Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Our Marriage: For Better or Worse


Is your marriage sliding from better to worse? One of the most difficult problems a marriage can encounter is infidelity. This is the second article in the series on infidelity, addressing early warning signs for the married couple and the possible affair partner.

A cornerstone of the marriage vow is a commitment of the husband and wife to the primacy of their relationship above all others. The marriage relationship should involve sharing with the spouse: openness, honesty, friendship, love, intimacy and commitment to the spousal relationship. Protection of the married unit should be a primary goal. Although newlyweds know that infidelity does occur, they usually see no possibility of this problem in their future. They see themselves walking together hand-in-hand into the future as their lives stretch out ahead of them. The excitement and romantic attraction of the early marriage stage is usually protective against outside love interests. Later, however, when ordinary life stress and the inevitable marital strains occur, the possibility of an affair will increase if an outside relationship becomes too close and assumes undue importance for the husband or wife.

The modern world presents many challenges to the marital unit and many relationships which could cross the line into an affair. Men and women find themselves in close contact with work acquaintances and work partners, social friends and neighbors, eligible singles or unhappily married individuals, perhaps beginning across the backyard fence or in the coffee room, expanding with opportunities for increased contact, especially challenging in work travel and overnight conferences. Approximately half of the affairs begin with a work relationship. The reappearance of former lovers can present an opportunity for a past flame to reignite. Internet chat rooms conversations can develop into intimate relationships beyond the usual bounds of social interaction.

Pay attention when one of the relationships above starts to expand beyond the original role to friendship and shared confidences, spending time outside the defined relationship. Especially problematic is the situation when the new friends share complaints about the marriage partner. When you stop telling your spouse about your contacts with this person, you have begun building a world of secrecy outside of the marriage. While attraction to others may be normal, it is important not to act on these feelings. Look back into the marriage for love and sharing or problem-solve the spousal issues instead of looking for or receiving comfort from others. Marriage counseling can be especially helpful at this point. Realize it is normal to feel attracted to a well-dressed friendly person at your office when you've just left a grumpy disheveled spouse at home. Realize that it is tempting to have personal conversations with sympathetic friends over coffee when there's no time at home with your spouse without the presence of kids and housework issues. Even if there are no significant marriage problems, pay attention when your thoughts or fantasies turn to someone other than your spouse and you begin spending increased amounts of time with this person. Pay attention when your friendship with a person of the opposite sex is growing toward intimacy with flirtatious moments and stirrings of sexual interest. You will know when you are sliding down the slippery slope when you begin sharing marriage confidences or complaints with your friend and/or you begin keeping key information from your spouse. Secrets beget lying, and you will find you have crossed over into a double life with a marriage and an affair.

Some of the most unhappy individuals I have counseled are unfaithful spouses who have a commitment to their marriage partner and children but also a passionate attraction and commitment to the affair partner. Before you find yourself in the middle of this dilemma, pay attention to keeping outside relationships within the original context of work associate or social friendship and set up boundaries to keep these relationships from enlarging into other areas of your life. You should rededicate yourself to finding emotional support, pleasure and satisfaction with your marriage partner. If you cannot solve marital problems and your marriage ends, you will be free to turn to others for love and intimacy. But not before.

Singles and unhappily married individuals should pay attention to keeping good boundaries with opposite sex friends who are married. Realize that, just because they are married, they are not necessarily "safe" or unavailable. If you cross the threshold into a relationship with a married individual, it is likely you will encounter serious problems and unhappiness after the initial romantic fling. It is difficult to keep "office romances" confined within the office door, and a significant problem is created when you find yourself committed emotionally and sexually to a married person. Realize that most relationships which begin with infidelity end in emotional turmoil, and few continue into satisfying remarriages. Individual counseling may be helpful in supporting you to set up boundaries against the possibility of an affair with a married person.