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Dear Suzie, My husband and I are in the process of rebuilding our marriage. We’ve both had affairs, and I’m plagued with fear that this will happen to us again. Can you share with me some tips on how to affair-proof our marriage so that it never does?
This is a very good question. It’s one that every couple who plans on rebuilding their marriage after it’s been rocked by infidelity should consider. In fact, it’s my opinion that if a couple’s rebuilding and reconciliation process doesn’t also include strategies on how to infidelity-proof, they’re leaving themselves open for another encounter with disaster. So congratulations to you for taking the bull by the horns.
And when you think about it, it only makes sense… because being the victim of infidelity is a lot like being the victim of a home break-in. There’s a similar sense of violation, loss of innocence, feeling of unfairness, and anger at being taken advantage of. There’s also that uncomfortable and lingering loss of confidence and security.
However, the similarities don’t end there.
According to the National Burglar Alarm Association (NBAA), the majority of homes that are targeted by burglars have certain things in common. They usually fit a profile and have certain vulnerabilities and preconditions that make them attractive to potential thieves.
And in a recent report, the NBAA stated that education, awareness, and a good alarm system were homeowners’ best defense against being victimized. Unfortunately, they also reported that most homeowners don’t pay much attention to these things until after they’d been burglarized.
I’ve noticed some similarities with infidelity as well.
For example, it’s my experience that many marriages rocked by infidelity fit a profile and have certain vulnerabilities and preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to temptation. And just like the NBAA discovered, it’s only after tragedy strikes that partners take the time to learn what makes a marriage vulnerable. The good news is that, it’s never too late to learn.
So how do you go about infidelity-proofing a marriage?
I believe there are three key components: (1) educating yourself, (2) raising your awareness, and (3) making an unwavering commitment to passionate monogamy.
What follows next are my 10 key insights for infidelity-proofing a marriage…
Being in love doesn’t prevent sexual attraction. One of the most dangerous myths perpetrated by romance novels and Hollywood movies is that being in love with someone should make us immune to outside sexual attractions. This is just not true (although secretly, I wish it were).
Wouldn’t it be nice if humans were like penguins or grey wolves (that is, biologically evolved to mate with only one partner)?
Alas, that’s not the case in the human species. Our mating instinct is free. This is why, for example, a woman could be head over heels in love with her husband, but if a George Clooney lookalike rings her doorbell, she might (without even thinking about it) experience a rush of sexual attraction and desire.
However, just because we experience sexual attraction outside of marriage DOES NOT make us cheaters.
The key insight is to always keep in mind that monogamy isn’t instinctive to humans.
It’s a choice.
And it’s not a “one-time” choice. It’s a choice we have to make every day. And of course, if we can make that choice, we can also unmake it too. It’s always up to you.
Infidelity is really more about deception than sex.
For those who’ve never been through infidelity, it’s hard to believe that the real culprit is deception and not extramarital sex, and yet it is. If there’s one thing I’ve heard from couples in recovery, it’s this: It’s not the sex that hurt the most (although that was painful) — it’s the lying, the treachery, the manipulation, the length and depth and scope of the deception it took to pull it off.
So the next logical question you might ask is:
If infidelity isn’t about sex, does that mean you can have infidelity without sex?
The answer to that question is yes. Having an emotional affair is a kind of infidelity (and in my opinion, way more dangerous). On the other hand, can you have infidelity without deception? I don’t believe you can.
You should know there’s a great debate about this. Some people say it’s not cheating if you have permission. Others say you’re still committing adultery even if you have permission. The question I want to answer is this: does having permission infidelity-proof a marriage? My answer: I’m not sure that it does.
Here’s why I say that:
About 5% of the couples I’ve worked with engage in an open marriage lifestyle. Now, in an open marriage, couples give each other permission to have sex with other people. So, using this group as an example, if infidelity were really about sex, then there would be no cheating among couples who practice this type of open marriage, right?
Well. That’s not the case.
Because I’ve worked with couples who practice this lifestyle and yet still encountered infidelity. How, you ask? How could there be infidelity… when they’ve given each other permission to have extramarital sex? The answer is because… infidelity isn’t about sex — it’s really about deception. And people can be deceptive even after they’ve been given permission.
Let me give you a real-life example.
I recently worked with a couple from Atlanta. Both are very intelligent, high achievers who went into marriage with their eyes wide open. They agreed that limiting sex to just one partner for the rest of their lives would be unrealistic and stifling, so they agreed to give each other permission to “play” outside the relationship, the agreement being that they would arrange to give and receive permission ahead of time. The good news is that this arrangement worked for the first 3 years. Then they had a baby and the wife’s priorities shifted. The husband, on the other hand, didn’t want anything to change. So, soon there were conflicts, then fights, then resentments.
Now the husband, being a very clever guy, figured out there was no way he could keep the lifestyle he used to have as well as his family and baby legitimately. So he went underground. He began to have affairs with the women his wife had previously given him permission to sleep with. His rationale? That by visiting the ghosts of girlfriends past, he wasn’t actually cheating in the present.
Notice the clever but deceptive thinking?
Soon, the wife found out about it and it hurt her deeply. But what hurt wasn’t that he was having sex, but that he was having sex and lying about it. “I’m the last person he had to lie to,” she told me. “I just wanted us to slow down while the baby was young. I just wanted us to go into family mode for a while, but he couldn’t do it.”
Sadly, their story ended in divorce.
A few months after the divorce, I asked her what the number one lesson was that she had learned from all this. She told me she had learned that too much freedom could be just as dangerous as not enough freedom. She said, “I thought we didn’t need any boundaries, and by keeping things open I would never experience betrayal, but I was wrong.” As it turns out, my client learned the hard way that infidelity isn’t about sex as much as it is about deception.
My point is…
While “in theory”, having an open marriage appears to be a good way to infidelity-proof a marriage because it removes the need to use deception, the question to ask yourself is… does it work in reality? Are we really evolved enough to give the people we love permission (without resentments, fear, jealousy), and are we secure enough to “ask” for that permission without fear of a backlash? I’m not sure we are. (Maybe I should say I’m not so sure that I am.) This leaves me on the fence about whether or not this “open” approach to monogamy is the answer to infidelity-proofing because I’m not so sure we aren’t just deceiving ourselves into thinking we can handle it. (Leave me a comment at the end of this article if you have an opinion one way or the other.)
For now… let’s move on to the next key insight to infidelity-proofing your marriage…
We are more vulnerable to temptation at certain times than at others.
While it’s true that temptation knocks on every door… at certain times (and during certain stages) of life, we’re more susceptible to actually opening that door.
We are more susceptible to temptation:
- Whenever we’re feeling insecure
- During certain stages of life when we’re still emotionally immature
- If we allow ourselves to be comfortable with deception
- When our resentment bucket is full (signs include feelings of being burdened, feelings of anger towards work, money, or life, and feelings of bitterness toward spouse or situation)
- When we link sex to self-worth or validation (signs include chronic cravings for attention, love or romance addictions, and fear of being left out)
And then, there are those super-susceptible times of life which I call Red Zone Times.
Top Red Zone Times of Temptation
- The first seven months after a financial downturn or upturn
- The first seven months after a major life change (move to a new city, home, or country, job change, medical diagnosis, birth of a child, loss of a loved one)
- The first seven months after a promotion or job loss
- The first seven months after a tragedy, near death experience, or other trauma
And then, there are also certain things that make a marriage more vulnerable.
- Pregnancy or new baby: The incidents of infidelity have a tendency to increase just before or right after the birth of a new child
- Increase in responsibilities: This could include caring for an elderly parent, having a new (or bigger) mortgage payment
- Imbalance of financial power: Where one partner has far more earning ability than the other
- Rigid routines and heavy work schedules which result in the lack of consistent date nights, vacations, and adult-only time
- Too much time and distance apart
And there are certain preexisting conditions which make a marriage more vulnerable.
- When couples have unrealistic goals and expectations for each other
- When the relationship becomes more co-dependent than cooperative
- When there is poor sexual communications
- When couples get lost in the Bermuda Triangle of marital conflict
What is the Bermuda Triangle of marital conflict?
The Bermuda Triangle of marital conflict refers to the top three issues that couples fight about: sex, money, and time.
- Marriages where partners argue (or feel resentful) about sex are more vulnerable to infidelity.
- Marriages where partners fight about money are more vulnerable to infidelity.
- Marriages where partners constantly argue about how to allocate time (including family time, personal time or work time) are more vulnerable to infidelity.
A big part of infidelity-proofing your marriage is learning how to communicate and solve problems regarding time, money, and sex… and becoming more alert to red zones and high-risk times.
Proximity is Power.
The majority of affairs happen between people who work or live in close proximity. This means that temptation is unlikely to arrive from a far-off place. It’s more likely to strike at the office, at a convention, with a neighbor, the plumber, or the best man at your wedding. People are more likely to have affairs with people they know.
Why is this?
That’s because affairs all begin the same way… with a conversation.
It’s the people we communicate with who have the best chance of getting past our defenses. Does this mean we should never talk to colleagues? Make friends with the opposite sex? Socialize with coworkers? Nope. That’s not what it means. Friendships with the opposite sex are not to be feared; however, their boundaries are to be respected.
Keep these things in mind:
- It’s helpful to be aware that those in close proximity have the power to influence you.
- It’s useful to know that anyone you talk to, chat with, email, or otherwise communicate with on a regular basis also has access to your emotions.
- It’s important to note that helping, advising, and listening to other people’s marital problems is a form of intimacy. And sometimes, people begin to replace conversational intimacy with real intimacy.
- It’s valuable to know that talking to the opposite sex about your own marital or relationship problems (without the consent or knowledge of your partner) can be considered a betrayal of trust.
- It’s practical for you to consider that anything you say, write, or suggest has a way of influencing others, so it’s important never to present yourself as another person’s savior, solution, or rescuer.
- Flirting, sexting, suggestiveness, alluding, hinting, tempting, or playing mind games with friends of the opposite sex are all forms of seduction. The challenge with these minor, seemingly playful acts of seduction is that it puts you on a slippery emotional slope. And the problem is that emotions often work like the tides of the ocean… subtly drawing you in without you even knowing it.
How do you know if you’re crossing the line?
The rule of thumb is, don’t do anything (or say anything) you wouldn’t want your partner to see (or know about). Follow this rule and you can’t go wrong.
Boredom is to monogamy what kryptonite is to Superman.
Let me ask you… what is boredom? One definition states that boredom is a condition characterized by the perception of one’s environment or life as lacking in stimulation or failing to engage interest or attention. Notice that boredom is described as a perception, a way of seeing things. It’s not described as a fact. What this tells us is that boredom is really our negative opinion of the present moment and our present circumstances.
Why is boredom so uncomfortable?
When we cannot answer the question of “Now what?” or “What’s next?”, it generates anxiety. So in an effort to avoid feeling that anxiety, we seek out distractions, sensations, drama, excitement, or stimulation. Now if you take nothing else from this article, please pay attention to this: boredom is the #1 enemy of a good marriage.
Why is boredom the #1 enemy of a good marriage?
Boredom is the enemy of a good marriage for the same reason that it’s also the malady of an affluent or privileged society. Because once human beings attain a certain level of certainty, contentment, and comfort, it simultaneously increases their likelihood of being bored. In other words, the more security (predictability) people have, the more likely they are to become bored. This is called the boredom paradox.
What’s the boredom paradox?
Here’s a classic example. As a senior in high school, I landed a really cool job as a hostess at An Evening Dinner Theater in New York. It was a coveted position because not only did you get great tips, but because they usually only hired college girls… and I was able to talk my way in as a high school student. The first few nights of work were amazing. I felt like I had landed a dream job.
Then, I discovered something even more amazing.
Not only were the tips great, they also allowed the staff to take home kitchen leftovers. I couldn’t believe it! Soon, I was having New Zealand lamb chops, Maine lobster, filet mignon, pan seared scallops, six nights a week. And for a foodie like me, this was heaven. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be able to eat like this in New York! But after about five weeks, something strange began to happen. I stopped looking forward to the food. The aromas from the kitchen no longer enticed me. In fact, I began to be annoyed by the scent lingering on my clothes, and rather than being glassy-eyed over the poached sea bass or the handmade pastas, I simply wanted a hamburger. I’d gotten bored with the rich sauces and expensive fare.
What did this teach me?
The certainty of a good thing can lead to boredom. And the same lessons apply in marriage (and other areas of life).
Here’s what I mean.
When couples first get together, they share a common desire: to create the relationship of their dreams, one that delivers all the things they always dreamed of. And in their pursuit of making that dream of the perfect marriage come true, they try to work to eliminate as many uncertainties as they can. What they end up creating is a good marriage — one that is satisfying, comfortable, and wraps them in a sense of security like a warm blanket.
But here’s where the challenge comes in.
Inherent in all human beings are certain fundamental desires. We all have a deep desire for spontaneity, adventure, mystery, newness, and surprise. Often, those are the very same things we end up eliminating or suppressing in an effort to create a safe, certain, comfortable, and secure marriage.
Am I saying that having a good marriage is a bad thing?
Nope, that’s not what I am saying. What I’m pointing to is that just as every rose has its thorns, when things get good, the thorn to watch out for is boredom. Such is the paradox of being human.
The paradox of being human? Yep. It means we’re a contrary bunch. We often have a need for two conflicting things. For example, we want both certainty and uncertainty in our lives. We want both newness and familiarity. And we want both adventure and security.
This has led me to ask the following question…
In my upcoming book, Why Good Men Stray, I set out to prove that we don’t have an infidelity epidemic as much as we have a boredom crisis. In fact, I believe that boredom has more to do with why a good man strays than any other factor.
But it doesn’t stop there.
I’m convinced that boredom is the real enemy we face as a First World country. For example, drug use among suburban teens is attributed to boredom more than any other reason, and depression and apathy are being linked to boredom more than to emotional pain. The key is that when people have too much certainty (predictability), life actually gets boring… and bored people are more susceptible to temptation.
Which leads us to the next key insight.
Being in love doesn’t prevent us from being bored.
For example, consider a stay-at-home mother who spends the majority of her time with the person she loves the most… her two-year-old. Although she loves her child dearly, if she’s being honest, she will tell you there are many moments when she’s felt like she was going out of her mind with boredom.
What does this tell us?
Boredom doesn’t indicate a lack of love, it indicates a lack of newness. The same goes for marriage. A good marriage might give you security, but watch out… sometimes, that security comes with a big price tag.
What can you do to prevent marital boredom?
The secret to handling marital boredom is not to be scared, but to be prepared. Remember, boredom creeps… it doesn’t strike. It invades slowly like weeds… over time. It oozes out of the cracks of our routines, our predictabilities, our monotony, and lack of newness. This is why any plan to infidelity-proof your relationship MUST include a plan for banishing boredom. In fact, it’s my opinion that a marriage goes from good to great when partners learn how to maximize the good indefinitely without becoming bored. Can this be done? Absolutely! (My suggestions on how to do this are coming up later.)
Intuition is your early warning system. Don’t ignore it.
Here’s part of what I have discovered. It’s not that couples don’t notice when there’s a problem. Many do. The challenge is that they notice but don’t do anything about it.
Looking back after infidelity, many couples tell me:
- They sensed they had gotten into a rut, but they thought things would eventually get better on their own.
- They noticed the decline of passion and desire, but they assumed that was just part of the process.
- They noticed they weren’t having fun anymore, but they didn’t make any changes.
- They noticed they had lost that loving feeling, but they didn’t feel they could talk about it.
- They knew they were arguing too much, but they were unable to make themselves stop.
- They knew they had too much on their plates, but they didn’t know what to do about it.
- They knew they were feeling bored and restless, but felt they had no “legitimate” options to spice things up.
In hindsight, any one of those things could have been the early warning sign that prevented infidelity. However, people simply ignored them… largely because they were based on their intuition.
What is intuition?
Here’s the definition I like best: Intuition is knowing without knowing how you know. And because we can’t always pinpoint the source of this knowing, we have a tendency to discredit it. But when it comes to infidelity-proofing, failing to pay attention to your intuition is like failing to pay attention to the oil light in your car.
Side note: Intuition is not to be confused with suspicion. Suspicion arises from clues or changes in behavior. Intuition does not.
Don’t ignore your intuition. Instead, think of it as an early detection system designed to help you avert disaster. When your intuition tells you something is off-track, don’t ignore it. Make it your responsibility to investigate, inquire, ask questions, probe, and find out what’s really going on, and then do something constructive about it.
If you don’t create adventure, you end up with drama.
This insight brings us back to the paradox of being human (how we can want two opposing things at the same time). A classic example is the fact that we have a need for both certainty and uncertainty. This means we want things to stay the same, AND we long for change at the same time. While we want the security, warmth, and sanctuary of the familiar… we also long for the excitement, thrill, and uncertainty of the unfamiliar.
I believe that alongside the urge for safety is the equally powerful longing for adventure.
And just because a person chooses the relative safety of marriage doesn’t mean their need for adventure or newness automatically disappears. It might get buried under work and family life, but it never actually dies. Unfortunately, rather than build a lifestyle that includes space for adventure and newness into their marriages, many couples try to suppress the urge for adventure or look for substitutes.
The most common substitute creating genuine adventure? You guessed it… drama!
The key is to notice that drama and adventure are not the same things, but in a way, they do provide the same service — they both create uncertainty. But while adventure brings genuine rewards, drama brings discord. If you don’t want drama, then I suggest you design your lifestyle to include adventure and newness. (For more help on this, read my article Intro to Passionate Monogamy.)
Without passion, monogamy is hard work.
I’ve said this many times, and yet it bears repeating: Human beings aren’t hardwired for monogamy. It’s a choice, and a very intelligent one at that. But what this tells us is that if we can choose to be monogamous, then we can also choose not to be monogamous.
What inspires us to be monogamous?
Well, obviously, we could list a lot of moral, ethical, social, and religious reasons, but none of those would be inspiring. I believe that what’s inspiring about monogamy is the fact that it opens up the possibilities of being known and seen by another… with breathtaking intimacy.
This possibility inspires passion…
Because there’s something electric about diving deeper and deeper into the depths of intimacy with another person. This passion is what inspires the choice for monogamy. But what happens when the passion is missing (or low) in a monogamous relationship? Well, that’s when monogamy becomes hard work.
Passion is what makes it fun. It’s the secret sauce that keeps monogamy sweet. This is why I tell couples that monogamy without passion is like a purse without money — empty. What should you do if you notice the passion is waning in your marriage?
First thing is… don’t panic.
Everyone’s feelings, desires, and passions wax and wane throughout a lifetime. In every relationship, there will be times when passion is stronger and times when it’s weaker.
But don’t ignore it either.
Stay aware. Don’t fall asleep at the wheel of your relationship. While True Love burns like the sun, passion is more like a fire: if left unattended, it goes out.
- How do you experience the new AND the familiar at the same time?
- How do you create certainty AND leave room for spontaneity?
- How can you maximize the good indefinitely without ever getting bored?
- How do you create adventure and intimacy in the same relationship?