Sally, an outdoor enthusiast, is happily married to her husband, Sam, a computer buff.* Instead of nagging Sam about not being outside with her, Sally joined a weekly hiking club to meet her need to experience the great outdoors. Sally made lots of new friends. On hikes they would talk about kids, spouses, etc. While Sally loves Sam, she shares the love of the outdoors with these men and women.
“This is often how inappropriate relationships begin,” says Dave Carder, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Torn Asunder: Recovery from Extramarital Affairs. “People move from talking in generalities to more specific things like, 'Help me understand my spouse,' to even more private issues. This starts a gradual erosion of boundaries and often leads to an affair.”
How can you know if a fling is inappropriate?
“If your heart races when you anticipate seeing this person, that is a definite sign that there is more to the story than friendship,” Carder says. “If you have said or thought to yourself, ‘If I weren’t married, I would marry this person,’ that definitely puts the relationship in a different category. This is often when you see people acting like they are drunk in love.”
What if you suspect your spouse is having an affair?
The best thing you can do, according to Carder, is ask him/her. Be very direct. "Do you have an emotional or sexual relationship with someone outside of our marriage?"
“Very few people I have worked with over the years have gone out looking for an affair,” Carder says. “Most people literally fall into them. It is so exhilarating he/she hates to leave it behind. You start to save conversational topics for this relationship that you don’t share with your spouse – you used to share them, but now you save them for the friendship. You start nourishing the friendship and starving the marriage.
“Marriages often become so encumbered with life (kids, career, household responsibilities) that the couple loses that lovin’ feeling, that way they felt before they married. So the ga-ga feeling and the exhilaration of doing crazy things spontaneously is very appealing in these extramarital flings.
"The good news is there are huge numbers of marriages that don’t just survive affairs, they are significantly better than they were before the affair. The key to a marriage surviving an affair lies in its good marital history. If 20 percent of a couple’s history is simultaneously viewed as positive by both spouses, they have a better than 90 percent chance of making it.”
Common risk factors for affairs include, these issues and more:
Poor impulse control;
A history of infidelity in the family;
An abusive or chronically conflicted past; and/or
A promiscuous adolescence.
Can a marriage survive infidelity?
Once an affair has occurred, Carder says four universal concepts can save a marriage: forgiveness, rebuilding respect, building trust and building love.
“If you don’t rebuild respect, you will never have an appropriate love relationship," he says. Even if you don’t stay married, you still need to go through this process in order not to continue to pay the price of the affair in future relationships.”
Carder encourages people to look at this situation like an alcoholic would look at getting sober. The person in the affair might want to cut back or keep it innocent, but they want to keep the relationship. It is a mood-altering experience. For restoration of the marriage, this is not possible.
“You have to leave the club,” Carder says. “You have to get out of the music group, be very direct and cut off the relationship. There is a big difference is saying, ‘We gotta stop this,’ and ‘Don’t ever call me again.’”
Carder recommends the following action steps to couples dealing with infidelity:
Don’t try to go it alone. Find friends with experience. If you will be brave and share your situation with some friends, the number of people who have been there will probably amaze you.
Nobody can work on two relationships at once. Stop the one, and work through the marriage first.
Find a therapist who meets the following three criteria: structure for the recovery, a safe environment and a goal of marriage stabilization – not future determination.
Outcome studies indicate that couples who save their marriage after infidelity report the highest satisfaction levels of their mutual history. With time, both partners can forgive without forgetting, rebuild trust, restore respect and rekindle love.
Every marriage faces challenges. Whether it's infidelity or a continual conflict that creates friction and tension, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome. Learn how to move forward in your relationship by registering for Maximize Your Marriage on our home page. It's an experience to help married couples gain helpful skills to better communicate, handle conflict and create expectations for the future of their marriage.
*Not their real names