Dealing with Extramarital Attraction A complete understanding of why and how you can safeguard your marriage from extramarital attractions. BY DENISE J. CHARLES
Just because we love our spouse doesn't mean that we won't find attraction in someone else.
“ Maintaining an attraction to our spouse is no guarantee that we may not find ourselves physically or emotionally drawn to someone else.”
There is nothing like the headiness of a new romance to convince us that the passion and desire we feel are for keeps. We love how we feel in the early stages of our relationships: not being able to take our eyes off of our spouse, waiting longingly for that phone call or just finding deep contentment in each other’s presence. In a new marriage, sex will tend to carry an extra sizzle and can often be the high point which energizes the entire relationship.
These memories and experiences are great and important because they provide a reference point for our marriage journey. Because our memory of "falling in love" is often heady and based on the effects of physical attraction, we hold this aspect of our marriage dear and understandably expect that these exclusive feelings will last a lifetime. In most marriages, they probably will to some degree. This reality is, however, not enough to guard us from "falling into attraction" with someone else. Maintaining an attraction to our spouse is no guarantee that we may not find ourselves physically or emotionally drawn to someone else.
My counseling experience has led me to believe that because we are unprepared to deal with the eventuality of extramarital attractions, we are clueless as to how to handle them when they do come along. Because we buy into the notion of exclusive enduring romantic feelings with the one we love, we do not set out to strategically put systems in place to guard our marriage from the threat of extramarital attractions. Since we trust the commitment made to our spouse, we can respond with naiveté; unknowingly we can begin to expose ourselves and our relationship to the threat of an outside influence.
If we are going to strengthen our marriages and guard them against the threat, which external attractions can pose, I think we must first understand how they happen and then devise practical strategies for coping with them when they do occur.
Adjust Our Notion of "The One"
While I do believe in the idea of a "soul-mate" or in the suitability of one person over others based on life-scripts or personalities, I think our notion of "the one" can be sometimes flawed. There are, in fact, probably several "ones" that we could have chosen to commit to. As a consequence, we should not be glibly unaware of our potential vulnerability to someone else. Notions of finding "the one" can sometimes fuel the belief that the universe is somehow cooperating to guide us to our destiny. Where this becomes problematic is where we abdicate or minimize our personal responsibility because we believe that our relationship is somewhat special and magically shielded from the threat of temptation. We may childishly think that infidelity could never happen to us. If, however, destiny has brought a couple together, be very sure that it is a conscious, decisive commitment and action that will keep them together… not magic. Our basis for marriage therefore needs to be one of conscious choice.
Know What Attracts Us
It has been said that many women become attracted to their counselors or clergy because they find in them a man who will listen and give them his undivided attention, something they long to have with their spouses. Men on the other hand are sometimes drawn to sexually assertive women or to quietly supportive women. In both instances, our vulnerability to attraction can be based on an unmet need in our marriage. Knowing what our basic needs are and then vocalizing them to our spouses brings us into a greater level of awareness and responsibility. While this is not an automatic guarantee that we will not act on a perceived deficit in our relationship, it calls us to a higher degree of personal accountability and functioning. That being said, understanding that there will be others who we may just find physically attractive is critical for our own marriage survival. If we prepare ourselves, then we are not easily surprised and we can hopefully exercise greater control over our responses.
Dethrone Our Spouse
Yes, it is critical that we believe in, affirm and validate our partner. Complimenting, applauding and supporting the man or woman we married, is important. It is, however, also necessary that we ditch the idea that our spouse will meet our every need. Embracing our partner’s foibles, flaws, limitations and even idiosyncrasies is critical to embracing their humanity. We must not set ourselves up for disappointment by expecting a perfect marriage or spouse, this makes it easier to perceive that the grass is greener on the other side. When we focus on what we bring to the relationship as opposed to what we can simply get from our spouse, then we are less likely to succumb to extramarital attraction as a response to our unmet needs or as a consequence of an imperfect partner.
While physical attraction can be almost instant and a chemical response to raw, instinctive, sexual energy; emotional attraction is a more complicated issue. Recognizing someone else’s physical beauty, physique or basic attractiveness can be harmless at one level. Dwelling on their attributes, seeking them out with our eyes or deliberately trying to get their attention is indicative of our lack of discipline and can prove problematic to our ability to cope with the attraction. It is critical that we establish as couples, the physical and emotional boundaries that will govern our relationship with those of the opposite sex—especially those to whom we feel attracted. This will include things like no dining alone with the attracter; no intimate discussions on marital matters or even of personal/private issues; and definitely no physical familiarity like hugging or kissing. Maintaining physical and emotional distance is paramount to preserving our marriage’s sexual integrity.
Disempower the Attraction
Keeping our attraction private is perhaps the most lethal thing we could do to our marriage. Privacy provides the breeding ground for fantasizing and for thoughts of "what if." Being upfront with our spouse about how we feel has the potential to strip the attraction of its power since it is now exposed. We may fool ourselves into thinking that as long as there’s no actual sex involved, then the attraction is harmless and need not be uncovered; this is a mistake. Hiding the attraction to protect our partner, especially if it is ongoing, is actually a cowardly response to protect ourselves. Of course other unresolved issues in the relationship may influence how we choose to respond. In a lackluster marriage, focusing our thoughts on someone new may actually be sexually stimulating or emotionally exhilarating and we may enjoy these emotions. This is, however, of no help to the relationship as it can become a substitute for confronting the real challenges the marriage is facing.
Practice Being Present
In marriage, our sex life is seen as the barometer which reveals the state of our relationship. Paying special attention to areas that pose a direct threat to it is therefore critical if we hope to have a successful marriage. While there are no perfect marriages, being emotionally and sexually present is essential for staving off the effects of extramarital attractions, which are inevitable. Being present means having an ongoing awareness of our own and of our spouse’s needs. It means recognizing that those needs will likely change with age, added responsibility and with the growing complexities of life. Being present in our relationship also means living our marriages with intention; not expecting an automatic or childish fairytale ending, but recognizing that our marriage will reflect the effort we put in on all fronts.