Is Your Marriage Ripe for an Affair?
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Is Your Marriage Ripe for an Affair?

Five surprising warning signs.

Why Spouses Stray

Quick, answer this question with the first thing that comes to mind: If you were worried that your spouse might stray, what would you do to prevent it? Maybe your knee-jerk response is: "I'd lose 20 pounds and upgrade my wardrobe." Or, "I would shower my spouse with expensive gifts." Or, "I would be extra attentive to my spouse so she would realize how good she has it." If your answer resembled any of those above, bad news: you're on the wrong track. According to Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Morrie Shechtman, you've bought into a common misconception about what causes affairs in the first place.

"Most people assume that people have affairs with someone more attractive, sexier, or richer than their spouse," says Shechtman, coauthor along with his wife and business partner, Arleah, of Love in the Present Tense: How to Have a High Intimacy, Low Maintenance Marriage (Bull Publishing Company, 2004). "Despite the cliches -- the midlife crisis situation where the husband runs off with his much younger secretary, for instance -- that's not what infidelity is about. People who cheat generally choose someone busier and more goal-oriented than their current partner. Someone more interesting, in other words."

"You have to keep reminding him how lucky he is to have you," says Sherry Argov, author of Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl: A Woman's Guide to Holding Her Own in a Relationship (Adams Media Corporation, 2002). "All the propaganda in the world tells us 'keep your man,' 'hold on to your man,' 'jump through hoops for your man,' but your attitude should be 'If you want to go, I'll help you pack'...Healthy mutual respect is the best immune system in a relationship."

"That's right," adds Shechtman. He says that the harsh truth is that when one spouse strays, it's probably because the other spouse has become, well...boring. So, focusing on your appearance or attempting to please your partner completely misses the point.

5 Warning Signs

Shechtman offers the following warning signs that your marriage may be ripe for an affair:

  1. You don't challenge each other. Unconditional acceptance is a myth. Healthy marriages require a mutual willingness to challenge and be challenged. An "Oh, I'll let the little woman do whatever makes her happy" attitude can be condescending and harmful. If your partner lounges around in her bathrobe watching TV every day and you say nothing, then you're not invested in her well-being. Maybe she's depressed. Maybe she's sick. Maybe she's succumbing to laziness. Regardless, the message that she gets loud and clear from your silence is that you don't care. Not only do you have the right to make reasonable demands on your partner, you have the obligation to do so.
  2. You and your partner have become an amoeba. Getting married does not mean morphing into a single person with the same interests, hobbies, and friends. If you and your spouse do everything together, something's wrong. "If your partner is not allowed to have a life of her own, she will eventually become resentful," says Shechtman. "Similarly, if you're over-interested in her life, wanting to know or be involved in every detail, she will feel intruded upon and smothered. True intimacy requires two people having independent lives, not two people living through each other. The best marriages are low-maintenance marriages."
  3. One person selflessly lives for the other. Shechtman likes to tell the story of Bernard, a heart surgeon, and Stacy, the wife who selflessly devoted herself to him. She supported him through medical school. She stayed home and raised his kids. She prepared gourmet meals for him, often complete with heart-shaped ice cubes. And one day Bernard left Stacy for a disheveled photojournalist, two years his senior, who chastised him for stealing a cab she'd just hailed. Why? Because the photojournalist was interesting. "Selfless devotion is boring," says Shechtman. "Bernard could have hired a housekeeper and a caterer. Gratitude for services rendered is no replacement for a stimulating partner. And by failing to cultivate a life of her own, Stacy deprived Bernard of that."

    "Having a life of your own is important," says Argov. "When you have your own sense of income and independence, and feel that you can be with or without him, he will smell it and he'll treat you differently."
  4. Everything centers on your children. It's easy to succumb to the temptation to make your kids the center of the universe. Don't. For too many parents, running kids to and from soccer practice, dance lessons, and weekend parties becomes an insidious dance of intimacy avoidance.

    "Even with young kids, a couple must take private time for themselves," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, author of five books on love and relationships, and professor of sociology at the University of Washington. "Make a rule that you don't talk about the kids until you download your adult issues and experiences for the day together. Keep kid talk out of the bedroom."
  5. You don't have meaningful conversations with your spouse. Does the question, "How was your day?" unleash a monologue, a laundry list of activities, or a cacophony of complaints from you or your partner? If so, you're missing the point of communication.

    "Talk to him in a playful way," says Argov. "Banter with him. Be a little sassy and keep it short and sweet. Save the emotional talk for things that are very important to you, and let the rest go -- because when you do raise hell, he has to believe there's merit to it."

    Quality communication is the heart of intimacy. (And you thought it was sex!) If you're confused about what constitutes a high-intimacy dialogue, here's a clue: it centers on feelings, not information. "Instead of merely reporting to your partner what happened to you that day, tell her how it made you feel," says Shechtman. "Even if you have only 10 minutes a day to talk to her, make those 10 minutes count."

Affair-Proof Your Marriage

Most of these warning signs are variations on a common theme: abandonment. If you don't care enough to become an interesting partner, if you don't challenge your spouse to be all he or she can be, if you fail to connect with your partner emotionally, you might as well be an uninterested roommate. Abandoning your spouse is the first step to checking out of the relationship.

So what can you do to affair-proof your marriage? The answer can be summed up in three little words, says Shechtman: Get a life.

"Have your own friends," says Dr. Schwartz. "Have a job and hobbies you really care about. Don't cancel everything on the spot just because your partner wants you for something -- show that you have boundaries, commitments, and don't just exist for him. Read, read, read! And then talk about books, articles, movies, and news together. Develop an adventurous relationship based on trips, projects, and hobbies."

"Set goals and work toward them," Shechtman urges. "Immerse yourself in a career or activity that interests you. Don't just hop from one random activity to another. Have a vision of what you want your life to be and do something every day in pursuit of that vision. Take some risks. And challenge your spouse to do the same. Even if it causes some temporary discomfort, remember that a healthy marriage isn't about comfort zones and status quos. If you settle for comfort, your marriage will die."

"This is not the '50s anymore," says Argov. "Men tend to view women who don't have goals and objectives as being deadbeat. When they're going to work everyday and pulling all the weight in the relationship, they really begin to resent it when you don't make a contribution."

"There's one other point I would make," Shechtman adds. "Create a rich, rewarding life for yourself and if your spouse did have an affair and ultimately leave you, you would be well-equipped to cope. Interesting people just have more resources, be they money, social connections, or potential new romantic partners. There are no guarantees in marriage. The only person you can count on to always be there is you. Being abandoned by a spouse is far preferable to abandoning yourself."

--Additional reporting by Chandni Jhunjhunwala

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