Could a Marital Affair Happen to You?

Article by Dr. Michael Tobin

In this second article of the Marital Labyrinth series, published simultaneously at Psychology Today, we ask whether a marital affair could happen to you? You can view all articles on the series page.

The Cracks that Lead to a marital affair

A marital crisis doesn’t erupt without warning, nor does it explode without a context. 

A violent, seismic fracture such as an affair may be the shock that cracks the illusion of marital harmony. However, a trained observer would have sensed the small fissures and fault lines that were trembling below the surface: resentments too trivial to acknowledge, a subtle yet growing distance, awkwardness where there once was a flow, decreased sexual desire, etc. 

These unacknowledged cracks were expressed in Kate’s statements: “We almost never fought. Maybe if we did, we would have been closer. At least with conflict, there’s connection.” And: “Dan and I still found some private time, but something was missing.”

We sense from Kate’s remarks that only a few dying embers remained from the heat and passion of their early days. Yet, they did have comfort, a family life, and a degree of affection and warmth. There were no blaring signals of marital discord, no burning resentments, or deep hurts. There were no clear signs that would have indicated that Kate was ready for a marital affair.  Nevertheless, she was, and it behooves us to understand why.  

Assuming the statistics are correct, there is a better than 50% chance that either you or your partner had or will have a marital affair. Yet, when a spouse discovers the deception, the reaction is shock and rage—certainly not, “What do you expect? We’re your average married couple.” 

And if infidelity and marriage are so predictable, then why did 100% of the 1543 respondents to our survey state that monogamy is essential for a stable marriage?  And if so, why will 50% of them turn their back on their principles and risk breaking up their families?

A Self-Test on Marital Intimacy and Trust

To answer these questions, I’d like you to take the following self-test on marital intimacy and trust:

  1. Touching my spouse makes me feel…
  2. Being alone with my spouse makes me feel…
  3. Having sexual relations with my partner makes me feel…
  4. Talking and communicating with my partner makes me feel…
  5. My partner’s encouragement of my personal growth makes me feel…
  6. Seeking comfort from my partner makes me feel…
  7. Kissing my partner makes me feel…
  8. Sitting or lying close to my spouse makes me feel…

SOURCE: K. Daniel O’Leary and Francis Fincham.  “Assessment of Positive Feelings Toward Spouse.”  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1983, Vol. 51, pp. 949-951. Used by permission. 

Trust as the Foundation of Marriage

Without trust there’s no intimacy, which can lead to an increased risk of an affair in your marriage. Trust is what allows you to say, “I love you” on the one hand and “I’m angry at you,” on the other. Safety and trust enable your body to let go and reach heights of passion and pleasure with your partner. 

Trust gives you the courage to tell your partner when you feel disconnected from him, when you feel scared and lonely, and when you want to feel her presence. With trust, you feel confident to expand and grow within your marriage—your partner rejoices at your achievements and supports you as you confront new challenges.  

Trust is built through simple acts of kindness, by commitments made and commitments kept, by appreciations expressed, by consistency in word and deed, by small affections, and by listening without judgment. 

You create trust when you and your partner treat each other with respect and dignity, when you refuse to grant anger and resentment their full destructive powers. Trust finds its well-earned place in your life when you laugh before you condemn, when you accept before you criticize, when you remain silent rather than speak harshly, and when you apologize and forgive before giving in to bitterness and blame. 

Marital Affair Risk Test: How Did You Score?

You may have discovered what you already knew— your relationship needs attention. What you may not have realized is that with the absence of intimacy, an extra-marital affair can become the sweet solution.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and an empty soul is no exception. 

If you discovered some painful reality about your relationship, for now, try sitting with it. Record your inner thoughts and feelings in a diary. Let your mind and hand express whatever you feel.  

Don’t judge yourself. Your feelings are neither right nor wrong. First, seek to understand what you feel. Then try to understand the source of your pain and discomfort. Lastly, acknowledge and respect your feelings, even if you’re not happy with them. You’re now on the road to discovering a solution. In future blogs, we’ll explore how to heal a broken relationship. 

There are no quick fixes in relationships. The profession of psychology is filled with tips and suggestions. They only work when you’re ready to accept them, and you can only accept them when you’ve acknowledged the problem and are prepared to make hard choices. 

Kate’s Answers

(I had her take the test to assess what she thought her attitude was before the affair.)

Read carefully. Her answers reveal her vulnerability for an affair:

  1. Touching Dan makes me feel dishonest. “I am tired of faking affection and pretending to be the loving wife.”
  2. Being with Dan makes me feel lonely. “When we’re alone, I expect we should be close, but it doesn’t happen. I don’t think he even notices.”
  3. Having sexual relations with Dan makes me feel resentful and disconnected.  “It’s about Dan and his pleasure. Never about me.”
  4. Communicating with Dan makes me feel frustrated. “He doesn’t want to listen to what’s bothering me. I don’t know how to convince him that we have problems.”
  5. Dan’s encouragement of my personal growth makes me feel separate from him.  “Dan doesn’t stop me from doing what I want but it feels less like support and more like neglect. I’m out of his hair and he’s happy.”
  6. Seeking comfort from Dan makes me feel depressed and abandoned. “I have to feel desperate to ask Dan for support. It’s an exercise in futility. The only way Dan knows how to give support is by giving advice.” 
  7. Kissing Dan makes me feel like an imposter. “Any expression of intimacy feels like a lie. There’s a wall of bitterness that separates me from him and a kiss doesn’t make it disappear.”
  8. Sitting or lying close to Dan makes me feel desperate. “The closer I am, the more I need, and the more I need, the emptier I feel.”

What can we learn from Kate?

We can learn an important lesson from Kate: Don’t assume that your sense of morality will protect you from the temptation of an affair. The strongest antidote to an extramarital affair is a loving and trusting marriage. A positive and successful marriage results from hard work and commitment.  

A marriage neglected is a marriage about to crack.


Poll Marital Labyrinth Series Poll 2
Is your marriage vulnerable for an affair?
Would the test reveal problems in your relationship?

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