Understanding the anatomy of an affair is a major step in setting healthy boundaries within marriage and guarding against the devastation of adultery.
While standing at the altar, no one ever dreams that he or she will ever be involved in an affair. Most newly marrieds think that with the proclamation of “I do,” all temptations, attractions, and desires for others will cease. Unfortunately, even the best of marriages is vulnerable to the ravages of adultery.
Proverbs 4:23~ Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it~should be the mantra of every married couple. Even the strongest marriage can be devastated when either spouse allows his or her heart to be pulled toward someone outside of the marriage union.
The behaviors that ultimately lead to an affair are incremental and happen over time and with increasing familiarity. Any married couple could benefit from discussing and establishing healthy boundaries regarding interactions with the opposite sex. Several boundaries that can help protect marriage are as follows:
- No lunch, travel, working late, or private meeting with the opposite sex, as these interactions can lead to emotional or physical intimacy.
- It doesn’t matter what the person “looks like.” In fact, many a spouse has cheated on a far more attractive spouse with someone who is homely or even unattractive.
- No counseling or mentoring with anyone of the opposite sex without someone else present.
- Be honest with your spouse about any attraction to someone else~as soon as it happens. This requires maturity and being a “safe place” for your spouse to confess. Working through an issue early is far better than trying to salvage a marriage after an affair.
- Speak positively about each other and our marriage to anyone of the opposite sex. Only share problems or issues with a same sex friend or counselor.
The following description of the anatomy of an affair is based on material that Zane and I have gathered from myriad marriage resources. Our experience with couples in crisis where infidelity is involved typically mirrors the progression described below. Read this material and be aware. Be determined to guard against anything that would destroy your marriage or your family.
The Anatomy of an Affair
- Step 1: Attraction. Attraction is the pull we feel toward someone’s personality, appearance, or other appealing feature. It is the same dynamic we experienced when we were first drawn toward and attracted to our spouse. There is nothing inherently wrong with feeling an attraction; the problem arises if we pursue it.
- Step 2: Proximity. Proximity is being near or easily accessible to the person to whom we are attracted. Sometimes we canâ€™t help it. Our work desks might be close to one another. We may live in the same neighborhood or go to the same church. Our spouses or children might be close friends, placing us together in myriad social situations. Being constantly near someone to whom we feel an attraction is definitely a threat to our marriage. The proximity stage is the point at which wise decisions to cut off or curtail exposure to someone can prevent an affair, save a marriage. and spare a world of hurt down the road.
- Step 3: Interaction. Interaction is the third step in the progression of an affair. If we are close in proximity to the one to whom we are attracted, we have much opportunity for interaction with him or her. It may be small talk or sharing a cup of coffee, something that would be innocent in the absence of attraction. But, if we are nurturing a secret desire, then interaction is neither innocent nor prudent.
There are three red flags at this stage in the development of an affair.
- Are you excited at the prospect of seeing that person each day?
- Do you put forth extra effort to look nice for him or her?
- Do you create opportunities to see him or her?
Answering yes to any one of these questions is a red flag. Answering yes to all three means serious intervention is needed before it is too late.
- Step 4: Self-disclosure. Self disclosure is opening up your heart and sharing deep, personal feelings with the other person. Example: â€œMy wife and I arenâ€™t talking much now. When I get home she complains about how long I work or that I donâ€™t make enough money. I just need someone to talk to.” This type of intimate conversation with the other person, coupled with expressed dissatisfaction with one’s spouse, is essentially an open invitation for the other person to respond in kind. If he or she responds with warmth, understanding, and even similar personal thoughts, then the progression toward an affair continues.
- Step 5: Equity. If this occurs, it means the other person has accepted your personal disclosure and is now offering his or her own. â€œOh, I understand. My husband has no idea of all the work I do around the house. I wish one time he would just ask me how my day was.â€ It is here at the equity level where an emotional bond begins being formed. We become vulnerable, crossing boundary lines of appropriateness. The other perceives the depth of emotions and responds in kind. Attraction, physical closeness and emotional bonding are combining to create an emotional firestorm that must be extinguished immediately. This is the critical juncture; if the relationship is not completely cut off at this point, it will lead to the sixth and final stage in the anatomy of an affair.
- Step 6: Affair. The final and most devastating step in an affair is adultery, becoming physically and sexually intimate with the other person. The man forgets his vows, his wife, and his kids. The woman forgets her vows, her husband, and her kids. They make arrangements; they meet; they fall. It is NOT, however, a sudden fall. It is the final act in a series of events that has progressed for weeks, months, sometimes even years. This final stage in the anatomy of an affair is devastating and can be hard from which to recover a marriage (read How to Respond to a Limerent Spouse).
If your marriage is healthy and strong, do all that you can to nurture it and to guard against anything that could separate you from your spouse. If you are contemplating an affair, please seek wise and biblical marital counsel. I highly recommend Marriage Helper, which has some of the best resources and weekend seminars available to help save marriages in crisis.