Mark and Barbara Peterson (names have been changed) met during freshman year of college. Her blend of warmth and spontaneity was a perfect match for his nerdy, self-deprecating personality.
It was the first serious relationship for both of them, and they fell quickly in love. Exactly two years after they met, Mark proposed, and they were married six months before graduation.
Barbara worked as a secretary in Boston to support the couple while Mark was in law school. His career as a tax lawyer took off, and they had two daughters. Theirs was a storybook marriage — or at least it started out that way.
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Trouble in Paradise
Thirty-five years after their initial kiss, Mark and Barbara, now in their mid-50s, were in my office to talk about a major marital crisis. Barbara spoke first. She wasn’t angry, she wasn’t sad. She was committed to Mark, but had always worried that his lack of self confidence would make him vulnerable to other women’s advances. She held her head high and calmly announced, "Mark is having an affair, and we need to fix this."
Four years earlier, he had developed an infatuation with one of his paralegals, Lydia. Mark, who grew up in a Jewish community on Long Island, found this Colombian beauty exotic and tantalizing. He went to great efforts to befriend her and spend as much time as possible with her at work, plus he bought her gifts behind his wife’s back. While he felt a sexual attraction to her, to his way of thinking, he wasn't doing anything "wrong." They were just enjoying a "close friendship."
But when Barbara witnessed their interactions at a staff holiday party, she was alarmed at their familiarity. She confronted Mark, who acknowledged this secret friendship and assured his wife he would put an end to it then and there.
For a while things returned to a normal working relationship, but passions are hard to quell, and Mark began to seek Lydia's company again. It wasn’t long before he was head-over-heels obsessed and having a hard time suppressing his sexual desire.
When Mark first met Lydia, a single mom, his feelings set a chain of events into motion, but neither he nor his wife knew what to do about it. If at that moment they had understood why infidelity happens and what to do about it, they probably wouldn’t have landed in the crisis situation they found themselves in.
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What, Exactly, Constitutes Cheating?
Most of us would agree that when a married person has sex outside of the marriage, that’s infidelity. But is it an affair if a person simply holds hands with a non-spouse friend or enjoys intimate conversations online? One of the reasons that Mark never ended the “affair” the first time around is that he didn’t recognize it for what it was: a violation of his marriage vows.
Mark assumed that since sex hadn't happened, he hadn’t done anything wrong. Sure, he would stay in the office late at night, hold hands with Lydia and occasionally kiss her, but that’s where he drew the line. As he put it, “I never had the confidence.” But like many other spouses in similar situations, Barbara felt uncomfortable.
In reality, affairs can and do happen without sex being involved. How do you know if a close friendship crosses the line? First ask yourself: Is that friend someone you are or might be sexually attracted to? Does he or she have the body type and personality of someone you could find appealing? Second, do you find yourself wanting to spend more and more time with that person? Third, are you sharing intimate stories of your life or your emotions? Fourth — and the biggest red flag: Are you keeping your interactions with that person a secret from your spouse?
If you answered yes to two or more of those of questions, you may well be involved in an emotional affair. That’s what happened to Mark, even though he didn’t see it that way. But the impact of emotional affairs can be just as devastating as physical ones. Some studies suggest that women may be more upset by the development of a husband’s emotional affair than of a sexual liaison.
(MORE: Relationship Rescue: Bouncing Back From Infidelity)
Why Does Infidelity Happen?
Affairs happen more than most people might realize. Estimates suggest they occur in 40 percent of American marriages. Growing older isn’t a safeguard. The age group with the highest lifetime prevalence of affairs are people in their 60s, a reflection, no doubt of the era they lived in and the length of their lives.
Most indiscretions aren’t the result of someone looking for a hook-up or because of “problems in the marriage.” Every marriage has problems. In the Petersons' case, one big issue was that Mark was feeling like less of a priority in Barbara's life.
While nearly half of all marriages will be rocked by infidelity, many can recover — and even be stronger as a result. The real challenge is using this crisis to determine whether the marriage has a solid enough foundation to survive. Often this requires that couples enter individual and/or marriage counseling to determine whether they should work on the relationship or consider separating.
Genetically speaking, human beings may not be predisposed to monogamy. Only about 5 percent of all vertebrates stick with one partner over a lifetime. Psychologically, there are many reasons people stray. We look to our mates to fulfill certain needs, from appreciating our jokes to being satisfying sex partners. When our spouse can’t or won’t fill those needs — which is not uncommon given the vast number of spoken and unspoken needs that each of us has — we can be drawn to others who can.
In Mark’s case, he had always felt left out and unattractive as a teenager and young adult. While he was able to enjoy a positive sexual relationship with Barbara, as the children grew, he began to feel less of a priority in her life. Now that he was a successful attorney, his paralegal’s attention made him feel desirable. That he found her sexy only made matters worse.
Simple brain biology can help explain how affairs ignite. When you become infatuated with someone, your hormones and brain chemicals shift in ways that the conscious mind is unaware of. Surges in norepinephrine causes flushing and shortness of breath, and declines in serotonin make you more obsessive and anxious. On top of that, infatuation raises levels of dopamine, the brain chemical responsible for crack and heroin addiction.
In many cases of infidelity, a habit-forming storm of neurotransmitters brings you back to the object of your affair in a way that can seem out of control. Like a moth to a candle, this flame addiction often contributes to the I-know-I-shouldn’t-do-this-but-I-am-doing-it-anyway unfaithful acts.
Mark’s story is a perfect example of this. Because of his initial attraction to Lydia, his infatuation grew over the months and years he spent in her presence. Like the addict seeking a fix, he could think of nothing else until the intensity of his obsession reached the point of potentially destroying his marriage. Though they never met outside of work settings (office, parties), they did kiss and engaged in light petting. It wasn't a sexual affair, but it was clearly an emotional one.
An Infidelity Action Plan
Barbara and Mark had invested 30 years together; now they were at a crossroads. Like many people confronting infidelity, they wondered whether their marriage could survive such trauma. As I told them in my office, the answer is an emphatic yes — but they’d need to take active steps to make that happen.
All marriages are different, but there are certain universal rules for recovering from indiscretion. First, the cheating partner must end the affair. It can’t be “downgraded” to a friendship. It can’t be put on hold until the couple goes through marriage counseling, and it can’t be maintained on the side. A formal declaration of “I can no longer see you” needs to come out of the mouth (or the email) of the partner who strayed, ideally in front of the other spouse. After all, moving on from an affair entails building bridges between you and your spouse and tearing down links between you and your inamorata. Now you and your spouse are a team, and teams do things together.
The next step is breaking off all further communication. That means striking the person off all “friends” lists, blocking phone and text contacts and even, if necessary, changing your phone number. When you work with the object of your infatuation, cutting things off can get complicated. Following Mark’s decision, Lydia transferred to a different division of the practice — but it wasn’t a smooth process.
Recovery from an affair also requires complete transparency in all future activities (including your digital life). The more a cheater hides his or her activity, the more it fosters suspicion and tension in the marriage. Someone who can check texts, voicemails and emails will get the clear message that his or her partner has nothing to hide. In some cases, such transparency is the only thing that can rebuild trust.
The final step in the healing process is directly addressing the affair. By spending time talking, a couple can often come to understand some of the unmet needs that contributed to the infidelity and work together to find ways to approach and satisfy these needs as a team.
It’s a pretty rotten thing to be hurt because a partner had intimate relations with someone else. Not only do betrayed spouses deserve to have all of their questions answered, but they also need to have the intensity of their emotions validated. Once the cheater can understand the spouse’s pain, then a proper and heartfelt apology must be offered — and eventually accepted — for the relationship to move forward.
(MORE: Relationship Rescue: The Art of Apologizing)
This process of recovering from infidelity doesn’t take place overnight. Without help, Barbara’s and Mark’s situation dragged on for more than four years. But once Mark was able to escape from the thrall of his flame addiction, engage in open conversations and recognize and validate Barbara’s feelings, he was able to channel his energies back into the marriage. It took awhile for Barbara to let her guard down. But now, five years since Lydia left the picture, the Petersons’ marriage is going strong. “Besides,” Mark recently commented, “who’s got time to think about affairs? I have the grandchildren!”