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Two Rules for Rebuilding a Better Marriage After Infidelity


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 what? Should I be stricter with him? Or should we just let go and let whatever is going to happen… happen?

Yes, I’m honored to help. Here’s the thing…

When a marriage is rocked by infidelity, the two most common questions couples find themselves facing are:

  1. What went wrong?
  2. 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:

Mistake #1: They overcorrect by becoming too controlling.

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.

Marriage Rebuilding Mistake #1: Overcorrecting By Becoming More Controlling

Here’s the thing: Infidelity is a violation of the exclusive boundaries of a relationship. And so, it comes as no surprise that many people assume that the way to prevent it from happening again is to impose tighter boundaries and restrictions. They become hyper-vigilant, more controlling and more suspicious. They devise all types of spying tactics to help enforce their rules. But here’s the twist: although this might seem like a convincing preventive method, it’s not really an effective one.

Because the astonishing fact is… affairs don’t just happen in bad marriages (gasp!). They happen in both good and poor marriages. Likewise, infidelity is NOT the problem. It’s usually just a symptom of the real problem.

Let me explain.

Most extramarital affairs can be directly attributed to four key things. I call them the ABCs of Infidelity (there are two Cs in it, hence four in all). Now, before I tell you what the ABCs are and how they contribute to infidelity… let me back up a bit and explain the broken windows theory.

The Broken Windows Theory

The broken windows theory is the analogy that having a broken window would make your home more vulnerable to a break-in… even though a broken window itself doesn’t cause break-ins. You get the difference? The same logic applies to the ABCs of infidelity. Meaning, while they are the four key things that make a marriage vulnerable, they themselves do not cause infidelity.

Here’s how I break them down:

A – stands for Attention (usually the perceived lack thereof).
B – stands for Boredom (couples taking the good for granted).
C – stands for (1) Control (too much) and (2) Communications (not enough).

Right off the bat, it’s pretty easy to see why “poor communications” can create vulnerabilities in a marriage, but it’s harder to see why “control” also plays a part. So, let me take it one step further and tell you why infidelity is often a symptom of a controlling relationship.

You see, we all have a hard-wired hierarchy of needs, and one of our highest human need is the need for freedom and self-expression. Now, my fellow Americans know what I’m talking about here… because perhaps in no other culture in the world is the need to express one’s self more strong 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 need, 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 believe it’s possible to control another human being, but we cannot make it true. You can’t control people any more than you can control the weather. And here’s another thing: Instead of creating safety, all that control simply creates stagnation and 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.

Bottom line?

Instead of creating safety in the relationship, too much control actually creates broken windows. Thus, oftentimes, the affair is nothing more than an act of rebellion, a moment of defiance, or a passive-aggressive attempt to push against feeling controlled. The key thing to remember here is that control doesn’t create security; control creates compliance. What lurks under compliance? You guessed it. Defiance! And the affair is often a symptom of that defiance.

So here’s the most important rule to follow, if you want to avoid falling into this trap.

Your partner will be faithful by choice, not by control. You can’t command loyalty or fidelity; the most you can do is inspire it. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to inspire that type of loyalty and devotion. My suggestion? Shift your focus from trying to control, to learning how to inspire and rekindle desire within each other, so that you can be faithful, monogamous and loyal for life.

Marriage Rebuilding Mistake #2: Overcompensating By Changing Too Many Things

This next mistake is a classic. 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 makes the assumption that everything went wrong, and end up making too many changes all at once. Let me explain.

Have you heard of open marriages?

This is where a couple agrees to no longer follow the traditional monogamy rules. In other words, 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 (minus 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.

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 (minus the dishonesty and infidelity).

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. Many years later, I began my work as an infidelity recovery coach and discovered many such open couples caught in the nightmare of infidelity, having found out the hard way that infidelity is more about deception than about extramarital sex. Just giving permission for extramarital sex does not automatically eliminate the propensity for deception.

Does this surprise you?

I know it did 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 would 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. Let me explain why I think transparency is such an important factor.

My Backstory

For those of you who don’t already know my story, here it is in a nutshell.

 About 12 years ago, my perfect marriage was rocked by infidelity. My angel of a husband confessed he’d had two indiscretions while he was out of the country for work.

When I found out, I was devastated, humiliated and embarrassed.

Here I was, the woman everyone else turned to for relationship advice, discovering that while I was busy helping everyone else, my own relationship was in jeopardy.

It was what I would call a rude awakening.

I’ve said many times that looking back from where I am today, I can say without hesitation that his betrayal (and my subsequent spiral into despair) turned out to be the best-worst thing that ever happened to us. But while I can say that now, I didn’t think so while it was happening.

For the first month or two, I moved back and forth from shock and disbelief, to rage and anger. I could hardly function, barely get out of bed.

After a while, my rational instinct kicked in. I pulled myself together. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and saying “Suzie, you’re going about this all wrong. You need to take the scientific approach, not the victim approach. Treat this just as a problem like any other. You can solve it with rational actions and critical thinking.”

On that day…

I changed my approach. I was going to resolve this crisis, make sure it never happened again. So what genius solution did I come up with? Well, in an effort to never experience that type of hurt again, I overcompensated. I decided that our entire approach was wrong; I decided that monogamy itself was the problem. And so I made a radical change in one day, and decided to burn the traditional relationship rule book and throw the doors of our relationship wide open.

Honestly, I’m not sure what I was expecting to happen.

I’ve always struggled with jealousy issues. Looking back, I’m not sure what made me believe I would ever be cool with the whole “open lifestyle” idea. Believe me, I wasn’t cool about it at all.

But I (like so many others) was under the misguided belief that infidelity is about extramarital sex. I was determined to rebuild my marriage, and I thought in order to rebuild it stronger, the answer was doing the exact opposite of what we used to do. Rather than having to deal with hurt again, I thought giving permission ahead of time would spare me.

Boy, was I wrong!

Within months, it became clear that I had no stomach for an open lifestyle. No real surprise there, but the real surprise was discovering… my husband had no stomach for it either! (Shock! Gasp!)

That wasn’t the biggest discovery.

The biggest discovery for us was finding out we truly valued our monogamy. We learned that we both valued the innocence, the sacred intimacy and the purity of our one-to-one connection.

But that put us in a quandary…

Because our foray into forbidden territory had taught us something else about ourselves: On one hand, we learned we both valued freedom, newness, adventure and a little bit of edginess to life… and neither of us wanted to live without that added spice in our lives. On the other hand, we also learned we both valued the peace, trust, exclusivity and depth of intimacy that can only be experienced in a monogamous relationship… and we didn’t want to give that up either.

That led us to a key question.

How could we have all the warmth and benefits of monogamy while taking advantage of the newness, novelty, freedom and adventure that the more open approach brings? Turns out that was one of the best questions we could have ever asked. Because of that question, my husband and I customized our relationship (rather than overcompensated). We’ve kept the traditional boundaries intact, but we’ve left a lot of room for expansion, growth, spontaneity, playfulness, fun, adventure and newness. We ended up calling this process Passionate Monogamy, and you can learn more about it here if you want. However, for now, here’s the rule of thumb to help you avoid making the same mistakes I made.

A strong marriage is created by design, rather than by default. Blindly following the rules won’t make the cut, 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.

I suggest…

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, ask the tough questions, and make the effort to customize the rules.

My Final Thoughts

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 ABCs of Infidelity comes in. So, perhaps the most important thing you can talk about right now with your partner is what type of changes you’ll need to ensure your marriage won’t suffer from having any broken windows. Don’t delay. Have that conversation today.

Until we speak again…

Remember… Love Wins!

Suzie Johnson