[Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series on how to affair-proof your marriage. Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 can be found here. Look for the final installment next week.]

“He’s a pig.”

“She’s a horrible person who doesn’t care about me or our family.”

These are typical comments made by people who have discovered their spouse has been having an affair. These strong feelings are natural, as people are normally inclined to cast all blame on the spouse who cheated. And in some cases such comments are merited. There are some individuals who are solely to blame for the affair. However, such cases tend to be rare; more commonly, affairs occur for complex reasons. This dichotomy between understandably strong feelings and the reality of situations make discussing why affairs occur one of the more explosive topics that a mental health professional can undertake. Within this article, we’ll take a journey into the dark side of humanity so that, by understanding how and why an affair occurs, you may understand how best to protect your marriage.

Professionals have many theories as to how affairs begin. Some mental health professionals tend to see issues (especially affairs) as cases of male and/or societal oppression towards women. Others maintain that any insinuation that the offended spouse contributed to setting the stage for the affair is akin to blaming the abuse victim for the abuse. Still others see affairs as complex interpersonal and traumatic events where both spouses are responsible for the current state of their marriage. Nonetheless, these latter professionals make it clear that the offending spouse’s actions are intrinsically immoral and inexcusable. Such a viewpoint affirms two points. First, as mentioned before, it focuses attention more on personal responsibility for the marriage instead of casting blame on one person. And second, this viewpoint is authentically Catholic since it believes that affairs are not only psychologically unhealthy, but also theologically immoral.

The Beginning of the Affair: How Affairs Develop          

Affairs (and really all marital issues) originate with the decay of the spouse’s positive interactions and overall positivity towards each other, which John Gottman terms the couple’s Fondness and Admiration System (also known as the couple’s “emotional bank account”). This system is comprised of the spouses’ tendency to focus more or less on their each other’s positive qualities, and thus whether the spouses interpret events and actions within their marriage in a positive or negative light. An example of how to assess a marriage’s emotional bank account is to have the spouses ask themselves how they view their marriage’s past. Are their marital memories filled with positive or negative memories? If either spouse has mainly negative memories, then the emotional bank account is probably low and trouble will ensue (or already has ensued).  When the emotional bank account is low conflict also becomes more profound, couples begin to see each other as a burden rather than a blessing, and the soil for an affair begins to be sown.

If either spouse has mainly negative memories, then the emotional bank account is probably low and trouble will ensue.

Slowly but surely one spouse begins to lose hope in the marriage and starts to think that the only way for them to feel whole again is to look outside of the marriage. In our current times, the offending spouse may look to friends on social media or to a coworker before looking to her spouse for emotional support. She may talk about her spouse, and their marital difficulties, to what she sees as an understanding ear. “Finally,” the offending spouse thinks, “I have found someone who listens, who cares, and who does not constantly point out my faults!” They begin to spend more time together and the offending spouse begins to prefer to spend time with her ‘friend’ rather than her spouse. One of the final steps during this phase leading up to an affair is that the offending spouse will become more and more secretive about her relationship with her ‘friend.’ When that occurs, the offending spouse has made a clear decision to place her ‘friend’ above her spouse. With this action, she has begun the descent into the turbulent waters of an affair.

At this point, the affair may or may not become physical. The offending spouse and her ‘friend’ may simply continue to text and have lunch together on a regular basis. All of which appears innocent enough, but psychologically the offending spouse has already replaced her spouse with another person. Such an affair is what I term the “Scarlett O’Hara Affair” (or an emotional affair). The spouse is technically not cheating in the stereotypical sense, but she is not being faithful to her spouse either. Whether or not the affair crosses a physical line, the offended spouse will still feel traumatized by the intimate relationship his spouse has with another person.

When Affairs Are Discovered

The affair maintains itself both by the offending spouse convincing herself that the affair is both for her own benefit and, interestingly enough, for the benefit of her family. Since the offending spouse now has someone who “finally understands,” the overt conflict within the marriage may actually decrease. Thus the offending spouse will convince herself that since the overt conflict (i.e. yelling, screaming, and contemptuous remarks) has ended, the children are “better off,” since she and their father are no longer fighting. However, as previously mentioned, most offending spouses do not cover their tracks very well since many of them unconsciously desire to be caught. The affair is a symptom of marital decay, and the spouse is normally using it to try and force certain unresolved issues between the spouses to the surface to be dealt with.

Once the affair is discovered, the offended spouse’s reaction is akin to those suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Such reactions as emotional dysregulation, dissociation, and hypervigilance are not uncommon when discovering an affair. Many spouses are unable to get the moment when they discovered the affair out of their minds. In order to effectively heal from the affair and its fallout, when both spouses are ready (i.e. when the offending spouse has ceased the affair, and the offended spouse believes her), the best option is to begin marital therapy, particularly with a committed Catholic therapist since he will not recommend divorce as an option for treatment.

The affair is a symptom of marital decay, and the spouse is normally using it to try and force certain unresolved issues between the spouses to the surface to be dealt with.

Everyone has a theory about why and how affairs begin; therefore, discussing this topic usually angers and divides people. The reason for this is that individuals tend to dislike complexity when they are wounded, for they desire to find, blame, and punish a clear culprit. We do not enjoy admitting that we played a part in the decay of anything. For example, people would rather turn to bitterness and spite rather than accept any responsibility for the state of their marriage. As mentioned earlier in this article, there are some instances where one spouse is solely responsible for the marriage state. Let us be clear, this article is not meant to blame the victim. Rather, this article is meant to call us to examine our own role in our own lives, and to recognize that we have the free will to make choices each and every day. Even when that means that we made a poor choice in selecting a spouse. Stay tuned for the final part of this series where we will discuss concrete methods that spouses can use to strengthen their marriages.