The Family: A Proclamation to the World emphasizes the sacredness of marriage and declares that men and women should "honor marital vows with complete fidelity" (¶ 7). The importance of fidelity and God's disapproval of adultery have been emphasized throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptural tradition.
For years, researchers and family therapists have echoed the religious teaching that fidelity matters. In the past decade alone, therapists have flooded the shelves with studies and books on infidelity. Many who once avoided the taboo topic now teach couples how to protect their marriages against affairs. They also counsel those who have already struggled with infidelity about how to overcome the damage and build a better marriage.
Many couples naively insist that they don't have to worry about infidelity. "It will never happen to us." Unfortunately, infidelity is surprisingly prevalent in our society. Conservative estimates suggest that between 20 and 25 percent of all Americans will have extramarital sex sometime during their married life1. That's up to one out of four. And the idea that infidelity only happens to bad people in miserable marriages is a myth. It can and does happen, even to good people in happy relationships.
Today's leading marriage experts have come up with many strategies for preventing infidelity from infiltrating your marriage. As you review the six preventive measures provided below, keep in mind that no one-time event or promise will affair-proof your marriage. Complete fidelity takes constant, conscientious effort. But the work is well worth the joy of having a husband or wife who is your faithful, lifelong best friend. Consider the wise words of author Peggy Vaughn: "Preventing affairs is not like having a one-time inoculation - or even getting occasional booster shots. It's more like taking a pill every day for the rest of your life."
Prioritize Your Marriage
"The No. 1 cause for the breakdown in marriages today is the same issue that causes infidelity. Couples aren't prioritizing their marriage," says Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage and family therapist and author. "People spend time on their careers, their kids, community affairs, hobbies, sports. But they take their spouses for granted. It just doesn't work that way." In other words, to have a strong marriage, your spouse must come first.
- Set aside time to spend with just your spouse.
- Consciously commit to putting your marriage first. That means your spouse comes before everything and everyone else-even your kids.
- Each day tell your spouse how important he or she is to you.
- Talk about your commitment to each other. What do you love about being married? Why do you want to stay together? When you've had hard times, how did you get through them?
- Write a "mission statement" for your marriage. Frame it and put it in your bedroom, where it will be a visual reminder of your commitment to each other. You might frame it with your marriage certificate.
Experts are increasingly concerned about two temptation arenas: the workplace and the Internet. One recent study showed that 73 percent of men and 42 percent of women who have extramarital affairs meet their partners at work. Be extremely careful with workplace relationships.
- Don't take lunch or coffee breaks with the same person all the time.
- When you travel with co-workers, meet in public rooms, not in a room with a bed.
- Meet in groups, if possible.
- Don't drink and dance with co-workers at conferences or office parties.
- Avoid cordial kisses and hugs.
- Avoid frequent conversations about your personal life and feelings.
On-line relationships are also an increasing problem. Innocent chat room visits can endanger a marriage when someone discovers a "cyberspace soulmate." When the honesty that's missing in a marriage gets spilled out on the computer screen, emotional affairs can result, sometimes leading to adultery. Preventive measures include:
- Avoid discussing emotional topics or personal problems over the Internet.
- Avoid chat rooms and Internet sites designed for meeting people and socializing.
- If necessary, limit your time on-line.
- Use the Internet for productive activities such as researching family history or medical issues, not for making cyber-friends.
Remember that infidelity doesn't always include sex. Emotional infidelity can breach marital trust and become as debilitating to your marriage as physical adultery. If you are sharing intimate emotional closeness with someone of the opposite sex other than your spouse in any arena, including the Internet, stop!
Know Your Boundaries
Experts say friendships with members of the opposite sex are possible and healthy if both parties know their boundaries. As one author puts it, you have to take an honest look at yourself and admit that maybe you can't always "handle it." When you honestly admit what might be a temptation to you, you will know where to draw the line.
- Know your own vulnerabilities. Are you especially curious about people? Are you extremely empathetic? Do you invite other people to share their problems with you? What might lead you to get emotionally involved with someone else unwittingly or with good intentions?
- Don't be afraid to put up emotional "walls" around yourself and your marriage. No marriage is invulnerable. All marriages need protection. You cannot have intimate relationships with opposite sex co-workers and friends and still have a great relationship with your spouse.
- Together with your spouse, set guidelines for how each of you will behave around members of the opposite sex. For example, you may decide neither of you will dance with someone of the opposite sex. Make these guidelines an agreement you hold each other accountable for.
- Instead of spending time alone with friends of the opposite sex, make friends with the person as a couple. Have him or her bring a partner and go to dinner with you and your spouse, for example, instead of going to lunch alone.
If you're wondering whether you've overstepped any boundaries, Dr. Shirley Glass says three signs indicate that a friendship between people of the opposite sex has crossed the line into infidelity: (1) emotional intimacy, (2) sexual tension, and (3) secrecy. Also, ask yourself, "Do I say or do things with this person that I wouldn't want my spouse to see or hear?" If so, it's time to take a step back and re-draw your boundaries.
Learn Conflict Resolution Skills
According to Dr. Carlfred Broderick3, "Perhaps the most important single preventative of adultery is a developed and well-oiled mechanism for dealing with strain in the marriage." It is crucial that you talk to your spouse about conflicts. Harboring resentment towards a spouse may lead you to seek sympathy from others, which opens you up to emotional attachments outside the marriage. Faithful marriage partners discuss their frustrations openly and honestly and try to reach fair compromises.
- Be clear. Don't expect your spouse to know what you're thinking. If you're concerned about something, don't wait for your spouse to notice-tell him or her.
- When you want to bring up a problem, don't assign blame. The following statement, for example, blames the other person and is not likely to end in a happy resolution: "The kitchen is a mess and it's all your fault!" Instead, try something like this: "The dishes didn't get washed and I think it's your dish day."
- Don't store up frustrations. Talk about what's on your mind. It's harder to deal with resentment productively when you've been stewing over it and growing more and more upset until you're ready to burst.
- Compromise. When you have a conflict, sit down and think about what you really need versus what you want and what you are willing to give up. Work out a solution that combines each of your individual needs
- If you have serious resentment over unresolved conflicts, consider seeking help from a qualified professional marriage counselor.
For more help on dealing with marital conflict, see Dr. Gottman's Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Principles five and six guide couples through dealing with minor and major marital conflicts and avoiding resentment.
Dr. Kevin Leman8 believes that "as a general rule, satisfied partners do not wander. . . . If marriage partners are getting enough attention, affection, and sexual fulfillment at home, they are not likely to stray into an affair." This tends to be particularly true of women, who are more likely to have an affair because they feel unhappy or unfulfilled in their marriage than for any other reason.
Dr. Glass points out that when someone has an affair, it doesn't necessarily mean he or she isn't "getting enough" at home. It could mean he or she isn't giving enough. Either way, adding romance to your marriage will help protect against you or your spouse looking elsewhere.
Here are some guidelines for romantic success, suggested by experts Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Bloomberg, in their book Fighting for Your Marriage. Take a look at the guidelines and create your own plan for romance in your relationship:
- Focus on being romantic. Send flowers, romantic email messages, whisper suggestive desires during dinner, or touch his or her leg under the table. At the same time, don't focus on orgasms or other outcomes. Simply talking as friends and sharing fun times are aphrodisiacs.
- Focus on wooing your partner, as opposed to taking his or her love for granted. Win his or her love on a daily basis.
- Be sensitive to your partner's rhythms, needs, and wishes. Maybe your spouse is a morning person and you are an evening person when it comes to ideal times for intimacy. If so, push yourself to be romantically interested during your partner's preferred times.
- Be imaginative and creative. Let your partner know that you care and are attracted to her and want her, but do it in a variety of ways. For example, you might suggest going to work an hour late, or choose an intimate rendezvous at another unplanned time.
- Be a great lover. When having sex, kiss and touch sensual spots that your partner enjoys---the earlobe, neck, back, or wherever. Talk together about the love areas that are pleasurable and share in mutually enjoyable and agreeable lovemaking.
- Share initiating of lovemaking. Initiate intimacies at unexpected times and places.
Finally, to "affair-proof" your marriage, strengthen and deepen the bond between you and your spouse. "The more a couple knows each other, the better off they are. If you strengthen the bond between the couple, there is not so much temptation to look elsewhere," says psychologist Susan Townsend.
- Spend time having meaningful conversations. Set aside a few minutes each day to talk with your spouse. Talk about what you did during the day, what you've been thinking about, what you're feeling. Avoid discussing conflicts during this time.
- If these conversations don't come naturally, try sitting down facing each other and doing something relaxing at the same time, like having a cup of coffee or listening to music you both like.
- Go out on a date with your spouse once a week and choose an activity you enjoy doing together, such as watching a movie, eating out, dancing, bowling. Consider the cost of a babysitter an investment in your marriage and family.
- Share your fondest dreams with your spouse, no matter how impossible or outlandish they might seem.
- Be honest with your spouse. Don't keep secrets from him or her.
- Regularly attend church, synagogue, or mosque with your spouse. Nurturing your spirituality together can be a powerful way to increase your bond.
For more information, check out Dr. Shirley Glass' book, Not "Just Friends:" Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal, published by The Free Press (2003).
Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, edited by Robert F. Stahmann and Stephen F. Duncan, Professors in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
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