Even good relationships are susceptible to the ravages of an affair. That defies expectations, doesn’t it? Yet any therapist specializing in relationships can tell stories that confirm this statement. Still, by careful positioning and maintenance of the “walls and windows” in our relationships, it is possible to build a strong shelter that nourishes intimacy inside and keeps threats to intimacy out.
Walls and Windows
The image of a wall* surrounding each person in a relationship illustrates how we all hold private thoughts and feelings inside ourselves. Married partners in healthy relationships promote intimacy with each other by having open windows in their walls that promote the unguarded exchange of their private thoughts and feelings. During the course of an affair, the unfaithful partner closes his or her window to the marriage partner, but knocks a new window elsewhere in his or her wall to permit the affair partner in.
Use the Windows
All marriages go through dry periods where not much of one’s intimate inner life travels back and forth through the windows, even though they’re open. At such times our attention may well wander, and so we notice the many fascinating people around us.
What is more, living in a cosmopolitan foreign city offers many opportunities to befriend interesting people. Some, like us, are global citizens. Others live here–they’re attractive in a way we’re not used to, they have exotic traditions, captivating stories and charming personalities. We meet these people at work, at social functions, traveling, and even amongst the hired help in our home.
In this sort of situation, we ought never take the open window to your partner for granted. Use it. Share your feelings and thoughts. Expect the same from your partner. Don’t hesitate to discuss windows that seem closed, opaque, or that are just not being used.
Maintain the Walls
Affairs don’t begin with love. They begin when we don’t maintain our walls. A stray sentiment that should be passed through the open window to the spouse is instead allowed to seep through a crack in the wall to the fascinating other. Gradually, more thoughts and feelings follow the initial stray one. The crack widens to win-dow size while the window to the committed relationship closes. So while keeping your window open to a spouse, and keep your walls strong when it comes to fascinating others. If you find yourself talking to a fascinating other about matters you ought to be taking up with your partner, you are actively contributing to the widening of the cracks and the deterioration of your walls.
Be Honest, You’re not “Just friends”
Most people do not set out to intentionally have affairs. Early on, we the erring spouse rationalizes, “Oh, we’re just good friends.” But ultimately, infidelity is any emotional or sexual intimacy that vio-lates trust. Research shows that emotional affairs are as devastating as sexual affairs. You can bet that your partner will react with all the intensity that goes with sexual betrayal even if your “friendship” hasn’t crossed that line yet.
Faithful sharing with your spouse about the kinds of events, people, and clothes that tempt you helps keep your walls and windows functioning. Afraid of a possible tempest, one person told me how he responded negatively when his wife asked, “Did you notice that woman eying you all night?”
He had noticed, but he denied it. He was probably right, too, there would have been a tempest (though perhaps only in a teapot) if he had told his wife that the attention flattered and confused him at the same time. But that discussion–even it was a tough one–would also have led to a serious discussion that in-creased the flow of thoughts and feelings through the windows they had open to each other; and the discussion would have reinforced the importance of have strong walls against the inappropriate sharing of intimacy.
Many kinds of secretive behavior are symptomatic of serious wall and window issues. Such behaviors might include erasing potentially embarrassing texts; not telling, or “forgetting” to tell your spouse whom you went to lunch with, who is calling you, or who is emailing you; or having a “friend” who knows more about your marriage then your spouse knows about your “friendship.” All behavior that leads to furtive acts or thoughts is a sign that the relationship between you and your spouse is seriously under threat. At times like these, what may have been–or even seem, for now–to be a good marriage needs help. That help can come in the form of partners who brave the tempest to sort matters out, or who seek counseling to help them do some window and wall maintenance.
Love alone does not protect a relationship from the havoc of an affair. Strong walls and windows are also needed to protect marriages against external threats to intimacy.
*The walls and windows image comes from Shirley Glass, Ph.D., NOT “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity. Don’t let this book’s title mislead you. While it is helpful for couples recovering from an affair, it is an invaluable guide for all couples wanting to shield their relationships from the (ever-present) threats to outside intimacy.