake is an easy one to make. It’s one that I made when I was going through the same experience as you. (I will tell you more about my own experience later.)
What it basically boils down to is lack of knowledge, of not being able to pinpoint what exactly went wrong. And so, the couple assumes they were doing everything wrong, and end up making too many changes all at once.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Have you heard of open marriages? This is where a couple agrees to no longer follow the traditional monogamy rules and they give each other permission to have extramarital affairs.
My first encounter with this lifestyle came from the last place I would have expected. It came from a close couple my husband and I thought we knew very well, who shocked us when they casually told us they practiced this type of open approach to monogamy.
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
Of all my friends, this couple was the last we would have ever thought would do this. This is probably due to the fact that they didn’t look like stereotype swingers. (Looking back, I’m not even sure what I would have imagined swingers to look like.)
In fact, they were among some of our most politically conservative friends. They didn’t dress in seductive ways. As far as I could tell, they weren’t on the prowl. In fact, we had been close friends with them for years and never had a clue.
As you can imagine, when you discover that sort of thing about another couple, you start to look at them differently. You begin to replay all the conversations you’ve had in the past, trying to see if there were signs you missed, or if somewhere along the line, they’d been hitting on you.
Sadly (I must admit), it also changed the way I felt around them (at first).
I remember, just a few days after they told us, the wife leaned over and whispered something funny to my husband that made him burst out laughing. I immediately became concerned. Was she baiting him? Was she flirting? Luckily, I caught the direction my mind was headed and shut it down immediately.
It took a while for us to feel safe around them again, but soon, you realize that nothing has changed… because they had always been who they’d been.
As time went on, I became more intrigued.
It must have been at least six months later when I finally got the courage to ask them how they did it. We knew them well enough to know they had a truly wonderful marriage. They were partners in every way. In fact, my husband and I often admired how easygoing they were with each other — almost like college buddies, rather than being emotionally enmeshed like so many other couples in our circle.
What I was curious about was how they were able to live with an open bedroom door without also opening the door to jealousies, insecurities and suspicion (all of which could tear them apart).
When I asked her if their new approach had any rules, she said they did.
She told me that the boundary they hold on to is emotional monogamy. In other words, they agree not to fall in love outside the relationship. To make sure they stay the course, they are 100% honest with each other and made sure to keep any extramarital activities purely physical.
I remember thinking at the time that I’d never quite heard it explained like that before. Far be it from me to judge anyone, because I believe what works for you is what’s right for you, and obviously, this approach works for them. At the time we had that conversation, my friend had enjoyed more than 17 years of relationship happiness (without encountering the dishonesty and infidelity).
Here’s how they explained it to me.
They said “they believed monogamy to be like chocolate and vanilla ice cream mixed together. The vanilla is the physical portion of monogamy and the chocolate is the emotional portion of monogamy”.In their relationship, they met their emotional needs strictly within the marriage. However, their sexual needs could be met both within and outside the marriage.
She went on to say, this approach came about after they both had brushes with infidelity. That’s when they realized the traditional approach of getting both kinds of needs met within one relationship was just too stifling for them. She felt that it simply wasn’t fair, and in her opinion, it didn’t work. So they changed their relationship rules.
When I asked her if their new approach had any rules, she said they did.
Does this approach to marriage work for everyone?
Nope. In fact, I have since discovered that our friends are the lottery winners in the open marriage sweepstakes. Couple of years later, I began my work as an affair recovery coach and discovered many such open couples also get caught in the web of infidelity, having found out the hard way that infidelity is more about deception than about extramarital sex.
And just giving permission for extramarital sex does not automatically eliminate the propensity for deception.
Does this surprise you? (I know it did surprise me).
Because if you look at it logically, you would think that by removing the forbidden fruit and giving permission to play outside the boundaries, that will significantly reduce the incidence of infidelity, right? I mean, why would someone cheat at something that’s available legally? Sadly, that’s not the way it works.
Here’s something else that might surprise you…
This open (nontraditional) marriage and the traditional marriage are both susceptible to infidelity for the exact same reason! Can you guess what that reason is? You probably already did. They both rely on honesty… and in both cases, deception is the enemy.
If you have a traditional marriage, honesty is the key to survival. If you have a non-traditional marriage, honesty is the key to survival.
Which brings me to my key point: if you want to rebuild a stronger marriage, then learning how to embrace transparency has got to be a fundamental part of the process.
A strong marriage is created by design, rather than by default. Blindly following the rules won’t make the cut, but neither will throwing out the rule book.
A strong marriage is created by design, rather than by default. Blindly following the rules won’t make the cut, and neither will throwing out the rule book. In other words, it’s not about making changes ¬— it’s about making the right changes. Don’t ignore the things that made you vulnerable in the first place, but don’t overreact either. And while you do need to make some adjustments and corrections, be mindful that you don’t overcompensate or overcorrect by doing the wrong things.
You and your partner sit down and talk about the types of changes you want to see. Talk about the things you both value and want in a relationship. To make sure that happens, you have to take the time to ask the tough questions, and make the effort to customize the rules.
The takeaway of course is that the key to rebuilding a relationship is communication. (but you already knew that, didn’t you?) But the real secret is knowing what to talk about. This is where the ABC’s of Infidelity comes in.
If you think are dealing with any of those broken windows I mentioned in this article – be willing to communicate to you partner about it. Talk about them about what type of changes you’ll need to ensure your marriage has no more broken windows. Don’t delay. Have that conversation today.
Until we speak again…
Remember… Love Wins!