As a marriage and family counselor I am always dealing with issues of sexuality, infidelity, and betrayal as well as intimacy, honesty, courage, and integrity. A rash of recent public scandals – from Tiger Woods to David Letterman, from Sen. John Ensign to Gov. Mark Sanford, to the suspected shenanigans of Jon Gosselin of reality TV's Jon and Kate – might make it seem that sexual infidelity is sweeping the land. Many of my clients want to know how to prevent an affair. Here’s what I tell them.
1. Renew Your Vows Every 7 Years
There’s a joke I heard that could even be true. A man and a woman have been married for 57 years and their friends and family are throwing a party for them to celebrate so many years of love. After the party the woman says to the man, “It was a wonderful gathering and I’m so glad all our family and friends could get together to celebrate with us.
“But I have a question that has been bothering me for years. Why don’t you ever tell me you love me?”
The man looks at his wife of 57 years with surprise. “Why I did tell you I loved you the day we got married. If I should change my mind, I’ll let you know.”
Too many people assume their relationship will just coast along once it gets started. Well, it won’t. My wife and I have been married 31 years. It is the third marriage for both of us. Every 7 years, we renew our vows and recommit to our marriage. And we tell each other often, “I love you.”
2. Don’t Let Nature Take Its Course
Many people assume that if two people love each other and trust each other they don’t have to worry about affairs. Nothing could be further from the truth. Biologically speaking we come together in order to create children who we can raise until they are of an age where they can have their own children.
Through most of human history, when we reached the age of 40 or so, our children were grown and on their own and we enjoyed the last few years of our lives and then quickly died. Now that we’re living through our 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and more and more of us into our 100s, we need to rethink marriage.
Nature is through with us a lot sooner than we’re ready to check out. We have to continue to renew our vows to ourselves, to stay committed to life, even though nature may be pulling us to the great beyond.
3. Our Biology Wants Older Men To Cheat On Their Wives
Think of the world through the eyes of your genes. Their goal is to get themselves passed on. The only way they can do that is to get another human to have sex with the body that houses those genes and hope a baby is created. It is a biological reality that women reach an age when they can no longer reproduce. We call it menopause. Men reach an age when their hormones begin to drop and they become more and more irritable and antsy. We call it “male menopause.”
However, for men, we can still have babies later in life. But only with a woman who is young enough to conceive. So our biology pulls men away from their mid-life wives into the arms of someone younger and more reproductively capable.
When he says, “I love you, but I’m not ‘in love’ with you” what he really means is that “I don’t feel that crazy, biological lust that makes me want to have you on the dining room table.” So what’s to do? You must talk about this reality. Confront the issue head on and learn that there is more to life than sex.
4. Learn Why Sex is Not the Answer to the Brain’s Big Question
According to author Mark Brady, there’s one big question that all brains want answered, and they want it answered, “Yes.” Parent’s brains, children’s brains, all brains. And they don’t want a lukewarm “Yes,” or a “Maybe Yes” or a “Getting-to-Yes Yes.” They want a substantial, resounding, unequivocal, “YES!” Yes.
Brady says that the brain’s big question is “Are You There For Me?” He tell us that our children’s brains (and our own as well!) are continually asking this basic question, whether we’re aware of it or not. The question takes many forms in children’s brains and resulting behavior, of course: Do I matter enough that you’ll put me first when I need you to – ahead of your job, ahead of your friends, even sometimes ahead of yourself? Can I count on you to attend to me in the ways I need you to? Do I truly and deeply matter to you? These questions are being asked – nonverbally through behavior often – and when they get answered “Yes,” our children can relax and begin to feel safe, just as we are often able to do in our own intimate and business relationships.
And this is a key issue. We have these needs for care and support throughout our lives. In fact, as we get older and we experience the inevitable losses of health and well-being, we need this support even more. Want to prevent an affair? Be there, really be there for your partner.
5. Quit Demeaning Men
At the height of the “women’s movement” there was a joke circulating around, attributed to Gloria Steinem. “A woman needs a man, like a fish needs a bicycle.” The sentiment may have been that women need to learn to stand on their own feet and take care of themselves. They have to stop making their identity dependent on having a man in their lives.
But the impact on men was devastating. If I am as irrelevant to my woman as a bicycle is to a fish, then why stay? Most men have a strong desire to protect and serve a woman. However, if we are not needed or wanted, or if our offers of support are seen as a big joke, well…”screw you” we say to ourselves. Our shame and rage get expressed in our cheating.
Few women consciously shame or demean the men in their lives. I’ve found that this most often happens when women are afraid. It’s a vicious cycle. If a woman feels that she can’t trust the man to be there for her, she distances herself a little bit. The man, feeling her distance, becomes irritable and angry. The woman, feeling the brunt of his anger, becomes even more afraid that he’ll leave. The result is that we create the very thing we are most afraid of.
Women are constantly telling me that they want their man to open up to her, to share his true feelings. However, what I’ve found (and many men have told me), when we do open up and share our feelings, the woman often rejects us. Usually when they say they want to know how we feel, they mean “I want you to shower me with love and affection.” When they hear how angry, hurt, and frightened we are, they often run and hide.
Mark Brady had a professor in graduate school, a wise woman who understood these things. She told the women in her class, “Ladies,” she said, “if you want your partners to be emotionally available to you, you can’t cut their balls off every time they show some vulnerability.”
6. Get Thee to a Men’s Group
I've been in the same men's group for 33 years—7 guys who are committed to supporting each other through life. We came together at a men’s conference in April, 1979 and have been together ever since.
During our get-togethers, what will we talk about? What will we do? Well, I can’t say. Not because it’s a big secret, but because I won’t know until we get there. What I can say is that it will be real. It will be loving. We trust each other enough to let our feelings out—the good, the bad, and the ugly. But most of all we are there for each other.
I believe that few long term relationships can survive unless men get away together. If you don’t have men who are there for you and who you can be there for, you will have a difficult time being there for women. You will always be hungry, always be needy, always be restless, always be looking for someone or something to fill the void you feel inside.
7. Grow Up Guys. The World Needs You.
When I see men like Tiger Woods, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, and all the other cheaters, I see wounded, immature men. They may be the famous ones we hear about, but there are millions of other men just like them. I know, I used to be one myself. I wrote a whole book about it: Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions.
When we become seriously disconnected from our own courageous souls, we need a kick in the butt from someone who cares, who is truly there for us, to get us back on track.
Listen guys, we can’t keep acting out our wounds by escaping from our pain into the arms of a woman. And we can’t keep waiting for women who hold us accountable for our actions. We need to deal with our woundedness before the roof falls in on us..
We need men of courage, men of commitment, men of honor to stand with women of like heart and mind to lead the way if we are going to survive as a species. Sure, we all have fantasies about getting “a little extra on the side.” But grow up guys. There are more important things we have to do. The world needs us. Our wives need us. Our children and grandchildren need us.