[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series on how to affair-proof your marriage. Look for the rest of the series in the coming weeks.]

Modern movies often depict marital affairs as a source of happiness. A main character is “trapped” in a marriage, but through an affair, he or she breaks free from the chains of a disappointing life, finds joy, and lives happily ever after.

As anyone who has endured an affair in their marriage will tell you, this depiction is a pernicious lie. Marital affairs bring devastation to a marriage and wreak havoc on the lives of all involved. Affairs are never a source of happiness; at best, they bring fleeting pleasure followed by lasting grief. Knowing this, how can a couple ‘affair-proof’ their marriage? This article is the first in a four-part series addressing that question.

Affairs are never a source of happiness; at best, they bring fleeting pleasure followed by lasting grief.

Of course, affairs are not a modern phenomenon. Given our society’s increasing rejection of marriage as even a social contract (let alone as a sacrament), the incidence of affairs is likely to increase. How prevalent are affairs in our society? Conservative estimates claim that 20 to 25% of Americans will be physically unfaithful to their spouse (Atkins, Baucom, and Jacobson, 2001). However, other estimates (such as from Peggy Vaughn) claim that as high as 60% of all American men and 40% of all American women will have sex with someone who is either not their spouse, or who is married to someone else. What’s pertinent is that American marriages are suffering in great numbers from the temptation of married people to look for fulfillment outside of their vows.

How Affairs Develop

Affairs are not all the same, of course. There are actually two domains of affairs: emotional and physical. While a physical affair is easy to define, an emotional affair is more nuanced. An emotional affair is different from friendships between men and women. Within appropriate friendships there is a clear deference to a person’s marriage. For example, if a husband’s wife were ever to ask him to spend less time with one of his female co-workers with whom he has become friends, the husband’s appropriate response would be to honor his wife’s wishes over his friend’s. If the husband decided to place his female friend’s desires above his wife’s, then there is a good chance that he is involved in an emotional affair.

Is one spouse solely responsible for an affair? It depends on a few factors. If one spouse suffers from sexual addiction, a significant personality disorder, or a difficult mood disorder (e.g. bipolar disorder), then the wounded spouse can usually take some solace in the fact that they played little to no part in the affair’s development. However, for the most part, both spouses share some responsibility (on a psychological level) for the affair’s development, since affairs communicate that there is something deeply amiss within the marriage relationship. Still, let us be clear that the offending spouse has committed a grave sin (i.e. adultery), while the offended spouse has not committed such a sin. That being said, affairs are usually a symptom of the problem within the marriage, but they are rarely the only problem. A couple of examples of deeper problems which are masked by affairs are fear of interpersonal conflict and fear of monotony. For example, some individuals have extreme difficulty dealing with conflict. One spouse may ignore the other whenever conflict begins. The discovery of an affair forces conflict avoidance to the surface within the marriage. Other individuals become bored within their marriages, and seek out an affair in an effort both to excite themselves and to force the spouse to face the boredom they feel.

Affairs are usually a symptom of the problem within the marriage, but they are rarely the only problem.

How do people react when they learn that a spouse has been unfaithful? Research indicates that spouses’ reactions to unfaithfulness are similar to posttraumatic stress disorder. Wounded spouses may experience such symptoms as hyper-vigilance, rapid shifting of emotions, nightmares, and flashbacks to when they discovered the affair. Simply put, discovering an affair is a traumatic experience, and wounded spouses react as such.

Preventing Affairs

How can affairs be prevented? Future articles in this series will address this question more fully, but generally there are two main answers to this question. First, honesty and transparency are required for a healthy relationship that is resistant to affairs. Second, couples need to be able to maintain a high fondness and admiration of each other. While honesty and admiration are scientifically validated as a way to prevent an affair along with having a strong marriage, any Catholic psychologist would be remiss not to factor in sacramental grace as a shield against an affair. An active marital prayer life along with frequent and consistent use of the sacraments helps the spouses to focus less on their own needs, and more on the needs of the other. As such, they grow in virtue and move away from even the affection for sin.

The articles in this series will dive into each of the issues that have been presented within this introductory work. While discussing affairs can be difficult, understanding how affairs develop, how to react to an affair, and ultimately how you can protect your marriage from an affair is crucial. Such a discussion is even more pertinent given our society’s seeming abhorrence not just regarding the sacramentality of marriage, but also its hatred of monogamy. Keep in mind, however, that this series is one of Christian hope. Hope embraces both our brokenness and our redemption, and thus gives us a true realism. Such a realism understands the gravity of an affair, but also believes that a couple can overcome this trauma with the proper help. In the next article of this series, we’ll explore more in-depth why people choose to start an affair, in order to determine ways to prevent them.

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.