By: Dr. Angela Bisignano
When Don and Susan* arrived for their first therapy session, they chose to sit next to each other on the office couch but were clearly uncomfortable.
"Don left his phone on the table," Susan said. "I noticed a text coming through from a woman. I didn't recognize the name. I don't know what came over me, but I suddenly felt panicked. That's when I discovered he had been texting this woman for months."
Don squirmed, giving the same nervous look I've seen many times. After several moments he admitted, "I had an affair."
"I don't understand how he could do this to me," Susan said. "I thought he loved me. How could he cheat on me? I don't know if I want to be married to him anymore."
In my counseling practice, I frequently see couples suffering from the aftermath of an emotional or physical affair. They arrive in my office with broken hearts and dreams. All too often the affair could have been avoided if more attention had been given to some telltale signs of vulnerabilities within a marriage. Keeping these areas of susceptibility and their antidotes in mind could, along with proactive healthy practices, ward off a potential affair. Here are some potential vulnerabilities that might help you identify areas of concern in your marriage:
Vulnerability No. 1: Weak emotional connection
Couples often come to therapy feeling emotionally disconnected. Sadly, many have drifted apart and no longer feel safe with their spouse. When one spouse becomes emotionally unavailable or unresponsive, the other spouse can feel helpless, abandoned and alone. He or she may experience sadness, distress, disappointment, pain or fear.
Losing connection with a spouse can feel like security is jeopardized. When fear intensifies, the brain's amygdala (also known as the fear center) triggers an automatic reaction, which often shows up in a fight-or-flight response. For some individuals, this experience feels like panic.
When we become fearful, we become demanding and anxious as a way of getting comfort and reassurance from our spouse, or we detach and withdraw to protect ourselves.
If one spouse detaches or withdraws consistently and attempts at reconnecting are unsuccessful, the relationship becomes vulnerable.
Being present, aware and responsive to the emotional world of our spouse essentially tells him or her, "I see you. I am here for you. I value you. I love you." Spoken or unspoken, this communication is at the center of healthy emotional connection.
Understanding the emotional dynamics in your relationship is important. When each spouse feels secure, he or she is freer to talk about feelings and fears, as well as deep longings and needs.
Think of this as an emotional bank account. Every day, each interaction — verbal or nonverbal — is an opportunity to make deposits into your spouse's account. Anything that conveys care and love counts. The goal is for you both to have full emotional accounts so that when difficulties arise you're better able to draw on what you've invested in the relationship.
Regularly tuning in to your spouse's emotional well-being is important, too. The couples I have counseled find it helpful to have regular conversations where they check in with each other. Learning to express your feelings and needs in a healthy manner is one of the most powerful ways to strengthen your emotional connection.
Vulnerability No. 2: Lack of physical intimacy
When physical intimacy diminishes in a marriage, couples are at a higher risk for affairs.
If you find yourselves arguing about sex or the frequency of sex, take this as a warning sign and find out what is going on. Is the culprit fatigue, stress, a medical condition, a mental health issue, loss of emotional connection or something else? Whatever the reason, address the issue before it makes your marriage vulnerable.
To protect your marriage's physical intimacy, have honest conversations with your spouse about expectations and frequency. Some couples don't understand that sexual desires can change over the course of a marriage. Different seasons of life and circumstances influence sexual intimacy. Consider, for example, the differences in physical intimacy when comparing a young newlywed couple with no children to a couple with several children, or compare empty nesters in their 50s to couples in their 70s or 80s.
Many couples experiencing difficulty with physical intimacy avoid talking about the problem. God created us to be sexual beings, and staying healthy in this area means we need to regularly tune in to our spouse's physical needs no matter what season we're in.
Vulnerability No. 3: Blurred boundaries
According to the book Not "Just Friends" written by the late Dr. Shirley Glass, couples who create and maintain adequate boundaries are less vulnerable to affairs. She explains that couples who don't keep "walls" around their relationship (to keep from becoming too close to others emotionally) and "windows" between each other (sharing emotions and thoughts) are potentially vulnerable. When there is a wall between the spouses and a window between one spouse and another person, the marriage is vulnerable to an affair.
Spending a lot of time alone with people of the opposite sex can be a concern. Whether emotional or physical, affairs often happen subtly and gradually. What begins as an innocent conversation can move into sharing problems, having coffee together, thinking about the other person, looking forward to being with him or her, and so on.
You may want to start by taking inventory of your marriage. Are there defined boundaries around your marriage? Have a conversation and ask each other what's acceptable regarding communication and spending time with people of the opposite sex. You should consider putting parameters in place. Some examples would be not spending time alone with a co-worker or deciding to always involve three people — never just two — in work projects or trips.
Another important boundary consideration is with social media, smartphones and the internet. With technology so entrenched in our lives, creating clear boundaries is essential. Agree with your spouse about acceptable behavior. Some examples of things that should be off-limits: connecting with old relationship partners, conversations with high school sweethearts and posting social media photos of yourself posing with people of the opposite sex.
Vulnerability No. 4: Waning friendship
When you and your spouse no longer feel like close friends (or you realize you never were), it's time to rekindle and deepen your friendship. The sustainability of a marriage is directly related to friendship, according to relationship expert Dr. John Gottman. Marriages with a healthy friendship at their core enable each spouse to be supportive, caring and understanding of the other. These couples are intimately familiar with each other's internal worlds, knowing each other's feelings, needs, disappointments and dreams. Deep friendship fosters a culture of appreciation, trust, respect, honor and companionship — all of which can ward off the temptation of an affair.
Regularly spending quality time together helps you grow together in the same direction. In the hectic seasons of life, you might have to plan to intentionally have fun together. Having a date night or day out together is not just about keeping romance alive but also about nourishing your friendship and protecting your marriage. Doing things together that you both enjoy will build your friendship.
Vulnerability No. 5: Contempt
Gottman notes that contempt is the worst type of communication for a relationship. Verbally, it can be hostile humor, sarcasm or cynicism. Nonverbal contempt is eye-rolling, sneering or pursing the lips. Contempt conveys disgust. Having a meaningful conversation is difficult if you feel your spouse is disgusted with you. If left unchecked, contempt leads to more conflict and alienation.
If someone feels unappreciated, uncared for and criticized by his or her spouse, kind treatment by another individual can be alluring.
Gottman suggests starting conversations gently and avoiding criticism or contempt. Instead, try expressing your feelings and your needs instead of telling your spouse what you think is wrong with him or her. Include appreciation and kindness in your conversation. If you're unable to do this on your own, seek the help of someone professionally trained in this area. You and your spouse can learn skills for healthier, more respectful conversations and interactions.
Vulnerability No. 6: Extreme conflict or conflict avoidance
Contempt and criticism involve hurt feelings and often lead to either more harsh communication or one partner avoiding all conflict. When either extreme conflict or avoidance becomes the norm, the relationship becomes toxic.
Healthy marriages are built on a foundation of trust, but managing conflict in an unhealthy way leads to disappointment, discouragement, resentment, pain, loneliness and the erosion of trust. Over time these negative issues cause spouses to turn away from each other, emotionally and sexually.
It's not necessarily the frequency of arguments a couple has but the way they manage conflict that matters most. The best way to manage conflict is to identify underlying needs and then communicate them in a healthy and respectful way. It doesn't involve raised voices or threats. Instead, husbands and wives should listen to their spouse's concerns and perspective with a willingness to find solutions that are a win for both of them.
If you and your spouse are gridlocked on an issue, it may be time to involve a professional. Or if you have a tendency to sweep big problems under the rug and never deal with them, consider seeking help.
If you realize that any of these areas are concerns for your marriage, it may be a good time to talk with your spouse, trusted friend or your pastor. No matter what state your marriage is in, there is hope. I have seen the wounds from affairs be healed, marriages restored and love reignited.