Carol and Greg had started out with a good marriage. They were best friends, they had a satisfying sexual relationship, and they had fun times together. The couple enjoyed about three years in this romantic stage, but then they began to drift apart. Drifting apart is the beginning of a pattern that, when combined with other patterns, can lead to infidelity.
Infidelity generally refers to physical involvement with someone other than a spouse, but emotional infidelity (such as online intimacy) can be just as damaging.
Although most people believe that the person who strays is solely responsible for the affair, both partners typically share in creating and maintaining the very common behavior patterns that can lead to infidelity. These are the same patterns that can lead to divorce, so getting help early is crucial.
A combination of the following patterns can signal that your marriage needs help:
1. Drifting apart
Greg started spending long hours at work. Since Greg didn't have time for hiking and biking on the weekends, Carol started watching too much television, which irritated Greg. They both felt annoyed, so they started bickering.
Carol felt like Greg didn't accept her for who she was, and Greg felt misunderstood. They always seemed to be at odds with each other and they no longer felt like best friends.
It's common for couples to get stuck in dysfunctional patterns after the romance wears off and individual issues emerge. At this early stage, some short-term therapy or a class in effective communication or relationship development can help you identify problems and keep moving forward.
2. Avoiding conflict
If partners haven't learned the skills necessary to effectively communicate, they can become frustrated and may overreact during discussions. These overreactions can include yelling, not listening, sitting on one's feelings, or walking out. In an effort to stop these overreactions, partners may avoid having difficult discussions.
When couples don't resolve their conflicts, resentment can build over time.
Greg tried to listen to Carol, but when he tried to talk, she constantly interrupted him. He felt frustrated and overreacted by raising his voice and blaming her. He also felt misunderstood, and their disagreements seemed to go nowhere. Greg began to hold back his true feelings and spend even more time at work to avoid the unpleasant arguments.
Healthy couples learn to tolerate differences of opinion, to take turns listening, and to compromise. When people learn good communication skills, conflicts can actually lead to more closeness.
3. Loss of Romance
Carol and Greg had sex only about once a month, and even then it felt perfunctory. Carol was seldom in the mood for lovemaking and noticed she was beginning to fantasize about other men. She believed Greg didn't care about her, so she began to reject him when he initiated sex.
Greg felt hurt, so he lost interest in buying flowers and thoughtful cards for Carol on special occasions, which reinforced her belief.
At this stage, intimacy is on the decline, and sexual encounters decrease from lack of interest, anger, resentment or rejection. Partners may fantasize about intimacy with other people, and they may sleep in separate beds.
4. Destructive fights
Some partners engage in destructive fighting that includes swearing, name calling, sarcasm, and walking out. These behaviors can create even more disengagement and resentment, and partners begin to dwell on the negative traits of the other and rarely share compliments. Don't wait to seek help if you recognize these patterns — verbal abuse can turn into physical abuse.
5. Secrets and deceptions
Carol had been totally honest with Greg in the past, but now she began keeping secrets. She started looking at men on Internet dating sites, thinking it was a harmless distraction. Then she joined a classmate site and found her old high-school flame, Rick. They met several times for drinks and decided to start an affair.
When partners become disengaged, they stop sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with each other. It's inevitable that a percentage of these people will look elsewhere for sharing and decide to have affairs.
6. Making excuses or rationalizations
Carol, like many who have affairs, had her own set of rationalizations that prevented the marriage from getting back on track. She rationalized to herself that what Greg didn't know wouldn't hurt him and that she was going to end the affair at the end of the year anyway.
She also told herself that because he was away at work so much he was probably having his own affair, so he deserved it if she had something for herself on the side. She thought an affair was better than a divorce because it wouldn't hurt the children.
Carol's excuses were unreasonable: she wasn't certain that Greg was having an affair, and no one deserves to be cheated on; a healthy person finds the strength to finish one relationship before starting another; and researchers have seen that children are negatively affected during an affair because they can sense the tension in the family.
Researchers have shown that people in long-term committed relationships go through stages and that the initial positive intensity eventually decreases as partners struggle to deal with their differences. A real relationship requires partners to learn to cultivate healthy patterns over time as the realities of a long-term committed relationship emerge.
Most people don't realize that an affair is not a real relationship; it has narrowly-defined boundaries and can only go so far. If an affair evolved into a long-term committed relationship, the new couple would still need to deal with their issues as well as the common challenges that are part of real relationships.
If you or your spouse feel stuck with any of the negative behavior patterns above, you can find help through a variety of resources such as community classes, online seminars, therapists, ministers, or excellent books like, "Tell Me No Lies," by Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., and Peter Pearson, Ph.D.
Too many people come to counseling when it's too late to repair the damage, which is why it's crucial to identify unhealthy patterns early on and seek preventive help. By the time Carol and Greg came to me for help, Greg had discovered the affair and wanted a divorce.
Carol hoped to salvage their marriage, and their prognosis was good because they were able to realize that each of them had a part in building their dysfunctional marriage.
While there is no one-size-fits-all remedy when it comes to matters of the heart, partners who have had affairs can get their marriages back on track and learn from their experiences.
Marriage can be a real challenge at times, and it's normal for couples to have several of the above behavior patterns. Don't wait too long to develop the skills and resilience necessary to weather the storms that are a normal part of marriage.
By mastering your challenges, you and your partner can learn to move your relationship to a higher level. It may take some time and effort, but you and your family are worth it.