by Focus on the Family
“How could you?” Susan asked, staring at her husband, John, in unbelief. He and a co-worker had been “just friends” until a few months ago. Today the truth came out.
. . . . . . . .
Peter closed the blinds in his living room, turned off the lights, stood in the darkness, and started weeping. He’s never felt so alone in his life. It was bad enough the last time he discovered his wife, Jessica, was having an affair. This time, Jessica simply left a terse note saying she had had enough and was moving in with her new boyfriend.
Do these scenarios sound familiar? If you’ve dealt with infidelity in your own marriage, you know firsthand how devastating it can be. Infidelity is not a simple problem and it cannot be fixed with a simple cure, though that is what we most often desire. This series of articles is designed to provide insight, encouragement and practical advice to anyone whose marriage has been undermined by an act of infidelity.
An All-Too-Common Affair
Whether you’ve been married for 30 days or 30 years, you’re never really immune to an extramarital affair.
Maybe it’s happened to you. You’re fed up with your spouse, so you start chatting with that attractive person of the opposite sex in the next cubicle. You’ve known him for years, and it’s so easy to talk. He just listens. Pretty soon you’re sharing intimate problems, and now the co-worker is telling you how hard you have it. Maybe you should just leave your spouse … and maybe the two of you should go out to lunch to talk more about it all.
With this person, you’re finding what you need and want: a sympathetic ear, someone who understands you and all you’re going through, maybe even the first meaningful physical touch you’ve had for months.
Obviously, while not all office relationships lead to affairs, and not all affairs start at work, this scene demonstrates in an overly simplified and time-compressed way how some people start down the path of cheating on their spouse.
No Immunization for Affairs
Whether you’ve been married for 30 days or 30 years, you’re never really immune to an extramarital affair. So, how many married people are cheating on their spouses?
Well, definitive numbers are hard to come by, but most polls and estimates typically report that more than one-third of men and about one-quarter of women admit to having had at least one extramarital sexual act. If you factor in cases of “emotional infidelity” — where a spouse engages in an intimate (yet not sexual) friendship with a member of the opposite sex — the numbers are much higher, probably greater than 50 percent.
Still, nearly 80 percent of Americans say adultery is always wrong and only physical abuse does more harm to a marriage. Indeed, the discovery of an affair more often than not leads to divorce.1
Influence of the Internet
If anything, the growing influence and availability of the Internet has only made things worse, with as many as one in 10 Internet users reporting that they are addicted to cybersex or other online temptations.
After all, online sexual encounters offer the thrill of a make-believe romance along with the added benefit of anonymity. And because many online affairs don’t involve actual physical contact, participants can convince themselves that cybersex isn’t really adulterous, that they aren’t really cheating on their spouse.
The truth is, however, that even a “virtual” affair can wreak havoc on a marriage or a serious dating relationship.
Why Affairs Happen
Affairs don’t only happen for sex. Some reasons people get trapped in an affair:
- To give a conscious or subconscious “wake-up call” to the spouse. This might happen if your spouse has a different kind of “lover” outside of your marriage, such as a consuming career or hobby.
- To inflate a bruised ego. You might want to get back at your spouse for something he or she did that hurt you rather than offering forgiveness and dealing with the root issue.
- A friendship gets out of control. Whether or not you think it’s healthy to have friendships with members of the opposite sex, take extra care in those relationships.
- Your spouse doesn’t live up to your expectations anymore. Remember that you know your spouse’s good and bad qualities, while you may only see someone else’s good side because you don’t know him or her well enough to see warts yet. That’s known as “romanticizing” a relationship.
Warning Signs of an Affair
Though affairs are often unpredictable, there are recognizable symptoms of a troubled marriage.
Elena discovered that her husband wasn’t just shopping on eBay® all those late nights on the computer. Steve just happened to see his wife kissing the kickboxing instructor in the gym’s parking lot.
Most extramarital affairs do not start out with the candid revelations: “my husband is out of town” or “my wife won’t suspect a thing.” Generally something has gone awry in a marriage before a dissatisfied spouse utters these seductive lines.
Factors That Can Lead to Unfaithfulness
The following are factors that can lead to marital unfaithfulness:
- Looking for ego boosts outside your marriage.Men tend to turn to extramarital liaisons to build up their self-image or sexual self-esteem. Women are suspect to affairs to satisfy their longing for love, appreciation and tenderness. Beware of leaning on others beyond your marriage as primary sources for love, value and respect.
- Neglecting to talk openly with each other. If you only talk to your spouse about the bills and household chores, you may be sliding into trouble. Holding in your thoughts and feelings does not enhance transparency in your relationship. Practice the art of small talk that can open the door to deeper sharing.
- Resisting conflict resolution. Every couple runs into communication rough spots. It’s important not to build walls between you and your spouse. Some people mask their hurt while others spew their emotions. Neither method is constructive. Both ways create relational roadblocks. Unresolved conflict leads to isolation and leaves you vulnerable to fleeing your marriage.
- Discounting fun and relaxation together. Think of the last time you and your spouse enjoyed a date or a weekend getaway together. As the old adage says, “Couples that play together, stay together.” If career, family and homes responsibilities are crowding out laughter and friendship with your spouse, you need to book in some recreational retreats with each other.
- Increasing the time you spend apart. The demands of work travel, ill children or differing interests and hobbies are common issues that can keep couples apart. The more time you spend away from your spouse, the greater temptation to drift in your relationship.
- Allowing daily stresses and fatigue to sabotage your intimacy. Packed schedules and raising children are two common reasons husbands and wives feel ho-hum in their relational intimacy. Romance, in an instant, can remind you of the reasons you love each other. All marriages require times of refreshing and an in-depth look at intimacy saboteurs.
- Letting your love life fizzle instead of sizzle. Familiarity and boredom can creep into any marriage. Beware of shaking things up in your sex life by dumping your spouse for another more promising lover. If you or your partner suddenly is disinterested in sex with each other, be sure to explore the true reasons.
- Giving in to predictability. A little mystery can go a long way in adding spice to your marriage. Many couples succumb to affairs out of fading interest in their spouses. One way to continue your wedded bliss is to surprise your mate with love notes or an occasional unexpected outing or gift.
- Living in denial. Pretending that problems do not exist in your marriage will only widen the gap between you and your spouse. Many extramarital affairs start when a frustrated spouse searches for a reality check in marriage by turning to an officemate or friend of the opposite sex for support. Dare to face the truth of your marital struggles.
- Forgetting your commitment to each other. Over time couples are prone to forget why they fell in love. In our easy-come-easy-go culture, it takes courage and determination to honor commitment instead of convenience.
- Failing to resist come-ons and temptations. In our over-sexed world, even the most innocent husband or wife can fall prey to sexual temptations. Before you or your mate find yourself in compromising situations, talk about safeguards for your marriage. You may need to avoid after-work soirees, certain hotels on business trips and sexually compromising magazines, movies or television shows. Thinking “Just this once,” can lead to a lifetime of regret.
Quick Infidelity Quiz
If your marriage partner exhibits several of these following behaviors, your marriage may be in danger of an affair:
- Avoids eye contact with you.
- Talks continually about the unknowns of the future.
- Shows an increased disinterest in the topic of sex.
- Makes excuses for not spending time alone with you.
- Acts unusually guilty when you do something nice for him/her.
- Quits complimenting you on your physical attractiveness.
- Stops saying, “I love you” and even acts rudely to you.
- Starts buying you gifts to ease his or her guilt.
Many factors can drive a marriage to the rocks. Help ensure an enriching relationship for a lifetime by taking steps today to guard the fidelity of your marriage.
One of the best recommendations for troubled marriages is enlisting the help of a licensed, Christian counselor. Often, involving a third party — especially one who’s trained to counsel — can force root issues out into the open and guide you and your spouse on the road to healing.
When friendship crosses the line
Jake has been married to Amber for four years and feels good about how their relationship is going, except for their lack of time together. He admits his job is keeping him away, but he wants the promotion that’s coming up.
The long hours and late nights are more bearable because of his co-worker Mandy. She is complimentary, encouraging and a bit flirtatious. Lately, Jake has found himself returning the compliments, flirting back and accepting her invitations to have lunch to discuss business. But their conversations have become more personal than business. He enjoys talking to Mandy and feels she understands him like few other friends.
When Jake told Amber about having lunch with Mandy, Amber got mad and jealous. She didn’t understand how good a friend Mandy was, so Jake decided it would be best not to tell his wife when he had lunch with Mandy. Surely, since they were just friends, their time together was innocent.
Is there anything wrong with having a close friend of the opposite sex after you’re married? While there may be no clear answer, there are compelling reasons to be cautious about opposite-sex friendships outside of your spouse’s company. No matter how happy and secure your marriage, you should always protect your relationship against temptation, deception and potential affairs.
Most affairs begin as an innocent connection between two people. You may be brought together through work, church or school. But if your guard isn’t up and your boundaries aren’t well-established, a newly developing connection can quickly become entangled. As you spend time together, either face-to-face, through the computer or by phone, you may find yourself gradually sucked into an emotional affair that can rip a marriage to shreds even though the relationship never becomes physical.
The damage begins when you find yourself sharing information, thoughts or feelings that should have been kept between you and your spouse. This is an emotional betrayal that cuts into the heart of a marriage. The damage worsens as you begin to distance yourself emotionally and physically from your spouse in lieu of time with your friend.
Eventually, the friendship crosses the line when it introduces elements that should never be part of a marriage — secrets and lies. This deception destroys the foundation of marital security, and once it begins, it’s difficult to stop.
Because an emotional affair remains nonsexual, it is easy to rationalize:
“We’re just friends.”
“He’s never touched me.”
“We aren’t doing anything wrong.”
The relationship continues because the unfaithful spouse reasons away guilt
Platonic or Romantic?
Before you were married, you may have had lots of friends of the opposite sex. But once you’ve said “I do,” your relationship with your spouse must now take priority over every other relationship, and it must be protected against any threat.
So if you are close friends with someone of the opposite sex, you may need to honestly look at that relationship to determine if you have fallen into an emotional affair. Here are a few warning signs that may indicate your friendship has crossed the line from platonic to romantic:
- Do your conversations with your friend include things that should be kept between you and your spouse?
- Do you find yourself daydreaming about your friend?
- Have you found yourself withdrawing from your spouse emotionally or physically?
- Do you look for excuses to see or talk to your friend
- Do you share thoughts, feelings and problems with your friend instead of your spouse?
- Are you convinced that your friend understands you better than your spouse?
- Is there flirting or sexual tension between you and your friend?
- Do you look for “legal” ways to touch your friend (brush lint off his jacket, help her with her coat)?
- Do you find yourself paying attention to how you look before you see your friend?
- Is there any secrecy about your relationship (how much time you spend together, what you do together, what you talk about)?
Protect Your Marriage
No marriage is affair proof. We are all at risk of losing our focus and being swept into an emotional affair. But you can do several things to safeguard your marriage:
- Stay honest with yourself and with your spouse. If you find yourself attracted to someone, admit it quickly to yourself and to your spouse. Honesty is the key to preventing a relationship from escalating into an affair.
- Avoid magazines, movies and other forms of entertainment that can increase your tolerance of affairs.
- Try to see your relationships from your spouse’s perspective. What would your spouse be comfortable with? How would he or she feel about what you are doing?
- Do not flirt. Most affairs begin with what’s considered “innocent flirting,” but there’s no such thing! Flirting is not a part of friendship.
- Keep your marriage as your No. 1 priority. Make sure you are working to meet your spouse’s most important needs. If you’re not sure what those are, ask.
- Grow together spiritually. Pray with each other and for each other.
- Set boundaries about how you will interact with the opposite sex. For instance, you and your spouse may decide that neither of you will be alone with someone of the opposite sex, even for business lunches or late nights at work.
- Surround yourselves with happily married couples who don’t believe in fooling around.
You can keep your marriage safe from emotional affairs. But it requires open, honest communication and a commitment to do whatever it takes to keep your marriage your No. 1 relationship.
The Truth About Emotional Affairs
Emotional relationships venture into dangerous territory. They may not initially lead to physical involvement, but they can still devastate marriages.
It might have started with a conversation over the Internet, or with a seemingly innocent friendship in the workplace. Maybe it began as an uncomplicated thought: Unlike my spouse, this person really understands me.. What can it hurt? I need a little excitement in my life.
These romances may seem harmless — perhaps even “safe” alternatives to cheating on your spouse. The truth is, such relationships venture into dangerous territory; they may not initially lead to physical involvement, but they can still devastate marriages.
Not Just a Harmless Romance
“A new crisis of infidelity is emerging in which people who never intended to be unfaithful are unwittingly crossing the line from platonic friendships into romantic relationships … ,”1 asserts the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
The statement is backed up by alarming statistics conducted through a national poll. While the findings showed that 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men have had sexual affairs, it was also revealed that an additional 20 percent of married couples have been impacted by emotional infidelity.
Impact of the Internet
Traditionally, the workplace has provided the most potential for extramarital affairs. Now, online chat rooms have opened the floodgates for other opportunities to develop romantic entanglements.
“The Internet is a dangerous place,” said Jim Vigorito, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist. “People can begin [a relationship] at an innocuous level, and then it can progress to something more.”
What starts out as an emotional outlet can often lead a person down a slippery slope. Because the World Wide Web entices users with the lure of anonymity, one may be more prone to share personal issues with others — issues that they wouldn’t normally talk about in person. With barriers down, a deep level of emotional intimacy can develop between two people quickly.
Not Just “Innocent Fun”
As prevalent as these affairs are becoming, they are not always easily identified or even seen as harmful. One reason lies in the lesser degree, or absence of, guilt and shame that often accompany extramarital sexual encounters.2 The spouse entangled in the relationship may justify it as “innocent fun” due to the lack of physical contact. The impact this may have on a marriage varies according to the couple. In Vigorito’s opinion, to women, the betrayal of emotional infidelity can be as debilitating as that of physical infidelity. Even though physical boundaries have not been crossed, “you’re taking your best communication outside of your marriage, and then there’s not much left to bring to your spouse.”
Contributing Factors and Warning Signs
A number of factors can lead to having an emotional affair. Certainly, communication or conflict resolution issues can lure a spouse to look for companionship elsewhere. Extramarital relationships can also attract those wanting to escape stressful situations, pressure and responsibility associated with family. And as with other temptations like pornography, the pursuit of fantasy undermines the presence of reality.
So how can you recognize an emotional affair? These signs may indicate that a relationship has gone too far:
- You share personal thoughts or stories with someone of the opposite sex.
- You feel a greater emotional intimacy with him/her than you do with your spouse.
- You start comparing him/her to your spouse, and begin listing why your spouse doesn’t add up.
- You long for, and look forward to, your next contact or conversation.
- You start changing your normal routine or duties to spend more time with him/her.
- You feel the need to keep conversations or activities involving him/her a secret from your spouse.
- You fantasize about spending time with, getting to know or sharing a life with him/her.
- You spend significant time alone with him/her.
Avoiding and Ending an Affair
Meeting your spouse’s needs is one way to avoid infidelity.
What can spouses do to safeguard their marriage? In his book, His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, Dr. Willard Harley says that the marriages most susceptible to infidelity are those where one or both spouses fail to meet their partners’ primary needs. For wives, those needs are affection, conversation, honesty and openness, financial commitment and family commitment. Husbands’ primary needs are sexual fulfillment, recreational companionship, an attractive spouse, domestic support and admiration.
Ways to Avoid Affairs
If you’ve only reached the point of temptation, but you haven’t acted on it yet, make changes in your life so that it doesn’t go any farther. Some ideas:
- Avoid spending time alone with people of the opposite sex. If you struggle with fantasizing about a sexual relationship with a particular person, stay away from the temptation by staying away from that person.
- Refuse to act on (or even reveal) feelings of attraction to someone other than your spouse. Don’t share details of your marriage relationship — particularly problems — with a member of the opposite sex.
- Avoid outside influences and environments — such as business parties and private lunches, especially where drinking is involved — that could encourage infidelity.
- Make your spouse your top priority. Talk about problems and concerns and work through them together. Get joint counseling to help if necessary. If your spouse is angry or won’t go to counseling, go by yourself. As he or she sees changes in you, your spouse might soften.
- Change your attitude about your marriage. See it as a commitment that can’t be broken. Love flourishes in a relationship where there is complete trust, respect, and acceptance. Have fun with your spouse. Date each other again. How would you treat that person differently if you were trying to win his or her affections for the first time?
If You’re in an Affair and Want Out
While it won’t be easy, your marriage may be able to survive an affair if you work at it.
- Ask for forgiveness from your spouse. Keep in mind that when you confess your affair to your spouse, it might be a big relief to you, but it will be just the beginning of the heartache, pain, and distrust for him or her. It may take years of counseling and work to regain that person’s trust. While you’ll want to move on, seeking forgiveness is more than a one-time act; for your spouse to grant you forgiveness is certainly a long process. You can’t try to rush through the emotional healing process.
- Don’t be afraid to seek help and support. Get counseling from a minister or a professional counselor who can help you work through issues of lying, betrayal, mistrust, etc.
- Change your environment if necessary. If the affair happened at work, as hard as it is to take this step, maybe you need to find a different job. If it happened with a neighbor, maybe you need to move.
The good news is that infidelity doesn’t have to be a marriage-killer. When couples are determined to work through the pain of adultery, to end the affair, to forgive and to seek counseling, their unions can often be restored.
If Your Spouse is Having an Affair
After discovering that your spouse has been unfaithful, you’ll likely experience a torrent of conflicting emotions. Here are some important things to keep in mind as you sort through your feelings.
- Don’t give in to the extremes of “love-hate” feelings. Don’t immediately demand a divorce. Instead, affirm your desire to do whatever it takes to rebuild a healthy, vibrant marriage.
- Don’t give in to the extremes of “all my fault” or “all your fault” thinking. Don’t insist on knowing why your spouse has been having an affair. Instead, ask if he or she is willing to start over.
- At this point, you need to turn to others who can help you. Don’t ask a mutual friend or relative. Instead, ask an objective party who is in a position to help. That person might be an experienced senior pastor, certified Christian counselor, or respected marriage ministry.
- Cling to the promise that — with God’s help — even the most broken marriage can be saved.
- Remember, nobody wakes up one day and suddenly decides to have an extramarital affair. A person has been unfaithful in heart and mind long before he or she begins an affair.
- Be patient. It takes time to begin to rebuild trust, love and commitment.
Maintaining Marital Fidelity
Nobody wakes up one day and suddenly decides to begin an extramarital affair. Likewise, marital fidelity begins long before marriage.
Nobody wakes up one day and suddenly decides to begin an extramarital affair. Infidelity begins in the heart and mind. By the time a person physically commits adultery, he or she has been indulging for quite some time in progressively more intense mental and emotional affairs.
Likewise, marital fidelity begins long before marriage. It begins as a promise we make to ourselves — to be a person of faithful character — before marriage ever enters the picture. It is a promise we make to our future spouse when we get engaged, and it is a vow we make to our spouse when we get married. Marital fidelity is a daily commitment to seek the best for your spouse and family.
Strengthening Marital Fidelity
Marital fidelity is strengthened when you affirm your spouse, listen to your spouse, and seek to meet his or her needs. It’s also strengthened when you set healthy boundaries for your media consumption and for your relationships outside of the home.
Weakening Marital Fidelity
Marital fidelity is weakened when you devalue your spouse, minimize the time you have with your spouse, and focus on meeting your own needs. It’s also weakened when you fantasize about someone other than your spouse (and God) meeting your deepest needs and desires.
- Pornography is one of the worst affairs of the mind. It can destroy years of marital fidelity within hours.
- Left unchecked, workplace friendships between men and women can easily evolve into emotional affairs.
The Rewards of Marital Fidelity
Marital fidelity produces lifelong rewards. In contrast, infidelity can cause years of untold anguish.
“Silently and imperceptibly, as we work or sleep, we grow strong or we grow weak; and at last some crisis shows us what we have become” (B. F. Westcott). This is true in every area of life, including marital fidelity.
Dancing on the Edge
You think it won’t happen to you, can’t happen to you. You think, There’s no way. Not me! Think again.
Flirting With Danger
I thought it was innocent at the time.
She was a church staff member, so we spent a lot of time together. She’d sit in my office, and we’d talk. At times she told me about the difficulties in her marriage, and I counseled her. But I should have stopped her right there; I was filling a need I had no right to fill.
We never touched, we never kissed, we never even verbalized our underlying feelings. But there was a definite attraction, and I liked that vibe. It was fun.
For me it was all in my mind, but it progressed from there. I started thinking about her on weekends. I kept telling myself, I can handle this. It hasn’t gone too far; it’s okay. But it could have; the opportunity was waiting.
Occasionally, I got scared. I’d think, I don’t want to do this. I have a great wife; I have a family. I don’t want to go down this road. And while it was somewhat fun knowing I was getting away with something, it also gnawed at me. I knew it wasn’t right.
Then one day I was on the phone in my office, when she came up behind me and pinched my rear end. That’s when fear finally kicked my senses back into my head. “I’m going to talk to my wife about this,” I told her.
Blowing the Whistle
I actually first spoke with the senior pastor of the church. Then I went home. I hadn’t physically cheated on my wife, but my mind had already gone that direction. I was unfaithful in my thoughts and in not telling my wife what I knew was happening but didn’t want to admit. I had to tell her now.
I had compromised my relationship both with the Lord and with my wife. I loved her (still do). In fact, there was nothing terrible in our relationship—I thought we had a solid marriage. This other woman had nothing to lose by entering into an extramarital affair. I had everything to lose.
What’s really scary? I had a good marriage and I was still vulnerable. Imagine what might happen if someone’s in a bad marriage!
It all came down to me being stupid and making a stupid choice, of enjoying sin and flirting with it.
Planning for “Never Again”
Life is experience. And I’ve learned a lot from the edge I tap-danced along.
First, you must admit to yourself your attraction to someone else. If you find that you’re convincing yourself everything is okay, it’s not. And that’s the point. If you’re not mature enough to blow the whistle on yourself, then you’re heading straight for danger. You’ll start hiding things—things you thought you would never do—and your prayer life will go down the tubes. You’ll be tormented, standing before your congregation without a clear conscience. Justification is one of the strongest indications there’s a problem.
Next, you must confess it. And you must change—that’s non-negotiable. I often hear people confess, “I know what I’m doing is wrong, but . . .” and they continue dancing on the edge. In order to change, you have to cut off that relationship.
If you feel you cannot talk with your spouse about your thoughts or a situation, you set yourself up for trouble. You need to be honest—for both yourself and for her. Also, listen to your wife. Spouses are perceptive—often they’re the first to tune in to danger lurking in the shadows.
On the other hand, be accountable to selected, trusted people, because there are times you can’t just lay this kind of stuff on your wife. Yes, you need to be forthright, but you need to protect her, too. You don’t want to continually discourage her and make her feel like chopped liver.
What’s more, work on satisfying each other’s physical and emotional needs, because it doesn’t just happen. Any one of us is vulnerable when unmet needs might possibly be fulfilled somewhere else.
Above all, be careful. Guard your marriage and your mind. It will help keep you from waltzing toward the edge and stumbling over it.
This article first appeared in the Pastor’s Family edition of Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright ©2002, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.