Can You Affair Proof Your Marriage? 21 Concrete Strategies for Affair Proofing Yourself
There seems to be some buzz in our culture recently around affair proofing your marriage. This concerns me because it suggests that infidelity happens in the context of a relationship in which there is deficit. The logic goes that if your relationship is strong and healthy, you’ll never have to face infidelity as a couple. The truth is much more complicated than that. Infidelity happens in relationships that are struggling, and it also happens in good relationships, relationships where there is love and connection, commitment, and sexual passion. It’s true. Many people express skepticism around this, and it points to just how often we blame or assume fault with those who have been betrayed, even subtly. Infidelity happens in every kind of relationship.
When we commit to a partnership, we essentially agree to turn towards each other to work through challenges. When one partner goes outside the relationship, it’s too easy to point to those challenges. Every relationship has its own particular strengths and areas of growth. Nothing in a relationship justifies infidelity when you have committed to each other that you will be faithful to one another. And if you have experienced betrayal, I hope you will stand in the knowledge that infidelity is not a sign that you are not enough, or that you or the areas in your relationship that you know, looking back, may have needed some attention, or even a lot of attention. Choosing to go outside the relationship is the decision of one person and should not be tied to issues in the relationship. Those can and should be addressed separately.
If you want to protect yourself and your relationship from infidelity, it might be better to frame affair proofing yourself. Many people rely on a judgment of their character to feel protected from straying. Very few people actually view themselves as being capable of infidelity. We believe it just won’t happen. We’ll draw the line. We’ll step away. It might be helpful to acknowledge that you are capable of infidelity. Attention, affection, novelty, feeling seen and heard by someone, and the brain chemical cascade that begins as we enter new relationships that are laced with increasing emotional intimacy, flirtation, sexual chemistry, risk, and freedom are tempting. And when you add the social challenge of drawing boundaries and our tendency to want to make others feel liked and accepted, and our own desire for such, time with a coworker or friend or acquaintance can get blurry fast. Affairs and other types of infidelity as they begin to develop are very hard to resist and increasingly hard to step away from as they progress.
21 Strategies for Affair-proofing Yourself
1. Don’t rely on your values to safeguard against betraying your partner. It’s rare that I work with a couple or individual recovering after infidelity when the person who has been unfaithful says they set out to have an affair. The truth is that good people have affairs and make decisions they regret. So pretending you’re not capable is likely foolish. Rely on boundaries and on intentionality. Pay attention to justifying or minimizing, and be radically honest with yourself. If you’re using the word ‘just’ it’s likely a red flag. “We’re just friends” implies that you’re trying to hold a line that may already be blurred. Anytime you’re defensive, it may be useful to pay greater attention. Telling yourself you may be attracted to someone but you won’t go there is like believing you can stand at a dessert buffet every day and you’re never going to eat. Be realistic, even if it puts you in the uncomfortable position of drawing boundaries. If you find yourself attracted to someone else, set limits immediately on the amount and type of contact you have with that person.
2. Define infidelity and relationship boundaries together. Does an emotional affair, a physical affair, one-night stands, pornography use, sexting, texting, private messaging feel safe to both of you? We often assume that our boundaries are universal, but what feels safe or acceptable varies widely from one person to another.
3. Don’t assume past behavior is acceptable as part of a marriage or committed relationship. When there has been flirting, infidelity, polyamory, swinging, or exploration before marriage or commitment, sometimes partners assume that this will be fine and acceptable in the future. Talking these things through so that you have a shared understanding of what your commitment means and doesn’t mean is important.
4. Remember that infidelity does not happen as a single decision, but as a series of decisions. Are you talking about your personal life, sharing information about your marriage or spouse? Are you spending time together one on one that isn’t related to work or to the project you’re on? One useful frame might be only sharing with others what you have already shared with your spouse and not saying anything with another that you wouldn’t say with your spouse present. People who find themselves in affairs often look back to see in retrospect where they began to cross lines. Pay attention from the beginning of your interactions with others.
5. Pay attention to the kind and amount of support you offer others. Often support for a coworker or friend who is struggling personally changes the dynamics of the relationship and increases intimacy. This can open the door to lines becoming blurred and attraction beginning. Listening to and counseling someone you could potentially become attracted to is different than saying “I’m so sorry” and moving on. Are you texting throughout the day? Are you touching base late at night or on weekends? Noticing early on and setting limits is important if you want to avoid infidelity.
6. Trust your gut. Often we know at a body level when we are crossing relationship boundaries. If you are minimizing, justifying, or rationalizing when your body is saying something is just a little off, it’s time to pay attention and likely a good idea to steer away from additional contact. It’s important to not brush off the message that something may be more significant or risky than you’d like to acknowledge.
7. Don’t assume that because you have not been attracted to someone in the past that attraction will not develop. The chemistry of attraction is mysterious.
8. Remember that increased informational intimacy can lead to emotional intimacy and attraction. As you get to know one another, it’s natural to begin sharing more. This can lead to emotional intimacy you didn’t plan to develop. And to attraction that can hit seemingly out of the blue.
9. Outline boundaries in the relationship together around what feels comfortable, safe, and acceptable, and then hold yourself to these, even if it’s challenging or socially awkward. This is where you can actually each protect what you share. Invest the time to clarify these things and to explore what it means to be in a committed relationship for each of you. And negotiate what will feel right to both of you when one of you is attracted to someone else. Do you want to know openly? Do you want to determine steps ahead of time or on a case-by-case basis? Finding potential solutions together before there’s a need is likely easier than talking about them for the first time when a challenging situation arises.
10. Engage in your relationship. Make it a priority, even in busy and stressful times. You don’t need a big budget to connect, but you do need to set aside time, even if it’s just an hour a week to start. Aim for at least an hour of time every day when you are alone together, without kids or friends or family.
11. Be honest with your partner. If issues in the relationship are building for you, raise them. Address your individual challenges if you recognize that you struggle to bring forward things that are important to you. When you present the issues gently and with respect, framing that over time something—or things—are having an impact on your sense of closeness or engagement or safety, you give your partner a chance to respond. Relationships can get mired in silence that leads to resentment when you hold back when it matters. If you’ve tried and don’t feel heard, be honest around how this is impacting you and your engagement in the relationship. Seek help from a therapist or counselor who specializes in relationships if things are not going well on your own. Pay attention to whether you’re beginning to lean out and, if you are, speak up.
12. Speak up in the bedroom. Be honest about your desires, needs, fantasies, and preferences. If there are challenges in your relationship sexually, be brave enough to address them with compassion, kindness, and openness. A therapist who works with sexual issues can help.
13. Repair and reconnect. Every time there is a breach in the relationship, work to repair it, to get back to that place of foundational connection. Take the first step, be the first to soften when you can.
14. Turn towards your partner. If you feel yourself pulling away, notice this and turn towards your partner. Be honest about your need for connection or reconnection. Clarify your needs. Notice and appreciate the good qualities your partner has. It’s easy to begin to frame things that aren’t working well, particularly when someone else is lending support. Through the years, return to your partner again and again to build your relationship intentionally.
15. Seek help and support. If the challenges in your relationship feel overwhelming, or you find yourself stuck in the same patterns, a therapist or counselor who specializes in working with couples can be helpful. Waiting until things are so rocky that you can’t see your way through it or until one or both of you begin to feel emotionally distant makes repair and changing patterns more difficult. Even then, hold hope for your relationship. With attention and help, couples can overcome seemingly impossible challenges. I see it every day.
16. Respond to your partner’s requests to get help together. Sometimes one partner resists working with a couples’ therapist until it’s too late. If your partner has been asking to do this work, take the request seriously. I understand how intimidating, stressful, embarrassing, and unwelcome the idea of talking about your private issues can be. But individuals and couples who begin the process of working together almost always express relief, hope, comfort, and gratitude. People who once thought counseling and therapy useless usually come to find that it’s very helpful. Really listen and strive to make change if your partner is telling you that foundational issues in the relationship are a struggle for them. Too often I work with individuals where “one more chance” in the relationship wasn’t possible, and they wish they had paid attention differently and sooner.
17. Frame change as a process and avoid black and white thinking. Too often I hear from couples that things are just too far-gone. They’ve begun to withdraw, to give up hope. They’ve built walls that mean that even when a partner begins to change—or even changes radically—they are too resentful or too hopeless to trust the process. Change happens as a reverse lightning bolt, if you will. There will be dips, and those are tough, but if the trend is upwards, you can trust that progress is being made. It really is possible for people and patterns to change. If you find yourself thinking things will never change, hold hope that through attention and intention, with good support and help, it’s possible to build a relationship that’s satisfying and healthy. Before you lean out or look out, consider a little more patience for the process of change.
18. Remember the grass isn’t greener. Every relationship has its own list of challenges. And every affair is its own kind of bubble. The relationships can’t be compared fairly. That early stage of relationships when limerance highly charges the atmosphere with excitement and idealization will shift over time. The bubble will burst. No person and no relationship is perfect. You’re not living in the day to day of his dirty socks, her clutter of hair products on the sink, his credit card debt, her insistence on using the bathroom first every single morning. So your friend who is in a more passionate early stage of romance, she too will discover the unique challenges of the relationship. And that dreamy colleague at work who seems so much organized or driven or adventurous than your partner, they too are human, with at least an average list of annoying qualities, communication challenges, and foibles like all the rest of us. If it seems ideal or easier, check your perspective.
19. Get out of evaluation mode. When we are constantly evaluating, we just can’t settle into a place of peace. Navel gazing can be the enemy of contentment. It’s appropriate when we are considering a relationship. But if you’re committed, unless there’s abuse or an egregious issue that needs to be addressed, try to notice if and when you slip into a pattern of constant evaluation of your partner or relationship. It’s helpful to shift into either being or growing. If there is an issue or issues that are troubling, address them. But hold space for awareness of the good aspects of the relationship and of the person you love. If you’re always questioning, it’s hard to feel grounded.
20. Notice and appreciate all of the things that become invisible over time. Remember when you were exploring together, building that deep knowledge of one another, trying activities that the other person enjoyed, sharing the day to day, connecting and spending time together? You can return to that anytime—and you should. Notice the small things that are endearing about your person. The way they hum while making coffee, the way they smell, that funny pair of shorts they only wear at home, even the annoying things that, when you’re in a good mood, are kind of sweet. And think about leaving a note for or sending a text to your person that appreciates one small thing. It will likely begin to draw you closer as you move into deeper and more conscious appreciation yourself.
21. Run the movie all the way through. When we are being drawn into relationship, we feel the comfort or connection or excitement. We may think about passion or try on a new life. We don’t stop to think about what it will be like when the infidelity comes to light—and it does. We don’t think about our partner trembling and sobbing, the looks on the faces of our children, the impact on our extended families, changes in relationships amongst friends or co-workers, and the shame and guilt we will experience after infidelity. Run the movie all the way through to the end. See yourself sitting on the sofa explaining the texts, the pictures, the sex, the lies, the betrayal. And see yourself sitting with potential guilt, regret, shame, job loss, marriage or relationship loss, and loss of respect. Is this what you really want long-term, or will the adrenaline and excitement pass with time? Ask yourself what you’re really signing up for and be ready to face all of the consequences to those who will be impacted, including to yourself.
The pain of infidelity is intense. Working with couples and individuals healing from this pain, I so often hear the person who has been unfaithful say that they wish they could go back and do things differently, that they wish they had never met their affair partner, that they had no idea how much suffering their actions would cause to them, their partner, as well as to their children and extended families, and sometimes even communities. I don’t think it’s possible to affair proof your marriage, but paying attention to your part of keeping your relationship safe and being intentional can protect you and your partner from the pain that follows infidelity. If there has been infidelity in your relationship, it’s important to heal intentionally both individually and, when it’s possible, as a couple.
Laura Lindekugel, MS, MS, LAMFT, SEP is a partner in Rekindle Counseling who works with individuals, couples, and families. Contact her with questions or to set up a free half-hour consultation. firstname.lastname@example.org || 952.806.0014