When Don and Susan* arrived for their first therapy session, they chose to
sit next to each other on the office couch but were clearly uncomfortable.
“Don left his phone on the table,” Susan said. “I noticed a text coming
through from a woman. I didn’t recognize the name. I don’t know what came
over me, but I suddenly felt panicked. That’s when I discovered he had been
texting this woman for months.”
Don squirmed, giving the same nervous look I’ve seen many times. After
several moments he admitted, “I had an affair.”
“I don’t understand how he could do this to me,” Susan said. “I thought he
loved me. How could he cheat on me? I don’t know if I want to be married to
In my counseling practice, I frequently see couples suffering from the
aftermath of an emotional or physical affair. They arrive in my office with
broken hearts and dreams. All too often the affair could have been avoided
if more attention had been given to some telltale signs of vulnerabilities
within a marriage. Keeping these areas of susceptibility and their
antidotes in mind could, along with proactive healthy practices, ward off a
potential affair. Here are some potential vulnerabilities that might help
you identify areas of concern in your marriage:
Vulnerability No. 1: Weak emotional connection
Couples often come to therapy feeling emotionally disconnected. Sadly, many
have drifted apart and no longer feel safe with their spouse. When one
spouse becomes emotionally unavailable or unresponsive, the other spouse
can feel helpless, abandoned and alone. He or she may experience sadness,
distress, disappointment, pain or fear.
Losing connection with a spouse can feel like security is jeopardized. When
fear intensifies, the brain’s amygdala (also known as the fear center)
triggers an automatic reaction, which often shows up in a fight-or-flight
response. For some individuals, this experience feels like panic.
When we become fearful, we become demanding and anxious as a way of getting
comfort and reassurance from our spouse, or we detach and withdraw to
If one spouse detaches or withdraws consistently and attempts at
reconnecting are unsuccessful, the relationship becomes vulnerable.
Being present, aware and responsive to the emotional world of our spouse
essentially tells him or her, “I see you. I am here for you. I value you. I
love you.” Spoken or unspoken, this communication is at the center of
healthy emotional connection.
Understanding the emotional dynamics in your relationship is important.
When each spouse feels secure, he or she is freer to talk about feelings
and fears, as well as deep longings and needs.
Think of this as an emotional bank account. Every day, each interaction —
verbal or nonverbal — is an opportunity to make deposits into your spouse’s
account. Anything that conveys care and love counts. The goal is for you
both to have full emotional accounts so that when difficulties arise you’re
better able to draw on what you’ve invested in the relationship.
Regularly tuning in to your spouse’s emotional well-being is important,
too. The couples I have counseled find it helpful to have regular
conversations where they check in with each other. Learning to express your
feelings and needs in a healthy manner is one of the most powerful ways to
strengthen your emotional connection.
Vulnerability No. 2: Lack of physical intimacy
When physical intimacy diminishes in a marriage, couples are at a higher
risk for affairs.
If you find yourselves arguing about sex or the frequency of sex, take this
as a warning sign and find out what is going on. Is the culprit fatigue,
stress, a medical condition, a mental health issue, loss of emotional
connection or something else? Whatever the reason, address the issue before
it makes your marriage vulnerable.
To protect your marriage’s physical intimacy, have honest conversations
with your spouse about expectations and frequency. Some couples don’t
understand that sexual desires can change over the course of a marriage.
Different seasons of life and circumstances influence sexual intimacy.
Consider, for example, the differences in physical intimacy when comparing
a young newlywed couple with no children to a couple with several children,
or compare empty nesters in their 50s to couples in their 70s or 80s.
Many couples experiencing difficulty with physical intimacy avoid talking
about the problem. God created us to be sexual beings, and staying healthy
in this area means we need to regularly tune in to our spouse’s physical
needs no matter what season we’re in.
Vulnerability No. 3: Blurred boundaries
According to the book Not “Just Friends” written by the late Dr.
Shirley Glass, couples who create and maintain adequate boundaries are less
vulnerable to affairs. She explains that couples who don’t keep
“walls” around their relationship (to keep from becoming too close to
others emotionally) and “windows” between each other (sharing emotions and
thoughts) are potentially vulnerable. When there is a wall between the
spouses and a window between one spouse and another person, the marriage is
vulnerable to an affair.
Spending a lot of time alone with people of the opposite sex can be a
concern. Whether emotional or physical, affairs often happen subtly and
gradually. What begins as an innocent conversation can move into sharing
problems, having coffee together, thinking about the other person, looking
forward to being with him or her, and so on.
You may want to start by taking inventory of your marriage. Are there
defined boundaries around your marriage? Have a conversation and ask each
other what’s acceptable regarding communication and spending time with
people of the opposite sex. You should consider putting parameters in
place. Some examples would be not spending time alone with a co-worker or
deciding to always involve three people — never just two — in work projects
Another important boundary consideration is with social media, smartphones
and the internet. With technology so entrenched in our lives, creating
clear boundaries is essential. Agree with your spouse about acceptable
behavior. Some examples of things that should be off-limits: connecting
with old relationship partners, conversations with high school sweethearts
and posting social media photos of yourself posing with people of the
Vulnerability No. 4: Waning friendship
When you and your spouse no longer feel like close friends (or you realize
you never were), it’s time to rekindle and deepen your friendship. The
sustainability of a marriage is directly related to friendship, according
to relationship expert Dr. John Gottman. Marriages with a healthy
friendship at their core enable each spouse to be supportive, caring and
understanding of the other. These couples are intimately familiar with each
other’s internal worlds, knowing each other’s feelings, needs,
disappointments and dreams. Deep friendship fosters a culture of
appreciation, trust, respect, honor and companionship — all of which can
ward off the temptation of an affair.
Regularly spending quality time together helps you grow together in the
same direction. In the hectic seasons of life, you might have to plan to
intentionally have fun together. Having a date night or day out together is
not just about keeping romance alive but also about nourishing your
friendship and protecting your marriage. Doing things together that you
both enjoy will build your friendship.
Vulnerability No. 5: Contempt
Gottman notes that contempt is the worst type of communication for a
relationship. Verbally, it can be hostile humor, sarcasm or cynicism.
Nonverbal contempt is eye-rolling, sneering or pursing the lips. Contempt
conveys disgust. Having a meaningful conversation is difficult if you feel
your spouse is disgusted with you. If left unchecked, contempt leads to
more conflict and alienation.
If someone feels unappreciated, uncared for and criticized by his or her
spouse, kind treatment by another individual can be alluring.
Gottman suggests starting conversations gently and avoiding criticism or
contempt. Instead, try expressing your feelings and your
needs instead of telling your spouse what you think is wrong with him or
her. Include appreciation and kindness in your conversation. If you’re
unable to do this on your own, seek the help of someone professionally
trained in this area. You and your spouse can learn skills for healthier,
more respectful conversations and interactions.
Vulnerability No. 6: Extreme conflict or conflict avoidance
Contempt and criticism involve hurt feelings and often lead to either more
harsh communication or one partner avoiding all conflict. When either
extreme conflict or avoidance becomes the norm, the relationship becomes
Healthy marriages are built on a foundation of trust, but managing conflict
in an unhealthy way leads to disappointment, discouragement, resentment,
pain, loneliness and the erosion of trust. Over time these negative issues
cause spouses to turn away from each other, emotionally and sexually.
It’s not necessarily the frequency of arguments a couple has but the way
they manage conflict that matters most. The best way to manage conflict is
to identify underlying needs and then communicate them in a healthy and
respectful way. It doesn’t involve raised voices or threats. Instead,
husbands and wives should listen to their spouse’s concerns and perspective
with a willingness to find solutions that are a win for both of them.
If you and your spouse are gridlocked on an issue, it may be time to
involve a professional. Or if you have a tendency to sweep big problems
under the rug and never deal with them, consider seeking help.
If you realize that any of these areas are concerns for your marriage, it
may be a good time to talk with your spouse, trusted friend or your pastor.
No matter what state your marriage is in, there is hope. I have seen the
wounds from affairs be healed, marriages restored and love reignited.
Dr. Angela Bisignano is an author and licensed clinical psychologist
specializing in relationships and marriage.
A variety of marital issues can lead to challenges or even hopelessness for one or both spouses in a marriage. Gaining a sense of hope and direction often requires understanding the underlying issues and relationship patterns which may have led to the crisis. Reach out to well-trained helpers even if you are the only person in the marriage willing to take action at this time. We can guide you as you seek a referral and take your first steps toward recovery. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or