No one wakes up one morning and says, “Today, I’m going to destroy my marriage.” So why do people have affairs? The roots of infidelity are actually most often found in the defensive structures we build in response to childhood trauma.
Let me show you what I mean. Imagine a young girl with a father who is distant, dictatorial, doesn’t come to recitals, and a mother who is only half-present, caught up in her own sorrows or preoccupations. Her father may tell her many times that he loves her, but deep down she has never really believed it, and while her mother loves her, it only goes so far.
In her early 20s she meets, falls in love with, and marries a man with some of the same qualities as her father, and when he tells her he loves her, at her core she doesn’t believe it. After a few years of marriage, she meets a man at work who shares her love of music. The temptation to stray will be stronger if it is something she doesn’t share with her husband. Because he isn’t close to her, the man’s interest in her bypasses the defensive I’m-not-lovable structure, and she begins to crave his interest in her like a drug. The affair is already well underway.
Consummation of the relationship is not only a foregone conclusion, but by this point almost an afterthought. The attention of this not-loved-one is a salve to her unseen, desperate, damaged younger parts. Ironically, if she leaves her husband for this man, he will become a loved one, and the cycle will very likely begin again with someone else.
This is just one example among billions. We each have our own narrative and defensive structures.
The Power of Love
We are wired for bonding. When we find someone attractive, without any thought or effort on our part, our bodies respond as if we might actually mate with them. Pupils dilate, capillaries expand to increase blood flow, pulse quickens. Sometimes it literally takes our breath away. This is the reptilian brain ready to procreate at the drop of a hat. In Freudian terms, the identity says, “I want that!” and the ego says, “I know how to get that!” and the superego steps in and says, “You can’t have that, because (insert moral reason here).”
If we are operating with emotional deficits like the example above, we can mistake this physical attraction for love. Actual love is a deep-seated connection built by years of growing together with someone. Erotic love contributes wonderfully to it, but erotic love by itself invariably leaves a person more lonely with each relationship. People who bounce from one intimate relationship to another are typically unable to receive actual love from another, so they reflexively pursue the counterfeit.
The Anatomy of Infidelity
Infidelity happens when motive creates desire, and then opportunity becomes action. As with all sin, people wouldn’t practice infidelity if there were not a payoff. Besides the obvious payoff of sexual gratification, an affair actually soothes the wounded part of the self that drives the behavior in the first place, and there is a thrill associated with breaking rules and “being bad” which can actually heighten the erotic energy in the relationship.
Every sin is a counterfeit of something good, and infidelity is no different. Like an addiction, for most people it only works for a while. When it fails, the downsides are significant, in the form of agonizing guilt and shame, terrible damage to marriages and children, and sometimes even loss of jobs or homes. Make no mistake, affairs are a wrecking ball to whatever trust and happiness there is in a marriage. This is why it is important to identify infidelity early in the process.
Where Infidelity Starts
There is no such thing as “harmless” flirting with someone else if you are married. You may have seamlessly integrated your sexuality into your personality, such that you might like to say, “It’s just how I am.” That doesn’t make it harmless. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s harmless until it isn’t.
All it takes is you being in a bad space, triggered emotionally, feeling one down, and someone really appealing shows up and makes you feel good, and you can start down the path. It turns out the best way to stop infidelity in its tracks is to interrupt it as soon as you become aware of it.
When I was working on proposals for an environmental company back in the 90’s, I drove four hours to another town to work with a team there. My wife and I were struggling some in our relationship and as luck would have it, there was an attractive single woman on the team. One afternoon, we shared a joke and looked into each other’s eyes a little too long. I realized I was attracted to her, and could see she returned the feeling. That night, she showed up at my hotel room door and invited me downstairs for a drink. In that moment, in a flash, I realized that right then, at the door, was the moment to say “No” – not after going down to the bar with her.
The only reason to go with her would have been to dangle my toe in the waters of infidelity, with a secret hope of falling in. I made an excuse and we had no other contact outside of work. I like to think I would not have gone through with it, but I guarantee the risk would have gone up exponentially had I walked out that door. The fact is, as surely as we are wired for bonding, we are wired to look for that bonding wherever we can get it.
We may have brilliant intellectual and emotional structures that allow us to ignore that wiring and keep us from getting our needs met outside of marriage, even when they are not met for years. Some people suffer in silence for decades, while the relationship slowly calcifies and becomes rigid and loveless. Others are not able to hold out, and allow themselves to be “driven into the arms” of another.
These are both terrible outcomes, and its clear that God desires so much better for us. We need look no further than the traditional marriage vows for the template, “to have and to hold, to love, honor and cherish, forsaking all others.” If you or your spouse is not feeling loved, honored or cherished, there is important work to do, probably with a counselor.
Coming Back After Infidelity
When infidelity happens in a marriage it is devastating, or should be. If a spouse’s infidelity is not crushing, something is desperately wrong with the relationship, such that one could wonder why there is a marriage at all. Because such a betrayal shatters trust, and trust is one of the key foundations of marriage, it is very difficult to come back from.
If your spouse cheats on you and you decide to stay together, you will need a counselor to help you find your way back to a new normal. Expect to be angry for a long time, and while the ability to trust may feel like it’s gone forever, it usually will come back, though it might take years.
While it is no excuse for the betrayal, it can be helpful to understand some of the emotional dynamic behind the cheating partner’s actions – not in any way to minimize the damage done, but to find the capacity to forgive a flawed human being, eventually.
If you cheated on your spouse, you may be wracked with guilt for quite a while, especially if you come out of a faith background. As painful as this is, you do not get to rush the recovery process. Expecting your spouse to desire you, or feel comfortable with you, or enjoy your company before they are ready, is a boundary violation. They have to be able to come back to you at their own pace.
This doesn’t mean that you don’t have choices, or a voice, or can’t set healthy boundaries of your own. Guilt may give us the sense that we have to be a doormat, and accept whatever abuse our spouse dishes out, but this is not the case. They get to be angry, but they don’t get to be abusive.
During the recovery process, you will likely benefit from some rules of engagement:
- Anyone can pause a conversation by holding up a hand
- Paused conversations have to be rescheduled at the pause
- Most relationship conversations should be saved for counseling
- Everyone is responsible for their own feelings, and no one else’s
- Asking permission is good, such as “Is this a good time to talk about ____?” “I wonder what it would look like if _____?” “I’m experiencing you as (mad, angry, distant, etc.) and was wondering what that’s about,” or “Can I tell you how that landed on me?”
Coming back from infidelity is hard work, but if both spouses approach it with as much compassion as they can find, and learn to forgive and stand side-by-side facing a common enemy (and not shoot at each other), the work can payoff in a deeper, richer relationship than the one they had before.
Making Your Marriage Infidelity-Proof
Okay, I lied a little bit there. “Infidelity-proof” might imply there is some way to make it impossible for an affair ever to happen in a marriage. No one is immune, because we are flawed human beings, and motive and opportunity can take many different forms. However, not surprisingly, your best defense against infidelity is to take steps to strengthen your relationship:
Invite God Into Your Marriage Early and Often
When you were married, church or no, you made your vows before God. He cares deeply about your relationship. Invite Him into it. Ask for His help to love well, to forgive, to overcome your own selfishness, set good boundaries, and own your own side of the emotional street.
Take Infidelity Seriously
Notice what is happening in your body. If you look at or talk to an attractive co-worker, or your friend’s spouse, or a single friend and realize your body is responding to them (fluttering in the stomach, a catch in your voice, a desire to look more deeply into their eyes, or confide in them for connection), see that and admit it to yourself. It’s okay to think, “Wow, I’m really attracted to this person,” because then it’s not a secret from you anymore. Admit your attraction. No guilt required. We are wired to be attracted to people. Once you see it, you can respond with, “but I’m not going to do anything about it.” Then curb your flirtatious behavior.
Be Willing to Set Boundaries
Even if they are embarrassing, sometimes its necessary to set boundaries. One of my professors in college said a woman came up to him after a presentation and gave him a hug where she pressed her whole body against him. He separated from her and said, “I only let my wife hug me that way.” Many might find that difficult to say, but it is a great boundary, and at the very least can inspire us to more boldly defend the perimeter of our marriage.
Do Your Emotional Work
If you have unprocessed emotional trauma in your past, find a therapist and begin to find out about it, and what you did to survive it. The more we understand and own our own emotional grid, the better able we are to change it, set healthy boundaries, and establish solid, reciprocal bonds with our loved ones.
Do The Work of Loving Your Spouse
One of the wonderful things about marriage is the sense of comfort afforded by the companionship of someone familiar. If familiarity becomes complacency, however, we can drift into dangerous waters.
I once heard a man say that on his wedding day he told his wife, “I love you. If that ever changes, I’ll let you know.” It was said as a joke, but it makes a point. It is easy to forget to do the little things that deepen our love for the other person.
Remember the things you enjoyed doing together and see if you might do them again. Be romantic, send cards, give flowers, and remember birthdays and anniversaries. Celebrate the ones you love, remember how fond you are of them and why. Rehearse the things that made you fall in love with them, and rekindle them if necessary and possible.
Hold things lightly. God can’t put anything in a closed fist. If we hold our loved ones lightly, release them to His care, acknowledge we cannot save them from sorrow, pain, or death, we can stop being over-responsible for them and actually have room to come alongside them and offer them the one thing they need and desire most from us – our safe presence.
Learn to see yourself and your spouse as an amazing, unique reflection of the image of God on the earth, and you will cover over a multitude of sins, learn to value each other and the miracle of your relationship, and clear the way for growth and health as you journey forward together.
“Conversation,” courtesy of mrhayata, flickr.com, Creative Commons; “Bridge Walk,” courtesy of mana2014, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License