I’ve spent the last 25 years studying marriage and divorce.
The day the story broke I happened to be in the nail salon. One the manicurists was somewhat confused. (English is not her first language.) Biographer? Photographer? She was mixing up the John Edwards-Rielle Hunter affair with the Petraeus story. Easy to see why. A powerful man takes up with a young woman who looks at him with adoring eyes. I want to make documentaries about you, I want to write books about you. Same difference. In both stories the woman in question (unlike his wife) was flaming the fire of a powerful man’s ego. And then, he falls, at great personal cost.
Most of us in the divorce “business” agree that affairs are rarely about sex.
Instead, the bigger pay-off is typically something non-sexual. My favorite book on affairs is Emily Brown’s “Affairs: A Guide to Working Through the Repercussions of Infidelity.” Emily describes five patterns that affairs take. And, she explains that affairs are about the pattern of behavior between the husband and the wife, not about the behavior of the partner having the affair. According to Emily Brown, affairs carry messages about pain and discomfort. In my mind, Petraeus was making a loud statement about his pain. If life was great he would not have risked it all.
Affairs may serve a purpose. But, if you don’t want to have to live through that mess follow these three tips for affair-proofing your marriage.
1. Fight. But, fight fair.
When a couple never fights, one or both of them is usually emotionally hiding-out and/or building up resentments. The closer we are the more likely we are to rub up against each other. Give that friction a voice. Fight over current (not past) issues. Avoid name calling and criticism. And, look for livable solutions.
2. Appreciate your partner.
In his book, “The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate” Gary Chapman says that there are five styles people use to convey and receive love. Each of us will have a natural preference for one or two of the styles and not really get the others. When partners are able to convey love and appreciation to one another their relationship is more rewarding. Chapman’s five languages are words of affirmation (compliments), quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Figure out what your partner’s preferred style is and then express your caring to him or her with that preference in mind.
3. Create a safe space.
When animals perceive a threat they engage in the survival behaviors of fight, flight, or freeze. When animals feel safe they can relax, play, eat, and mate. If you want your marriage to work it is most important that both you are your spouse feel safe enough to let down your guard. Just like any other animal, before we humans can relax into vulnerability we have to trust that we will not be physically or emotionally attacked.