How do you avoid affairs? Fortify your new marriage by doing the real engagement work.
We’re all aware of the sobering statistics that tell us that 50% of marriages end in divorce. We know that the modern marriage is vulnerable to a myriad of obstacles that couples must learn to navigate if their partnership is to succeed. We want to do everything we can to divorce-proof an impending marriage. Our culture supports premarital counseling for the couple to learn essential tools for conflict resolution but it still fails to prepare each person as an individual for the life-altering transition of getting married. We simply don’t talk about marriage as a transition. We focus on the wedding. We focus on the details of the reception. But we miss the reality that after the wedding each person is irrevocably changed by the simple yet jarring fact that life as a single person is over and the lifetime commitment of marriage has begun.
The result of this denial is illuminated in another startling statistic: A recent study from the University of Washington revealed that 20% of men and 15% of women will have an affair in the first year of marriage. And experts believe that the statistic is actually closer to 50% since the study only reported those people who admitted to having an affair.
So… Half of married couples break their vows in the first year. Half of marriages end in divorce.
Both of these statistics point to the same theory: what you avoid on the front end comes out on the other side. In other words, when women (or men) focus obsessively on the planning details during their engagement to the exclusion of attending to the emotional and psychological aspects of the transition, they typically crash when the distractions are over, either at the end of the wedding day, the honeymoon, or sometime in the first weeks of marriage. With this crash comes the barrage of questions that my clients typically ask during before the wedding: Do I love my partner enough? Am I making a mistake? How do I know that this is the right decision? What if we don’t make it? What if one of us falls out of love? Without the support to address these normal questions effectively, many people panic, feel trapped by the increased commitment and intimacy, and have an affair.
Where does bridal or engagement counseling factor into this equation? Bridal counseling, a field that I pioneered in 1998, helps individuals address the nine key areas that are affecting their marriage transition. Two of the most important of these areas with regard to affair-proofing your marriage are the recognition that the single life and identity are over and shattering the fantasies we all carry about how engagements, love, and marriage are “supposed” to feel.
Grieving the End of Singlehood
To say that an engaged person needs to let go of being single might sound obvious, but many people spend their engagement with their heads buried so deeply in the sand of wedding details that they fail to grasp fully that they need to grieve the end of singlehood. In other words, with the hundreds of wedding details that they think they need to accomplish, they can successfully avoid digesting this difficult reality. Furthermore, women who become obsessed by the planning, a phenomena now known as bridezilla, lose sight of everything other than the details, including being intimate with their partners. This leads to a rupture in intimacy before the marriage even begins.
Men are no less accountable and usually no more conscious during the engagement process. They’ve mustered up the guts to propose, but after their big act they usually retreat into the background and allow their lovely others to plan the wedding. With this withdrawal often comes a denial of the reality of what lies ahead and the fact that their bachelor days are quickly coming to a close. Their fears of intimacy and commitment, their grief that their bachelor identity is ending, their fears about the inevitable separation from their family of origin, and their floating and amorphous concerns are pushed underground or funneled into other distractions.
The result of this massive denial for both men and women is that the reality of marriage – by which I mean the magnitude of the commitment and the irrevocable loss of their single identity – doesn’t hit them until the distraction of the wedding is over and they’re back to day-to-day life. Then the realization of “Oh my god, I’m married” hits like a ton of bricks, the panic and anxiety set in, and they look for the easiest back door – which, sadly, is often an affair.
The second primary area that needs recognition and processing is the collapse of the fantasies and conditioning regarding love and romance that most people carry. Oftentimes people don’t even know they’re harboring these fantasies until the day or week after they become engaged and they find themselves depressed and anxious – the polar opposite of the unilateral euphoria they’ve been conditioned to believe they “should” be feeling. A niggling anxious thought begins which says, “If you really loved your fiancé you would be on cloud nine from the moment you got engaged through your honeymoon.”
Thus begins the cascade of anxious thoughts that usually have the word “enough” somewhere in the sentence: Do I love him enough? Am I attracted enough to him? Do we have enough chemistry? We’ve all been bread on the romantic fantasy – pumped into our psyches from Jane Austen to Hollywood – that you just “know” when you’ve met “the one” and your massive “chemistry” will propel you into ecstasy as you fulfill the fantasy of the perfect engagement that leads to the perfect marriage. While my clients may rationally know that this is a fantasy, successfully shattering the fantasy and rebuilding the conditioning on solid ground requires intentional work and often guidance. If this work isn’t done, one or both partners will carry the false beliefs about love into their marriage and the ground for having an affair is laid – so to speak.
When an engaged woman or man calls me for counseling during their engagement and are so fraught with anxiety that they’re feeling sick, I try to impress upon them the fact they’re the lucky ones: the anxiety became so disruptive that they had to seek help and, by doing so, they found me and became more prepared for their marriage than the ones who flew through the engagement focusing more on their flower arrangements than their inner world. For there is nothing more important during an engagement than becoming emotionally prepared for the marriage transition.
I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t promise a lifetime guarantee, but I can offer my clients a greater likelihood of succeeding in their relationships by providing them with the tools that will allow them to walk through the portal of marriage – the wedding – with as much consciousness as possible. Being conscious means recognizing that the engagement is a time to analyze your relationship, often putting it under a painfully high-resolution microscope. Being conscious means recognizing that the engagement, while on one level is a time to plan your wedding, on a deeper level is about preparing yourself emotionally and psychologically for marriage. Being conscious means accepting that you might not feel happy or excited for much of your engagement as you find yourself in foreign emotional territories and have to grapple with the enormity of making a lifetime commitment to the one you love. Being conscious is not always easy or fun, but it’s the only way to walk through any transition and emerge on the other side prepared for what the new life has to offer. And being conscious means you reduce the likelihood that you’ll have an affair in your first year because you’re entering marriage with your eyes wide open.