Before the Affair

Before the Affair

Broken heartLast summer, my wife and I decided to have our kitchen remodeled.  It was a major project that began with demolition, a complete gut-out down to the studs, rewiring of electricity, new drywall, flooring, etc–all of which had to take place before the installation phase could start.

To chronicle the project (which took several months to complete) we took “before and after” pictures.  Comparing the photos afterwards highlighted the dramatic transformation.  Prior to the renovation, the kitchen was dated, the cabinets were in bad shape, and the dishwasher was noisy and temperamental.  Now the kitchen has an open feel, with beautiful cabinets, granite countertops, state-of-the-art appliances, and wonderfully appointed light fixtures creating a warm and inviting appearance.  I’m stating the obvious when I say we prefer the latter over the former.

In my work with couples following an affair I am curious about two things.  What did the marriage look like before the affair?  What will it look like after the affair?  In answer to the first question, some marriages before the affair might look like my kitchen before it was remodeled.  I often hear couples confess that their relationship was in disrepair, lacking upkeep, that it lost the luster.  They often admit that they were not investing in the marriage and had become careless about its upkeep.  On the other hand, I occasionally I hear couples report that prior to an affair the marriage was going well, that they were happy overall, but that certain factors placed it at risk for infidelity.  In their case, the beautiful kitchen was vandalized by a partner’s undisciplined behavior.

Case in point, Tiger Woods.  He was the number one golfer in the world, amassing a fortune that was projected tip the $1 billion mark.  He married a world class model Elin Nodigren, with whom he fathered two children.  Tiger had the “tiger by the tail” (no pun intended) until his own dominant persona turned on him.  He thought he was entitled to do what he wanted and have whatever or whomever because he was Tiger Woods.  When his a pattern of infidelity was discovered by Elin, his world came crashing down hard.

After the affair (in his case it would be plural), Tiger Wood’s personal and professional life took a 180 degree turn.  He went through a highly publicized divorce.  Elin received a settlement of $750 million dollars and custodial rights of his children.  His losses extend beyond his personal life into his professional world.  His golf hasn’t been the same.  Tiger hasn’t won a major tournament, and his dominance on the links is missing.  Some might argue that his golf game has nothing to do with his personal life, it’s really more about his physical health, age, or simply his mechanics.  I’m not a golf expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I have observed that ever since his personal life went public, he lost his mental edge, not to mention his pristine public image.

No doubt, marital infidelity does a lot of damage to the individuals in and around the relationship.  Not only does the marriage suffer pain, but the quasi-relationships are affected as well.  Children, family, in-laws, and mutual friends bear some pain as spectators in the aftermath of an affair.  It is not a pleasant moment for me when a partner with total anguish of soul looks into the eyes of his/her spouse whose heart has been crushed by the devastating confession of infidelity.  Words are insufficient to describe the depth of pain one feels in this heart wrenching moment.

The answer to the second question, “What will it look like after the affair?” is uncertain. I will address this question in more detail in my next article.  Suffice it to say, the outcome can be destructive or constructive depending on what one and/or both partners want to do going forward.  I have seen both outcomes in my clinical work with couples.  For those who choose to rebuild after an affair, the work is arduous, but for those who stay the course, the outcome can be surprisingly better than they imagined.  I will discuss how this happens in the next edition of the Connect newsletter.

For now, I want to address the factors that place relationships at risk before an affair happens.  Believe me when I say there are many occasions when a person will sit across from me in a counseling session and state that they never imagined themselves committing adultery.  These are individuals who, up to the point of the affair, have lived morally upstanding lives.  They appear shocked, embarrassed and shameful about their actions.  So before you say, “this will never happen to me”, think again.  Infidelity is on the rise in our society and even among those who ascribe to strong religious beliefs.

Ten Common Risk Factors For Infidelity

Lack of attention to the marriage relationship

Couples who move their marriage to the back-burner in order to focus on other priorities they deem are more important.  Functionally, their time spent together is task-oriented, running the business of family.  As a result, their “couple identity” that connected around fun, adventure, and romance slowly evaporates.

Over involvement in other domains: work, children, household tasks, etc…

On the front burner in many marriages are kids and work.  Couples dedicated to achieving the American Dream will sacrifice personal and marital needs to create the idyllic picture: a beautiful home and well-bred children.  To achieve this they will move at a speed that would outpace Superman!  From dawn to dusk, couples expend their energies in work, child-rearing, and household duties before they finally collapse in bed or on a recliner watching TV.

Lack of attention to personal well-being: mood regulation, stress management, personal appearance, health issues

By moving personal needs to the back-burner, individuals in a marriage often invest little, if anything in their personal health and wellness.  With their personal tanks perpetually running near empty, they are susceptible to a variety of maladies that don’t bode well for marital health.  Quick-trigger anger, sour personality, argumentative demeanor, and/or anxiety-ridden behavior become a pattern of communication in the marriage.  Poor dietary habits lend to health concerns and changes in personal appearance.  Inattention to personal wellness is a major cause of marital distress.

Marital drift

With personal and marital needs on the back-burner, couples fall prey to a slow imperceptive drift in the relationship.  Over time as the intimacy needs in the relationship go unmet, a vulnerability exists for one or both partners to seek intimacy elsewhere.

Poor communication patterns and inability to manage/resolve conflicts

Communication problems is near the top of the list of areas most couples report as a cause for marital dissatisfaction.  Lacking the ability to resolve conflicts, most couples “stockpile” them in the marriage.  When new conflicts occur, old issues are brought into the battle, again without a mutually respectful resolution.  To cope, many couples go into a “cold war” period, not talking for hours or days until they are ready to reengage the relationship.

Lack of readiness in one or both partners

Some people marry before they are ready for marriage.  Their reasons for marrying may vary but are not sufficient to sustain a thriving marriage.  A common factor I see often is a partner who feels trapped by the marriage and parenting roles that define them and the subsequent loss of identity and independence they feel.  There are several other “readiness” issues I can address.  Perhaps this is a subject for another article, but suffice it to say, partners in a marriage who are not ready are susceptible to infidelity.

Lack of respect

Respect is a fundamental element in marriage.  A meaningful relationship is not possible in a marriage where one or both partners lack respect for the other.  The wedding vows are meaningless and susceptible to violation if respect is absent.

Power differential in marriage

One of the biggest underlying contributors to infidelity is a marriage where one partner wields more power than the other.  This power imbalance leaves the other partner feeling controlled, owned, and often trapped by the imposing force of the other.  Historically, men have held the power in marriages, however in many marriages women hold power over their husbands, leaving them to feel emasculated.  In both scenarios, spouses are susceptible to having an affair.  The power partner might feel entitled.  The weaker partner might feel vulnerable to someone who takes an interest in them.

Chronic health stressors: physical and/or mental health problems

Chronic health problems can bring wear and tear on a marriage.  The health issue takes such a prominent role in the marriage that it can cause despair and disillusionment in one or both partners.  Untreated mental health problems such as anxiety-based disorders, mood disorders, and/or personality disorders can cause marriages to become toxic.  Unhappy partners are at risk to seek their intimacy needs outside marriage.

Personal or family crisis

In recent years with the economy and employment crisis we face in America, many individuals have suffered the loss of employment, income, and personal savings.  Massive layoffs, business sectors vanishing, retirement portfolios hemorrhaging, and savings dwindling, have placed enormous pressure on marriages and families.  A loss of employment is like the tipping of a domino and it causes a chain reaction felt by all.  Some cannot handle a crisis of this magnitude and will escape in some form or fashion.  Unfortunately, some escape into an affair, a solution that only makes matters worse.

As you can see, several conditions may be present before an affair happens.  One or more of these may be the culprit that entices a person to seek intimacy outside the marriage.  While these may be the factors, individual choice is the concluding factor in what causes infidelity.  No matter what may be causing marital unhappiness, each of us has a choice in what to do about it.  So, before I close, let me offer you some suggestions as to what you can do if you think you or your marriage is currently at risk for infidelity.

5 Affair-Proofing Strategies For Your Relationship

Give your marriage some front-burner time

Picture your roles as pots on a stove that can be moved around.  Instead of keeping kids and work on the front-burner, move things around so that all your roles get proper attention.  This means moving the marriage to the front-burner and spending time as a couple without the kids or work, doing things that are fun and/or romantic.

Give your personal wellness some front-burner time too!

You haven’t yet, get serious and start taking care of yourself.  A  better you makes a better spouse.  A better couple makes better parents.  You have to start with yourself and get in shape: mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.  Have a hobby?  Do it!  Looking for a new one?  Find it!  Start exercising to relieve stress, build health, stamina, and confidence.  I could go on but I think you get my point.

Get some couples coaching on how to communicate and partner together

This is where a professional like myself comes in.  I help couples learn how to communicate effectively, manage conflict, and develop mutual respect.  The results are compelling for those who use the tools I give them.  Stop stockpiling your problems and learn how to use your energy getting along and having fun and intimacy!  Make the healthy choice to connect.

Avoid alone contact with individuals with whom there is a mutual attraction

If you are unhappy in your marriage and starving for intimacy you are vulnerable to an affair no matter how strong you think you are.  Infidelity can happen very quickly.  You might already feel an attraction to someone.  Perhaps this person is sending you cues of attraction already.  If so, you are in a danger zone for an affair.  I recommend you avoid alone contact or any form that sets the pattern in motion.  If you don’t back away now, you will be in over your head before you know it.

Consider counseling as a means for you to sort through the issues that are causing you personal and/or marital distress

People who are hurting in their marriages need someone to talk to.  This is how they end up in an affair.  I recommend you talk to a professional counselor about your problems so you can avoid this pitfall.  Once you are in an affair it is hard to get out, especially if there is a strong emotional pull.  If you are already in an affair, I recommend you also consider counseling.  Trapped between two worlds, you may feel a pull in both directions and may not know what to do.  Talking about these matters in a private setting that protects your confidentiality may help you sort through your problems. Infidelity is such a delicate matter to sort through.  The risk of personal and public pain is high and the outcome likely is devastation.  If you notice your marriage is at risk I suggest you be proactive and do something to address the problem.  An affair is not a healthy solution.  If anything, it makes matters worse, and if there are children involved, the pain they experience is not worth it.

In the next edition, I will discuss what it takes to help couples recover from an affair and some of the processes involved.  I will address two primary processes: repairing the wound and rebuilding the trust in the marriage.  It has been my experience that some couples succeed in marital restoration and others do not.  For those who do, what has been most gratifying is seeing them demolish the old marriage and construct a new one.  Much like the kitchen we remodeled, the contrast of the two marriages is strikingly different.  It reminds me that a phoenix can emerge from the ashes.