According to Peggy Vaugn, the author of “The Monogamy Myth” and the website “Dear Peggy.com,” 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women will have an affair at some point in their marriage. In other words, the person who stays monogamous within her marriage is among a growing minority.
Twelve years into my marriage, I can appreciate that statistic. Eric and I are getting to the hard part, where the pressing responsibilities of raising kids and growing two careers could easily blow apart the vows we recited on our wedding day. We look around and recognize the dark circles caused by sleep deprivation on many friends’ faces, the overwhelmed expressions that we wear much of the time.
It’s that time when any escape or relief from a messy house and loud kids sounds all too enticing, when others flock to the arms of another man or woman to experience a sense of excitement and mystery again, an attempt to go back to the days of perfume and lingerie. This is the season of marriage in which both sets of our parents called it quits.
Because I want my marriage to stay on the happy side of the percentage–and knowing my susceptibility toward addiction and all things mood altering–I’ve been reading up on affairs: why they happen, and what you can to do prevent one in your own marriage.
Here are the suggestions I arrived at, both from research and from asking a lot of nosy questions to friends, friends of friends, and the cousins and nephews of those friends.
1. Nurture safe friendships.
This is the most important affair-preventer in my life. No marriage can give you everything. A husband is going to have interests that his wife will never care about like fishing, hunting, golfing. So he’s less likely to stray if he can find some good guy buddies with whom to fish, hunt, and golf.
Early on in our relationship, I realized that Eric was never going to be able to recite the “Hail Mary” or the “Our Father,” or be able to tell them apart. He’ll never get excited about faith or depend on it like I do. So I feed my spiritual hunger by having coffee with my religious women friends, and with my safe male friends: Deacon More, Fr. Joe, and ex-priest Mike Leach.
2. Recognize the drug.
Depressives and addicts are especially prone to affairs because of the head rush that happens with infatuation. The spike in dopamine and norepinephrine we experience upon connecting with someone fools us into thinking that the sexy man or attractive woman at the bar holds the key to our nirvana and the end to our problems. Just like, say, the high from cocaine. Explains Neely Tucker of the “Washington Post”:
These chemicals are natural stimulants. You fall in love, a growing amount of research shows, and these chemicals and their cousins start pole-dancing around the neurons of your brain, hopping around the limbic system, setting off craving, obsessive thoughts, focused attention, the desire to commit possibly immoral acts with your beloved while at a stoplight in the 2100 block of K Street during lunch hour, and so on.
Tucker then quotes Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.” Says Fisher:
Love is a drug. The ventral tegmental area is a clump of cells that make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and sends it out to many brain regions [when one is in love]. …It’s the same region affected when you feel the rush of cocaine.
3. Keep dating.
You’re thinking: “Puh…lese. How many Good Housekeeping articles have you read lately? Next you’ll tell us the key to a happy marriage is found in de-cluttering the home together, expounding on a joyful memory from the past each time you empty a drawer.” No I won’t. But visiting with your spouse with some regularity–just the two of you and no one else–my therapist regularly tells me, reaps some very definite rewards in a marriage. Because by doing so you learn how to TALK to each other. And when the kids are studying for exams at Harvard (hey, I can dream), you will have to TALK a lot, with no teenager with attitude in the middle of the kitchen distracting the two of you.
In her book, “Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic,” Esther Perel argues that there has to be enough “otherness” or separateness in a marriage to keep both partners interested and passionate. Too much merging together, and there is nothing to discover, she says. Perel urges a client to imagine her spouse as if she has just met him, to put him into that mysterious category again. This is really bloody hard when you got a little one screaming, “Wipe me!” from the bathroom. However, when you can pull it off, I find her theory very effective. One way I let Eric become sexy again in my own mind is to walk by the houses he has designed and observe them not as the wife of the architect she wanted home three hours ago, but as a woman fascinated by this man’s skill.
Here are a few rules for date night:
* No kid talk
* No eavesdropping
* No fighting
* No flirting (with other people)
* No whining or crying
* No flatulence or incontinence
* No technology (cellphones, BlackBerries, iPhones, or iPods)
* No interrupting
* No belching, spitting, or vomiting
* No heavy boozing or pot-smoking
* No blogging about it
* No Christmas sweaters, polyester dresses, or ratty underwear
4. Pray together.
I know how those two words sound, especially together: just like the instructions of a couple leading a Pre-Cana marriage preparation program who told the engaged couples to “hold hands while they fight.” Yeah right. Thanks for the advice.
And, as I said in suggestion number one, Eric isn’t all that jazzed up by religion. So where am I going here?
I’ve had this conversation over and over again in our house: we need to go to church as a family. But last September it stuck because David is now in Kindergarten at St. Mary’s, and the teachers STRONGLY ENCOURAGE families to attend Mass together. As they should. I want to set a good example for our son. I also want him to see his dad sitting with me on the pew. And I do think going to church together gives me extra insurance that all of us are sticking together, even if I’m outside half the time with Katherine screaming “Jesus is poopy!”
I can’t help but think there is some truth to what my high school teacher said about the braid of a marriage: you need God as that third strand to create the beautiful bond between a man and a woman. And that Fr. Peyton really knew what he was talking about when he coined the phrase, “a family that prays together stays together.”
5. Find a creative outlet.
People get lured into emotional and physical affairs because the infatuation provides an exciting, stimulating place where they are energized. And it’s a hell of a lot easier than a lasting marriage. I remember the marriage advice of an ex-priest friend to me awhile back: “There’s a lot to be said for a one-night stand.” He was trying to tell me that when the real relationship gets rough, don’t be fooled into thinking a night of savage sex with a guy you hardly know is what you need.
So you have to find other sources of stimulation and excitement, like writing a blog! I can’t wait to log onto the Internet each day to see what all of my dear Beyond Blue readers have to say. When I get overwhelmed by the domestic chaos of our lives right now, Beyond Blue provides me that outlet where I can create something new, where I can run away, however temporarily, from the stress.
“The desire to give oneself completely and purposefully pursues us always, and has its part in pushing us into more and more distractions, illusory love affairs, or the haven of hospitals and doctors’ offices,” writes Anne Morrow Lindbergh in “Gift From the Sea.” In order to not be torn into pieces by all of life’s distraction–and affairs fit into this category–Lindbergh urges women (and I add men) to seek a creative outlet, something of her own, in which to pour that energy that could so quickly shatter her integrity.
6. Hang out with happy couples.
According to the newest study on obesity, the risk for obesity increased 171 percent among persons with obese friends. The risk only increased 37 percent for persons with an obese spouse, and 40 percent for folks with obese siblings.
That says to me that peer pressure never really goes away, and that your friends influence you more than you think. So if you’re hanging with a bunch of guys (or girls) that see nothing wrong with sleeping around, you are much more likely to do it yourself.
The good news is that the opposite is also true. If you have a set of friends committed to their marriages, you will be less likely to cheat on your spouse. This also means going to happy couples–not cheating couples–for advice. Whenever I need an insight or two regarding my marriage, I go to Mike Leach, my foster dad, who has the happiest marriage of any man I’ve seen (remember, he is an ex-priest).
7. Learn how to fight.
I’m not going to tell you to hold hands, like that woman at the Pre-Cana session. But this good advice did actually come from the couple who facilitated Eric’s and my Pre-Cana (marriage preparation) obligation. They told us to wait before saying something really ugly, and make sure you weren’t tired or hungry, or in a stressful situation.
I’m not saying that you can’t confront your spouse if you’re tired, hungry, or stressed, because then we’d live in a silent world. BUT it’s a good idea to recognize situations that tend to accelerate arguments. For Eric and I that’s two places: in the car (because I’m a nervous passenger, and so is he), and on a sailboat (where we argue about which one of us is a more capable skipper and can better read the wind). Thus, we have given up sailing. Since, you know, we do need to drive places.
8. Be nice and listen.
“Duh,” you’re saying to yourself. But think about it. This is the hardest part about marriage. Listening. Keeping your mouth closed when the other guy is talking. And then, at the appropriate time, saying something like “I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way” as you rub his back, instead of “If you would have done it this way, then you could have prevented that, Butthead.”
In my unofficial study–the feedback I received from the men and women I interrogated about their affairs–the number one reason for pursuing it was this: “She listened to me. I mattered to him.”
9. Remember these tools.
Here are some tools offered to me by those healing from extramarital affairs, insight to keep in mind when you feel that familiar head rush and are tempted to abandon logic for the thrill:
• Don’t go there: meaning don’t put yourself in a threatening situation. Skip the conference in Hawaii with the colleague that flirts with you. If you absolutely have to go, avoid all opportunities to be alone with him.
• You’ve got mail: when you don’t know if your e-mail crosses the line into appropriate language, send it to yourself first. Read it again, and ask yourself: would I feel comfortable showing this to my husband?
• Dress with intentions: one woman told me that she saved her lingerie for her husband, and wore the ratty old underwear to the high-school reunion where she’d see a flame from the past. Remember that scene from “Bridge Jones Diary,” where she wears the ugly underwear on purpose to keep her from doing something stupid?
• Talk about your spouse: a guy friend told me that whenever he is alone with a woman he finds attractive and things are getting uncomfortable, he’ll start talking about his wife–what her hobbies are, and how much he loves her. It immediately kills the mood. Along this line, take pictures of your spouse and family. If there is an awkward silence, get the photos out.