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

Are You Vulnerable to an Affair?

Are You Vulnerable to an Affair? A Three Part Series

Part 1: Are You Vulnerable to an Affair?
Part 2: Marital Vulnerability
Part 3: Individual Vulnerability

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Are you aware of what made you or your marriage vulnerable to an affair? No, it wasn't a bad marriage that caused the infidelity, if that's what you think an answer would be.

As you can imagine, trying to predict infidelity can be a crapshoot, but over the last four decades, I've seen data and information which can help us understand what has created significant vulnerability to the marriage and/or to the unfaithful spouse.

For years I've been writing about how to recover from the impact of infidelity. Our mission is to help those impacted by infidelity find extraordinary lives of meaning and purpose. In doing so, we've been standing at the bottom of a cliff trying to catch those who've fallen off. Years ago one of my mentors, Dr. Suzanne Pope, challenged me that playing catch was okay, but how much better would it be if we could build a fence at the top of the cliff to keep people from falling off?

I couldn't agree more, but how is that done?

Three Specific Areas

There are three areas we need to explore if we want to eliminate the risk of infidelity.

Over the next few weeks, we'll present a series of articles to help you evaluate your risk factors. Once again I want to stress that BAD MARRIAGES DON'T CAUSE AFFAIRS, but that's not to say marriages don't contribute to being vulnerable to an affair.

Past wounds and hurts don't cause affairs, but they can contribute to making us vulnerable. Our circumstances don't force us into cheating on our mate, but they can certainly create circumstances which provide opportunity. To prevent infidelity, it's essential to explore relational, individual, and social factors which make us vulnerable. Successfully addressing these risk factors not only provides the possibility of preventing an affair but also of building a stronger marriage.

Before you panic, these risk factors in no way predict whether someone will be unfaithful, they simply reveal vulnerabilities that are present in some who are unfaithful. Let me say again: these vulnerabilities do not excuse or justify an affair; there are many with similar circumstances who are not unfaithful. My primary goal is to help you realize that you may be susceptible so that you don't put yourself in dangerous situations.

I'm inclined to believe that the vast majority of us meant our vows with all our hearts on our wedding day. What trips us up is remaining blind to our vulnerabilities and believing we can handle situations that we shouldn't even be in. It's important to understand that an affair can happen to you.

You're not likely to protect your marriage if you don't believe there is any danger.

Most of us truly intend to be faithful, but social factors have a way chipping away at our commitment and leaving us vulnerable. As a culture we claim to value monogamy, but at the same time, media glorifies those having affairs. If nothing else, those mixed messages can make commitment seem optional, especially when the going is tough and life isn't producing the expected fulfillment. The simple fact that every movie or popular novel normalizes infidelity can give proverbial permission to stray. Like it or not, what we watch, read or listen to can increase vulnerability. (If you don't believe me, read about Albert Bandura's Social Learning Theory1 and the now famous Bobo doll experiment.2)

  1. Bad Company Corrupts Good Morals
  2. This concept may cause a stir for some, but it is true that being around others who have been unfaithful or are currently involved in an affair increases vulnerability. Bram Buunk and Arnold Bakker found that people are more influenced by their own perception that persons of equal status are willing to engage in infidelity than by the perception that others will disapprove.3

    The old saying that misery loves company still holds true today. Whether it is in the work place, a locker room or the grocery store, tales are being told about exciting extramarital encounters. Not only that, but others are encouraged to take the plunge. Surrounding yourself with this behavior normalizes infidelity and makes it seems like it's "not that big of a deal" or that everybody is doing it. Placing yourself in the company of others who have strayed only makes a fall more likely.

  3. Opportunity
  4. Technology in today's world profoundly increases vulnerability for infidelity. From privacy afforded by password protected devices and accounts to the supposed anonymity provided by the internet, living a secret life has never been easier. When behaviors are visible, people are far less likely to do something that would embarrass them or hurt others.

    Business also creates vulnerability. Some researchers have found that around half of participants who were unfaithful and who sought marriage therapy had met their affair partner through work.4 In days of old, men and women were largely segregated at work. Today, women are taking the corporate world by storm, providing ample opportunity for interaction with others who could potentially catch your fancy.

    Company policies can also increase social vulnerability. For example, many companies sponsor events for their teams which exclude spouses. In most companies it is common practice to pair men and women together for travel. In a world of equality it would be discriminatory not to send the most qualified people, but working side by side with others of the opposite sex creates opportunity, thereby increasing vulnerability.

  5. The family legacy
  6. The family tree produces yet another area of vulnerability. Research shows a generational correlation between parents' infidelity or fidelity and their adult children's behavior. Research shows that patterns of infidelity have been documented across the generations of a single family. Over the course of marital therapy for infidelity, 90 percent of Bonnie Eaker Weil's patients found that at least one partner was the adult child of an adulterer—sometimes involving four generations.5 Affairs are more likely to occur among those whose parents had affairs.6

    It's not uncommon for those who betray to come from families which were also impacted by infidelity. Carol Ellison's research with over 2,000 women found a definite link between parental affairs and extramarital sexual permissiveness. Of the affair-prone women she studied, 13 percent had 5 or more affairs. Many of them had grown up in an environment where a parent or a parental figure had engaged in affairs.7

    Multigenerational family trees often show consistent patterns of infidelity or monogamy. One study based on an analysis of twelve couples found that each family had a unique pattern, ranging from virtually no affairs in the entire family to multiple affairs in all three generations.8

    That's not to say if someone is from a non-monogamous family that they are destined to cheat, but understanding the vulnerability hopefully will spur them on to greater caution. Forewarned is forearmed.

    I like the Vulnerability Maps created by Shirley P. Glass. PhD.8 Each week in this series I'll include her test (with some of my own adaptations) to allow you to determine your vulnerability.

Quiz: Social Vulnerability Map8

There's no way to predict with certainty whether a specific individual is going to be unfaithful. Responding to the statements in the quiz below will help identify the influence of your social environment. Rate these social-cultural influences that increase individual vulnerability to extramarital involvement.

If you find yourself in the toxic air zone, that in no way means you're going to fail, but it should alert you to possible danger and serve as a warning to be careful. Doctors can tell their patients who have heart disease that if they don't change their lifestyle a heart attack is likely. Sadly, that warning rarely produces the necessary motivation for lifestyle change. Instead, change comes after the heart attack. Infidelity is no different. If your score indicates vulnerability, I hope you won't wait until you've hurt those you love. Now is the time to make the change and to protect your marriage.

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  1. Grusec, Joan. "Social Learning Theory and Developmental Psychology: The Legacies of Robert Sears and Albert Bandura." Developmental Psychology. 28.5 (1992): 776-786. PDF.
  2. Green, Christopher. "Transmission of Aggression Through Imitation of Aggressive Models." Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 63 (1997): 575-582. PDF.
  3. Buunk, Bram and Arnold Bakker. "Extradyadic Sex: The Role of Descriptive and Injunctive Norms." Journal of Sex Research. 32.4 (1995): 313-318. Print.
  4. Wiggins, James and Doris Lederer. "Differential Antecedents of Infidelity in Marriage." American Mental Health Counselors Association Journal. 6.4 (1984): 152-161. Print.
  5. Weil, Bonnie Eaker. Adultery: The Forgivable Sin. New York: Waterside Publications, 2003. Print.
  6. Brown, Emily. Patterns of Infidelity of Their Treatment. Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge, 2001. Print.
  7. Ellison, Carol. Women's Sexualities. Oakland: New Harbinger, 2000. Print.
  8. 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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Difficult Read

This article was difficult for me to read because I've spent many months after my ex-wife's affair telling myself, trying to convince myself, that there was nothing I could have done to change what happened. I still believe that I can't change another's actions and decisions. I suppose seeing the warning signs spelled out for me is helpful for future reference, but (as in my ex-wife's case) stubborn persistence of one individual will win out over the reasoning of others.

I guess I still have some healing to do after the events and that's why it was difficult to read. This is still a great article, just not applicable to my current situation :-).

my wife will read this..

and say "See, I was vulnerable", partially using it as some justification in the why it happened. I realize the post is not condoning or offering an excuse, but some will use it as a way to make themselves feel better.
In the end, YES...all those factors make someone vulnerable, but it was still my wife making a concious decision to put herself in a vulnerable position, knowing she was in a dangerous position and staying in it, deciding to let it grow, allowing him to encroach on our family, secretly plotting with her AP to meet, emailing nudes photos and then finally deciding to sleep with him.
All the vulnerability in the world does not offset her actions and decisions and to be honest....I'm digusted every time I think about it. I'm just hiding that feeling, hoping that I eventually feel better. I know that's not healthy, but my only other option is to leave her and be rid of this feeling....and I'm closer to that than she may ever realize.

I agree

I am in the same place you find yourself right now - and I feel the same way. She still (after 15 months since discovered) blames my emotional distance for causing her "numbness" which "allowed" her to enter into an affair with a co-worker. After 15 months, in my case, the shock of the entire thing is wearing off and I, too am feeling numb and have begun to once again feel emotionally distant. I can't help how I feel and I understand that this climate in our marriage may very well "allow" her to feel numb again and repeat the same behavior. She doesn't understand I need time to heal from this and wants me to just get over it and move on - which would be great if I could. There are many days recently I would have gladly given up and walked away if I thought for one minute it would make the pain go away. I hope things work out for you, my friend.

You were never to blame

Can I just say that any excuse that is given to you that you somehow caused an affair by your behavior is not true. It’s a cheaters way of deflecting and avoiding the mirror they have to look into.

Everyone has moments and times in their lives that are pivotal, challenging and perhaps not as they would expect it to but you almost always have the capacity all the time to choose the right path.

In affairs cheaters chose the easy/wrong path and blame other for their choices.

In recovery if they are still saying it was because you were ‘numb’ they also are choosing that path of complete denial. It was not because you were numb it was because they have some part of them that is flawed and needs fixing. I hope they figure that out because if they don’t anytime something is not happening as they would expect they run the potential act out again. Maybe not cheat but it will express itself in some form.

Too late, deed is done

My husband's score is 11 and that is because I can't say if his siblings will support him I was in denial. He was always amused by his friends who had affair partners with them when we met. He was convinced that his step mum had no ill will towards his mum affair with his dad which produced him. He made it clear that it was a woman's prerogative to forgive infidelity because she is the one alone who keeps the home. Still swore never to cheat or be polygamous like his dad. In time he let down his guards and would drool over naked female actors on TV .
The affair was a matter of time.
Again, Mr . Reynolds you score a bull's eye on this.

i took test twice

This was a really helpful article. I am 3-4 months out from taking online marriage course and took from perspective of before and after my affairs- and I was toxic before and high smog end now. There have been a lot of changes for me... Mostly in how I choose to see my spouse, see myself, and the possibility of a future for us now. I was so wrapped up in my own shame and anger that I was unable to assume guilt and repent to move forward into forgiveness... so glad I had the DVDs and my journal notes from all the classes. If I get lost in the false identity I can't embrace HOPE and TRUTH.... which is the redemption of the cross, it's about HIM (totally different focus, not about me at all). Allows me to forgive myself for my shortcomings and my spouse for any perceived shortcomings over our years together as well so that we may enter into a fully restored relationship together.

Vulnerability quiz my opinion

Hello I am the betrayed and I read your most recent article and took the quiz "Are you vulnerable of having an affair." I agree with with your three topics. I think my soon to be ex was very vulnerable. He had a very unhealthy relationship within himself, very insecure . He has the family history and had no male close friendships at all. He was pretty much a loner. He was a triathlete always trained alone. I believed by winning races and the accolades of success gave him the confidence within himself but he really had no social skills. His job was a truck driver being on the road long hours alone. He was molested as a child and never tried to resolve those issue and tried to bury but I look back in our marriage and see clearly now how he was. I have always felt bad for him, I see now he has always been or plays the victim. He comes from a family of infidelity. I tool your quiz to just see if I would be vulnerable. I believe I'm not I'have a healthy relationship with myself, Im surrounded by amazing family and friends and have faith and good morals. My score was SMOG 3. I think because the first few questions I answered. I'm a flight attendant (28 yrs). I'm surrounded by attractive people, I enjoy going out with single friends. I don't agree with the survey for MY results. I believe for me that it all starts how you were raised. Morals, faith, good parenting and strong family. I think you would agree there. :) It all starts with how you feel about yourself, your relationship with yourself. I want to Thank you for all your articles and helping me as the betrayed through my journey on healing. I will continue to read and learn after my divorce is over. Harboring Hopes is amazing. I love you guys keep up the good work.
C Marie

Vulnerability to Infidelity

This is a helpful article and I'm sure Rick will be adding other factors and analyzing them in subsequent articles in the series. My wife and I have had a number of conversations about what made her vulnerable to having an affair, and these have been helpful to both her and me. I've sorted the factors into several categories, some of which echo what Rick has outline in this article:

• Social & Family Background – She grew up in a neighborhood where infidelity was fairly common among various loosely connected families. Her mother had an affair. Although my wife made her marriage vows with personal and religious conviction, adultery had to some extent been normalized in her psyche.

• Family or Origin Issues – She was a middle child in a family where the first daughter and the first son got most of the attention and were both quite dominating. In addition, she was not conventionally pretty. The resulting low self-esteem made her vulnerable to attention from a man outside her marriage.

• Premature Sexual Initiation – A man exposed himself to her when she was 11. She was date-raped when she was 15. As is statistically common, this led her to be sexually promiscuous during her high school and college years. A religious conversion turned her strongly against this lifestyle, but the undertow was still there.

• Perceived State of the Marriage – This is the one area where we continue to disagree. She says she was unhappy, that I was not affectionate and too preoccupied with work. My memory is that the marriage, while not perfect, was okay, with lots of good times, and I feel she rewrites history in order to get the blame shared. Certainly at the time she did not say she was unhappy or suggest counseling.

• Opportunity – An admiring man came along and she went into a situation where she would be alone with him.

video quiz

We just watched a video by Wayne Baker and he references a quiz at the bottom, but there is no quiz.