One of the topics that we touch on in the Marriage is Not That Hard episode is the problem of being attracted to other people while married, and how this impacts infidelity. Firstly, everyone feels attracted to other people. Some folks seem to think that if you love your spouse enough, you just won’t be interested in anyone else. But marriage is not some magical safeguard against desire; past the initial in-love phase, other folks may enter your notice from time to time.
I say this because believing a marriage, even a good one, will prevent a person from having an attraction to others is a destructive notion all around. First, it sets us up for some unrealistic expectations about our partners, and what we should feel for them. Which is, apparently, an all-consuming bliss that blinds us to other attractive people. (Yeah…about that…) Secondly, it sets up infidelity as something that can only happen in really bad marriages or with really bad people. Which is also not true. The fact is, infidelity typically happens when we’ve stopped nourishing our relationship and allowed ourselves to become inappropriately vulnerable to someone outside it.
Instead of thinking of infidelity as something that just happens to bad marriages, it is much more helpful to think of it as a process. Salt water lapping at rock; a quiet, steady, powerful erosion. This erosion happens from both within the marriage and outside it. Inside, by becoming disconnected from our partner. Outside, by allowing feelings for others to develop.
As couple therapists, we talk a lot about dealing with the inside erosion—encouraging couples to set their relationship as a priority, to give each other similar attention and effort as they give to their careers or raising their children. However, we do not typically talk as much about the exposure from the outside. And the fact is, that while attraction to others is normal, what you do with that attraction matters.
More than unchecked sexual desire or bad, selfish people, what we often see with couples who’ve experienced infidelity is folks who developed a relationship with an individual over time (frequently someone they work with), and allowed those feelings to grow, while also failing to nurture their connection at home. Often, by the time the relationship has reached the obviously inappropriately stage (sexual contact and/or emotional intimacy) real feelings have developed, which makes it even harder to cut it off and repair your marriage. While this is not the only path towards an affair, it is one of the most common that we see in couples therapy. So, how do you prevent this from happening in your marriage?
Be Mindful of Yourself. When you find yourself interested or drawn to someone, think carefully about what kind of contact you want to have with that person. If it’s a friend, consider limiting your interactions, or setting boundaries to you keep your contact casual. If it’s in a work environment, consider keeping your conversations focused on work and surface level stuff (ie. not sharing significant or more tender parts of yourself with them). It may sound old-fashioned or restrictive, but in the long run, it serves you and your partner to limit these outside relationships before they have a chance to turn into something more problematic.
Be Mindful of Your Marriage. There’s a reason we therapists spend most of our time talking about the dangers of inside erosion on your partnership—the more you value and enjoy your marriage, the less likely you’ll be tempted to explore an inappropriate relationship with someone else. Check in with each other regularly about how your needs or being met (or not) in the relationship. Make an effort to do things that deepen your connection.
Real love doesn’t mean not being attracted to other people. Real love means a conscious choice to protect what you have.