Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Are You Vulnerable to an Affair? Part II: Marital Vulnerability

While marriages don't cause affairs they can certainly make one or both parties vulnerable. The crisis of infidelity provides a unique opportunity to take a deeper look into marital interactions that may have caused instability. Allow me to repeat that no matter how rough your marriage may be, marriages neither cause nor excuse infidelity. In fact, not all unfaithful spouses report being dissatisfied in their marriages. At most, marriages can only take about 1/3 of the responsibility for an affair. Therefore, since marriages can’t take 100% responsibility for an affair, improving your marriage isn’t all it takes to prevent a repeat performance.

This week I’ll explore some of the common marital issues that seem to be present with infidelity. I hope to help you identify relational issues that might be making your marriage vulnerable. This is in no way a justification for betrayal. Even in difficult situations those of us who’ve been unfaithful still have choices and have to take responsibility for our behaviour. There are two people in every unstable marriage, and typically only one of them is unfaithful. As I said in last week’s newsletter, my goal is not to place blame, but to allow you to recognize where you may be vulnerable so that you can make better choices. Neither spouse is off the hook here. Discovering a life of meaning and purpose will take individual work on both your parts and joint effort in repairing and improving your marriage.

Although quite lengthy, the following list is in no way exhaustive, but hopefully it will give you a start. Just like last week, there’s an inventory at the end of this newsletter that will help you determine your level of vulnerability.

The Child-Centred Marriage

Marriage begins with a husband and wife, which creates what we call the marital subsystem. As the author of Genesis stated long ago: That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”1 (Gen 2:24-25) In that initial state of marriage the man and woman were able to fully offer themselves to one another with no doubts and no interference. When children come along new roles are introduced, not only are we husband and wife, but now mom and dad.

The second law of thermodynamics states that you can never get more out of a system than you put into it. In fact you can’t even get as much out of a system as you put into it. Take a Bunsen burner heating a beaker of water; you can’t get a one to one exchange of energy from that Bunsen burner to the water. Some of that heat is going to escape. The second law of thermodynamics holds true to the marital subsystem: you can never get more out of a marriage than you put into it; you can’t even get as much out of a marriage as you put into it.

Don’t go confusing family with marriage; they are not the same thing. Families represent both the marital subsystem and the parental subsystem and the task of those two entities are vastly different. For a strong a marriage to exist, ongoing effort (energy) has to be put into the marriage to keep it alive. Failure to make substantial investment in the marital subsystem (husband and wife) causes the marriage to disintegrate and the ensuing loss of connection leaves the marriage at risk.

Parental Crisis

At times children can actually create the circumstances that make a marriage vulnerable. If a child is acting out and mom and dad have a different choice of response then the marriage can be placed at risk. Contempt often comes into play when there is a difference of opinion over an issue of extreme importance to both husband and wife. Children are one of the few factors that both mom and dad will die for and that passion can create a massive dilemma for one or both partners.

Contempt causes devaluation. We can’t understand how the person we’re married to can be so blind and not see how this needs to be handled. We judge the fact that they don’t see things as we do as inadequacy and that devaluation creates the vulnerability.

For marriages to remain strong we have to maintain an attitude of respect and feel fortunate to be with our mate. Failure to do so can leave either party vulnerable to others who validate us by sharing our ideas and opinions. We naturally feel what irritates us, but we have to actively look for what we appreciate about our mate. If you and your mate can’t pull together in handling a difficult child (or whatever the issue causing contempt may be) then get an outside party to help you get on the same page. Don’t let differences in the parental subsystem make you vulnerable to inappropriate outside support.

The Unskilled Marriage

John Gottman has spent years researching what causes marriages to succeed or fail.2 Most marriages could be very satisfying if both parties knew how to relate to one another, but unfortunately we remain clueless. For marriages to thrive husbands and wives need to affirm one another, they need to simply respond to one another when the other one speaks. They have to learn how to keep conversations from becoming too negative and they need to learn how to stay positive even in negative situations.

Many couples develop destructive patterns of interaction that inhibit their ability to connect. For some, pride kicks in and they refuse to listen to their mate’s opinion because they have to be right. Others go from zero to sixty when addressing irritations and have little regard for their mate. Some couple’s have little margin for differences and falsely believe a differing opinion is proof of growing disconnection. Others flood and then stonewall their mate while trying to calm down; leaving the impression they don’t even care for their mate. And the list goes on. Poor marital and relational skills leave both parties feeling disconnected and the marriage vulnerable. What’s sad is that poor marital skills can be easily corrected if both parties are willing. All it takes is a willingness to get outside help to learn the necessary skills.

The Inflexible Marriage

Life is full of transitions and failure to navigate these critical points in time leaves marriages vulnerable. When we first get married we consciously or unconsciously create a marital map of who is responsible for what and how things will be done. But the division of labor negotiated by a newlywed couple doesn’t necessarily work with the birth of the first child. With the introduction of a child and increased demands the initial marriage map has to be adapted. Inflexible marriages struggle with adapting to change.

Almost all marriages experience the following points of transition: the birth of the child, the birth the second child, when children leave for school, adolescence, children leaving home, and the empty nest. Each one of these life transitions requires adjustments to their marital map.

Healthy marriages adjust to the ever-changing landscape of life through the use of negotiation and compromise. Rigidity and a refusal to change creates a brittle system which will eventually stop working for someone and increase marital vulnerability.

The Unstable Marriage

This is one of the patterns that left my own marriage vulnerable. It was certainly no excuse for what I did, but addressing this pattern would have decreased my vulnerability.

Much of the communication between husband and wife is about someone (or something) besides themselves. If Stephanie and I are talking about a person we both like then there’s no problem because our perceptions of that person are similar and we’ll both feel supported by each other.

If Stephanie and I are talking about someone neither of us like we can talk all day about that person and still feel connected because we both agree.

But if Stephanie says something negative about someone I feel positive about a potential problem arises. Since I like Stephanie and I like the other person I can feel torn as to how to respond. The temptation will be to support the other party and to disagree with Stephanie’s opinion. In the conversations involving another person my defensiveness on their behalf will result in her feeling I’m being disloyal to her and that I don’t take her side.

A marriage where one partner is consistently contradicting their mate’s opinion creates an unstable marital system and leaves the other party feeling unsupported. It’s natural for us to have differing perspectives, but loyalty to our mate requires tolerating their perspective without correcting. Tolerance is about accepting another person in spite of our differences; it doesn’t mean we have to agree with their opinion. My constant correction did nothing but invalidate Stephanie and destabilize our marriage. It also left her feeling that I never took her side. I had to learn it was more important to support her and let her have her opinion than it was to defend someone else who wasn’t nearly as important as my wife.

The Sexually Embattled Marriage

The sexual differences between men and women are far wider than most couples understand. Assuming your mate’s motivations for being sexual are the same as your own is a recipe for disaster. Unwillingness to get help in addressing sexual issues leaves couples extremely vulnerable. If two-thirds of all marital problems are unsolvable then we’re only going to see things the same way about one-third of the time. Bludgeoning your mate or cutting your mate off to get them to see things your way will only drive you farther apart. If either party feels misunderstood or uncared for in the sexual arena then there is additional vulnerability. Refusing to address the issue only makes matters worse. Get the necessary help for the two of you to find new motivations for being sexual and to find new ways to be physically intimate.

The Intimacy Avoidance Marriage

Two-thirds of the time intimacy in marriage will create short-term instability. Intimacy is a willingness to be authentic and let your mate know who you are and what you’re doing. It’s also a willingness to explore the deep mysteries of your mate’s life. Once married, the illusion that we’re the same is shattered quickly. Couples often believe intimacy is about closeness, but that’s a misnomer. Closeness is just a pseudo-intimacy where one or both parties have to compromise who God made them to be in order to maintain the illusion that we see things the same way.

Inauthenticity in marriage prevents growth and leads to resentment. Those in healthy marriages are able to be honest about who they are and what they’ve done because they have enough integrity to fully and freely offer themselves to their mate. While that level of honesty may create short term instability when differences and disappointments occur, intimacy creates deeper levels of connection, increasing marital satisfaction and reducing marital vulnerability.

Here’s a hypothetical situation to help explain intimacy. If I were to be intimate with Stephanie and tell her I used a pornography website, do you think my honesty with Stephanie will make us close in that moment? Absolutely not, but when things calm down and she still chooses to be with me and love me our marriage is stronger than ever. I now know that she loves me unconditionally for who I am rather than for who she thinks I am. My honesty with her, even when I know it’s something she doesn’t want to hear, leaves her feeling more secure because she’s knows I’m going to be real and authentic with her.

When couples avoid intimacy marriages begin to atrophy. It feels as if we’re just roommates sharing living quarters. Real marriages require real people. Shallow marriages with little or no intimacy are far more vulnerable.

The Imbalanced Marriage

Marital imbalance comes in many forms. One form is underinvestment verses over-investment. If one party invests far more into the marriage and the running of the family then the underinvested partner is more vulnerable. Their lack of investment makes the marriage and family seem less valuable and makes it easier to consider walking away from the marriage. Underinvested partners have a tendency to be absent, doing what they want with little thought to the burden placed on their mate. This pattern can leave the invested partner feeling abandoned by their mate. The over-invested partner places a much higher value in the marriage and family, leaving them less vulnerable to giving up on what they’ve worked so hard to create.

Some marriages suffer from a parent-child type of relationship. This marriage has an extreme power imbalance and leaves one party feeling disrespected and powerless. Being treated like a child results in that person feeling devalued and like they don’t matter to their mate. In this type of relationship the dissatisfaction leaves both partners vulnerable.

The Broken Marriage

When relational bonds are broken by misunderstandings, differences, failures and self-centeredness those bonds need to be repaired. All marriages experience good times as well as bad. With two-thirds of all marital problems being unsolvable, it’s inevitable that we’ll experience disappointment. There will also be times when our words and actions will wound our mate. It’s not these wounds that create marital vulnerability; it’s our inability to reconnect after the damage occurs.

Good marriages accept that there will be woundings and withdrawals, and they take responsibility to keep those wounds clean and to keep putting effort (energy) into their marriage. They know how to repair the hurts in their relationship and refuse to allow failures to drive them apart.

Quiz: Relationship Vulnerability Map3

This week I want to use another of Shirley Glass’s vulnerability tests. There’s no way to predict with certainty whether a specific couple is “affair-proof.” Responding to the statements below will help identify relationship vulnerabilities that make marriages susceptible. If you and your mate have experienced infidelity and are doing this together I’d suggest an additional step. Both of you fill out the vulnerability map as you remember your marriage prior to the affair then tally your scores. Then both of you complete the vulnerability map as you perceive your marriage today and tally your scores. Hopefully you’ll find that you’ve reduced your vulnerability as a result of your work together. If not it will help you identify areas for improvement.

Directions: Circle the appropriate number to the left of each statement:

1 = No, disagree completely 

2 = Yes, agree somewhat

3 = Yes, agree completely

NA = Not applicable, award zero points

NA

1

2

3

     1.  We had problems trusting each other before we got married.

NA

1

2

3

     2.  Our marriage revolves around our children. Or (for childless couples) we disagree on whether or not to have children.

NA

1

2

3

     3.  My partner spends too much time away from home.

NA

1

2

3

     4.  My partner rarely takes my side in anything.

NA

1

2

3

     5.  We’ve grown apart.

NA

1

2

3

     6.  I have felt alone and unsupported at times of loss or crises.

NA

1

2

3

     7.  We don’t have equal input for important decisions.

NA

1

2

3

     8.  We argue about the frequency of sex.

NA

1

2

3

     9.  Our interactions feel more like a parent-child relationship than one between equals.

NA

1

2

3

    10.  We are uncomfortable about exposing our inner selves to each other.

NA

1

2

3

    11.  We sweep things under the rug, so we hardly ever fight.

NA

1

2

3

    12.  There’s a disparity in how invested we are in the relationship.

NA

1

2

3

    13.  I feel I can’t influence my partner to do what I request.

NA

1

2

3

    14.  I don’t know if I really love my partner.

NA

1

2

3

    15.  We don’t know how to repair after a conflict.

NA

1

2

3

    16.  We don’t have much in common.

Excerpt From: Shirley P. Glass, PH.D. “NOT Just Friends.”

Scoring Key:

Add up your total number of points to interpret your relational vulnerability score.

Your marriage is in:

16-20: A safe harbour

21-29: Choppy waters

30-39: Rough seas

40-48: Watch out! You’re headed for the rocks.

In no way is this an exhaustive list of the marital patterns which increase marital vulnerabilities, but I hope it gives you at least a few things to consider as you move forward. I’ve never met a couple who said they were doing the best they could do in their marriage; there’s always room for improvement. If you have any of the above mentioned vulnerabilities please don’t panic. Your marriage is not doomed and none of these issues are an excuse to leave the marriage. This is intended to serve as an elementary guide to issues you will want to repair to reduce the vulnerability for infidelity. Tragically most couples seek help years later then they should have. It’s never too late to learn how to improve your relationship and rekindle desire. Finally, as I’ve said before, marriage problems aren’t responsible for choices, but improving how we do marriage can certainly help us learn to better love one another and appreciate what we have in our relationship.

 

1.       The English Standard Version Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002. Print.

2.       Gottman, John and Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Harmony, 2000. eBook.

3.       Glass, Shirley P. and Jean Coppock Staeheli. NOT “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity. New York: Free Press, 2003. iBook.

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Comments

I enjoy reading what I find

I enjoy reading what I find in your writings. Although this time I had to ask myself a question. My husband has left us nearly two years ago, and I come help but think of myself as I read the part on intimacy and closeness. But the question that I have is, now that I've made some mistakes and he is no longer with me, how can I make sure I never do the same mistakes over again? How can I get better or do better if I'm not given the chance?

Be careful of your gut instinct though

One thing to note, my wife and I almost always agreed in our perceptions about other people. Except in a couple of cases where she liked a person or saw traits in them where I did not.

I am sure this isn't universally true (sheesh, I hope not), but in retrospect several of those cases where we differed my wife had either taken that person as an affair parter or soon would.

So my subconscious mind was clued in on something wrong about her relationship with these guys way before I consciously knew she was having an affair with them.

unresolved sexuality & attachment issues from youth

There's one more that seems to make people (particularly women) vulnerable to an affair.

In my case, my wife had unresolved issues related to her need for attachment. As too many young women do, she gave her body in exchange for attention, believing sex meant love and attachment or even as a reward for affection from men.

When she didn't get all the marital attention she thought she deserved, then she found someone who gave her what she wanted.

The sad part is that having an affair has cost her to lose everything else...including her self respect.

recovery from being cheated on

its the most painful thing i've ever had to live through and it killed the person i was and i hate him for that so hope this helps me in any way possible

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