Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Three is definitely a crowd in a marriage. Infidelity is ultimately very painful for all people involved. This article is the first in the series of papers dealing with all aspects of infidelity including how to affair-proof your marriage, how to detect an affair and how to recover from infidelity. All adult participants in this unhappy "love triangle" will need assistance. In these articles I will describe the three participants as the "betrayed spouse," the "unfaithful spouse" and the "affair partner." There may be another betrayed spouse because both participants in the affair can be married. Too often children are bystanders to the drama, with their personal happiness and security caught up in the intense emotional struggles of the affair. The protection and welfare of children will also be addressed in this series.

Many people feel that a good and loving marriage will protect against an affair, while others feel that parenthood will prevent the mother or father from involvement with another partner. Unfortunately, neither a good marriage nor parenthood provides total protection. The stress of a modern day marriage can cause strains in the "live happily ever after" relationship, and one spouse may find him or herself on the slippery slope into another relationship. Even happily married couples will find that they have to prioritize the marriage and work on communication to fortify and reinforce their marriage vows and commitment to each other. In a later article I will talk about strengthening the "heart connection" so that the married couple is open to each other and their personal intimate communication and likewise closed to the influence of others.

Another myth is that all affairs are sexual affairs. In fact most infidelity begins as an emotional connection and then spreads to emotional intimacy before a sexual relationship is consummated. Some affairs remain asexual, with the affair participants assuaging their guilt with the assurance that they are "just friends." Some infidelity does begin with a sexual fling, although most affairs actually begin with a friendship connection. Most marriage partners do not intend to have an affair, and the infidelity begins with a close friendship and personal connection to an individual outside the marriage. While a strong sexual bond within the marriage will usually help protect and strengthen the marriage, unfaithful spouses can have sexual relationships both within and outside of their marriage.

Many affairs begin with positive experiences between the affair partners with the secrecy and risk contributing to the emotionally charged and romanticized attraction. The affair partner does not have to clean the bathtub, take out the garbage or wash the baby's diapers. Later, however, the unfaithful married partner or partners will find themselves crossing over into an uneasy double life, dealing with the guilt of betrayal and the fear of discovery. Marriage between affair partners is not common. Only ten percent of unfaithful spouses actually marry the affair partner, and most of these marriages (about seventy five percent) end in divorce.

Infidelity is a very serious challenge to a marriage, perhaps secondary only to domestic violence. Working through a revelation of infidelity is long and torturous with all involved finding themselves traumatized by the process. Knowledge of the betrayal of infidelity may provide information necessary to dissolve an unstable marriage or may challenge the couple to strengthen and improve the marriage. Later articles in this series will discuss ways to weather the storm, resolve the trauma and develop personal strength either as individuals or marriage partners.

If you see yourself in any of these roles or you worry about the possibility, you should seek information and emotional support. While there are many good self-help books written about infidelity, not all will be useful to you and your unique personal situation. Friends and family will of course provide emotional support, but their information base will be limited and their advice may not be useful to you. "Friendly" advice may be mistaken or may even prevent you from taking the necessary steps to heal yourself as an individual or reconstruct your marriage. I recommend the advice and assistance of a marriage therapist experienced in dealing with the challenges of infidelity. If you find yourself in this situation, remember that help is available during and after the crisis. The steps you take to heal and strengthen yourself can improve your life whatever the outcome, whether you divest yourself of the burden of a troubled marriage or find yourself with a more positive and loving relationship with your spouse.