The focus of my practice is working with individuals who are affected by infidelity. I don’t just work only with infidelity, but over the years I find that almost everyone has some connection to it, even on the periphery.
Infidelity affects the trajectory of our relationships. Whether we just discovered it. Whether it just happened. If it is currently happening. Or it happened to us decades ago. Maybe our parents did it to each other. Perhaps you are doing it or it’s being done to you. Not complicated at all, right? The sheer complexity is often misunderstood until it hits your life.
On top of that, we need to remember that just because someone does it, it doesn’t make them a serial killer. Or a sociopath or a narcissist. Do those people do these things? Sure. Chances are, though, the loved one in your life is not any of those things. And neither are you.
What is both fascinating and confounding about infidelity is there is not just one cause. There is no black or white answer. Trying to understand it is like crumpling up your ear buds in a bag and then attempting to untangle them. Figuring it out – the why and the how-do-we-fix-it – can be trial and error. And there is not just one way to do it.
The work of John Gottman is well respected in the field of human relationships. I admit that I am not incredibly versed on his work, but I came across a theory of his that attempts to explain why relationships break down. Or at least why a relationship might become fertile ground for an affair.
John Gottman says that relationships are comprised of “sliding door moments” – little opportunities to connect your hearts with each other. From Gottman’s perspective, there are the moments and then there is the decision of whether to engage or not.
A few years ago, I came across a story he told about his marriage in one of his books. It’s really stuck with me. I can relate and I bet you can, too. One evening as he was going to bed, he looked forward to curling up with a book. As he passed his wife, he noticed she was brushing her hair with a sad look on her face.
In this moment, he said, he needed to make a choice: to ask her why she looked sad or to decide that he didn’t want to get involved.
For our purposes, it doesn’t matter what he chose. The Gottmans have been married for several decades and are both renowned couples therapists so I’m assuming that they tune into their relationship.
Are you tuned in enough to your partner to notice what they might be feeling? You might say, “well, he won’t talk to me.” Maybe you’ve encountered sliding door moments where you chose not to engage so he stopped volunteering information to you.
Many people think “working on our relationship” means BIG stuff. BIG vacations. BIG date nights. BIG conversations. Have you ever heard someone said, “She knows I love her because I send her flowers every week”?
While these things are great, it’s not what it’s all about. I’ll wager that if you took away all of the BIG, and you still liked each other, you’re doing something right. If you found that you couldn’t stand each other without the things, that says something, too.
It is widely agreed upon that our intimate relationships aren’t simply built on heavy conversations where we sit on our sofas for hours and flesh it out with each other. Those moments do matter. I see relationships like a brick wall: without the mortar in between, the wall would crumble. We need the mortar of everyday life together to fortify the structure. The little glances and cuddles and inside jokes you share make a difference. You may go to fancy restaurants or fabulous trips with your spouse and post it all on social media. But if she is ignoring the shift in your emotional barometer or you aren’t making the time to ask how his day is, the mortar needs a bit of thickening.
How does this factor into infidelity? It’s not a perfect fit necessarily, but in many cases, infidelity occurs when the connection dissipates. Some people report that they sought another relationship because the other person provided some degree of intimacy they couldn’t get in their primary relationship.
I could probably write myself into a rabbit hole about the causes. But if you’ve been in a relationship where one of you diverted your attention into another, I wonder what your experience with Gottman’s “sliding door moments” was. Put yourself in John Gottman’s shoes for a moment. In your relationship, did you engage or curl into bed with your book? I also recognize that these aren’t scientific or quantitative answers nor are our relationships necessarily founded on data. But engaging with each other affects the overall quality.
If you chose the book instead of inquiring over the sad look, could your sad-feeling partner resist the high school flame who has been sending her Facebook messages, telling her how beautiful she is? In most occasions, infidelity does start out this simple and evolves. Most people do not go looking for it. Could people say no to the advances of someone? Sure. But saying yes carries an electrical charge that men and women and everyone in between has found thrilling since the beginning of time.
Most of us desire the thrill we got from our partner when we first got together. And I think many of us think that if we maintain that state, our partner will never want to stray. Again, I cannot offer definitive answers other than “it depends”.
But I do know that choosing to engage with your spouse yields far greater results than the alternative. The book will always be there to be read tomorrow night.
If you are dealing with an infidelity issue and would like to explore the possibility of us working together, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My practice is located in Livingston, New Jersey.