Most of us don’t get married planning to have an affair. But then later, there we are, at the divorce attorney’s office, signing papers. In terms of context, consider these sobering stats: The rate of marital infidelity, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, suggests that one or both spouses admit to either physical or emotional infidelity in 41 percent of marriages — with 57 percent of men and 51 percent of women admitting to infidelity in any of their relationships.
The disheartening conclusion: Cheating is as common as fidelity.
Ironically, the very steps we take to protect ourselves serve to facilitate affairs. Many of us deploy the “scared straight” strategy: We let our partner know that, if they ever cheat, it’s SO over. This may seem to work, but only because we were so good at instilling fear that they mastered the cover-up. Fear may keep someone from talking, but not knowing about an affair doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
After having laid a sustainable foundation for sexual compatibility before marrying (don’t worry, we’ll address that in a future column), effective affair-proofing our relationships starts with us as individuals. Research confirms common stereotypes: Men have affairs mostly for recreational sex, and women have affairs most often to find love and connection.
These general trends may not cover every specific instance, but in general, we all need to develop more self-awareness. If the wife and I are having a sex life that is decidedly less satisfying in any way than what we need, our risk for straying goes way up. Having less of a connection than she needs to feel loved and significant, or less of a love life than he needs to feel the same, can make an affair become more likely. Neither guilt nor the fear of discovery keeps anyone from straying indefinitely.
Relying on fear or becoming the sex detective who performs regular surveillance (aka stalking) distracts us from what we need to do. First, be yourself and do the best you can to be loving in a way that works for you. Second, acknowledge that neither you nor your partner stopped being sexual beings. You’re both still sexually attractive — and attracted to others. Third, make it OK to talk about temptation before it becomes real temptation.
If my wife is attracted to a certain graying middle-aged movie star or the latest boy band singer, I want her to feel comfortable talking about that with me and to make it playful and fun and not as if she were making a tearful confession. Similarly, if her husband is attracted to the new hottie down the street and playfully announces that she’ll no longer need to worry about his being alone if he becomes a widower, well, let’s encourage that sort of disclosure.
Our talking about these sorts of feelings dramatically increases the depth of intimacy in a relationship so that we both feel safe in sharing who we are with one another. Sharing secrets builds closeness. The alternative is keeping it all to oneself, the first of many secrets.
Finally, affair-proofing a marriage is a lot like fire-proofing your home. No home is ever made truly incapable of burning down — we only reduce, not eliminate, the risks of such a disaster by taking proactive measures. Taking these steps to affair-proof your marriage won’t guarantee against catastrophe, but they’re a great insurance policy.
And if you believe the numbers in the opening paragraph, that’s a worthwhile rider to add to your policy.
Originally appeared in Reno Gazette-Journal.