Tears, tension, hurt, anger and guarded hope fill my office when couples arrive after learning of an affair. Each situation is unique, but the intensity and fragility of emotions are often extremely powerful. After an affair, feelings of guilt, betrayal, and distrust permeate the connection. Whatever problems went unresolved before the affair now get muted until the aftermath of infidelity can be healed. Unfortunately it is often those earlier issues, which were some of the risk factors that led to the affair. For the marriage to get back on track or the couple to decide to end it, much work is needed by the couple both in and out of therapy.
I have been a therapist for almost 35 years and the rise of affairs I see in my office seems almost epidemic. There are many explanations for this increasing phenomenon, the Internet, society’s stressors, global work placements, high relationship expectations and loneliness.
We have made progress helping people recognize factors that contribute to ill health and make them more vulnerable to serious diseases. Many have changed their eating, exercising and sleeping behaviors, which has resulted in disease prevention.
In this article, I would like to address some relationship factors that may make a couple more vulnerable to infidelity. Every marriage is different, therefore the presence of these factors are far from predictive of any outcome. However, an awareness of areas of relationship weakness may help to prevent larger problems.
Relationships need and take a lot of tending. In this fast paced world, people often expect relationships to be as easy as finding an answer on Google. They are unprepared for how much consideration and effort good marriages take.
In my office, complaints about the lack of an emotional connection are very common.
Partners often express feeling shut out and lonely. They don’t know the inner thoughts and feelings of the other and feel themselves invisible. Technology has been identified as the preferred go to rather than to each other. Conversations about feeling neglected or replaced by their partner’s device frequently fall on deaf ears.
Partners report feeling alone in their sadness and disappointments. Too often, they can only listen for short periods of time or respond negatively. When people feel criticized or alone with their emotions, the chasm between them expands. Even during positive moments of success and achievement partners can miss the needs of each other. The needs to be recognized and celebrated go missed or minimized. A couple’s daily stresses, unique temperamental sensitivities, specific needs and family of origin, can easily contribute to a lack of emotional connectedness.
Physical intimacy issues are another area that can create risks in a relationship. Affection and sexuality provide a couple with excitement, soothe and produce chemical reactions, which are good for health. When affection and sexuality become absent or a source of anxiety and frustration, relationship risks percolate. Feeling desirable and being sexual have multiple meanings for each individual. When needs for physical intimacy of whatever kind are not responded to, feeling hurt, rejected and angry are the most common emotions that result. There are often many stressors or physical issues that can cause intimacy to be problematic, but couples that address these issues no matter how difficult to talk about, act preventively. Avoidance or rationalizing them away puts the couple at greater risk for looking outside their relationship for recognition, understanding and attention.
The last areas of risk have to do with work, childcare, household tasks and day-to-day chores. Often partners ignore, avoid or prioritize their own needs over being part of a team. Outdated gender roles and role modeling from their own families lead to present day frustration, anger and resentment.
These negative emotions can lead to emotional disconnection, frequent fighting and the evaporation of intimacy. Again, teamwork and understanding the tasks and participation each partner is able to contribute is paramount for relationship repair.
Listed above are some areas of your relationship to be intentional and aware of. Establish a date night weekly to talk about your relationship and feelings. Try listening on tape or reading a book about relationship health together. If as a couple you’re unable to resolve these problems, don’t wait. Get some outside help to keep your relationship supportive and enlivened, diminishing the risk of outside involvement.
If your efforts to talk or overcome the problems on your own aren’t working, see a couple’s therapist with training in both couples and sex therapy. If you would like to explore more ways to reduce the risk of infidelity, please contact me at 201-445-0550.