Two years ago, my wife’s wandering attention prompted me to scope phone records, where I found many lengthy calls to another man. Helen ended contact when confronted, and I think she’s been faithful since. Although she claims it was only emotional, my gut says otherwise. I still love Helen, and there are our three young children to consider, but it makes me feel crazy when she denies the sexual cheating I just know she did. Do I divorce her, or is there some way to quit feeling so jealous and angry, forgive her, and prevent this from happening again?
Others might say your jealousy, not Helen’s behavior, is the issue. But as scientific affair authority Dr. David Buss writes in The Dangerous Passion, eliminating your jealousy “…would be like smashing a smoke alarm to solve the problem of a house fire. Successful coping requires dealing with the fire.” Tristan, you sensed emotional heat at a minimum—and perhaps a full-on sexual blaze. And you stopped it, but injuries were sustained. What now?
Remain In Your Marriage. What you’re going through is tremendously difficult and, given that about half of all marriages suffer infidelity with at least one affair, frightfully common. Although it’s tempting to think of divorce as the end of your troubles, it will only change them—bringing on many new threats you won’t be able to detect or fight, as The Case for Marriagedemonstrates. Not only do divorced adults typically wind up worse-off than those who work through their problems, it’s a well-known hazard for children on every level: emotional, educational, health, income, future marital stability…kids even get less time with *either* parent after divorce. And if you leave, your children’s risk of severe sexual, physical and emotional abuse increases over 40 times, because it’s likely that Helen will eventually involve boyfriends, a stepfather, and/or new older stepbrothers in your kids’ lives—and unrelated men in the home pose the #1 factor in children’s abuse and violent death today. Do all unrelated men abuse kids? Of course not. But the vast majority of the abusers are unrelated men—and your departure opens the door.
About 2/3 of today’s divorces would be better-off avoided, according to much data—and based on what you said, I believe yours is one. Among the strong arguments in favor of staying in this marriage: Helen is not a habitual cheater; you believe she is now faithful; you still love her; recovery from infidelity is difficult but commonplace; and over 85% of couples who consider divorcing—but don’t—say they’re “very happy” within five years, according to excellent research by sociologist Dr. Linda Waite. So for everyone’s sake, I strongly advise you to Fix, Not Break, Your Marriage by doing what you can to heal and prevent another affair.
First: Understand why Helen’s infidelity is so hard to forgive. Globally, men divorce more often for wives’ affairs than any other reason, and they find sexual cheating much harder to forgive than emotional liaisons. Why? Ancestral men could never be certain the kids were theirs, so men whose jealousy helped prevent and stop women’s affairs left more progeny than men who lacked the smoke detector. Fire prevention is in your blood, and today’s men are alarmed by the very thought of a partner’s sexual infidelity: When asked to imagine being cheated on, David Buss’ heterosexual male participants’ hearts pounded, their brows knit, and their skin sweated for envisioned sexual infidelity—much more than for imagined emotional affairs.
Second: Know why women cheat. Are cheaters narcissistic, psychopathological, impulsive women with an inability to make a real emotional attachment? Yes, sometimes—but it’s not the norm. Instead, as the song says, “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers.” Most women *require* consistent signals of emotional closeness and great sex and bringin’ home that bacon—or else a “friend” may become much more. That’s because in the deepest recesses of our psyche, we know our partner’s willing and able provision of love, commitment and resources spells Survival for us and our kids, and his withdrawal presages abandonment and possibly even death. Some of the best minds in the field, such as Buss and Dr. Heidi Greiling, have amassed evidence that we’re (unconsciously) lining up a replacement, trading up, and/or getting the Best Genes for our future kids while duping our mates into providing for them, etc. Whatever it is we’re doing, this much is clear: Once we’re unhappy, we’re often doing it on the side.
Third: Prevent future fires: Stay vigilant while increasing the love you show. Tristan, keep that smoke alarm around. You’ve got a good one, and the best predictor of what any person will do, Helen included, is what they’ve done before in a similar situation. One way you’ll gain confidence is by remaining alert and seeing that your vigilance is rewarded with her continued fidelity.
But Don’t Be Obnoxious about your vigilance or the past. Not only does venting rage increase rather than release aggression in any relationship—it opposes the intimacy your wife apparently lacked when she began turning to someone else. I know that hurts; it may seem vastly unfair, and that’s not how I mean it. But you told me a lot about Helen in private, and it sounds to me like she was simply feeling lonely—a huge infidelity risk for women. In that case, increasing your show of love and affection is one of the very best things you—or any man—can do to prevent another affair because, as we’ve seen, women’s own alarms sound in response to a lack of intimate connection.
Buss’ studies have even identified the five most-effective-ranked “mate-retention tactics”, in this order. I strongly recommend using them all, starting today and moving forward:
—Say you love her;
—Go out of your way to be kind, nice and caring towards her;
—Compliment how she looks;
—Be helpful when she needs it; and
—Show more affection than before.
If you’d like a book that shows you how to excel at these, Dr. John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is outstanding. Or you can seek counseling with a goal of creating more intimacy in your marriage.
This may seem a tall order when you are justifiably angry and hurt. But Tristan, you don’t have a choice between the perfect life and this one. In all likelihood, fixing this marriage is your greatest shot at happiness, and leaving would harm those you love best. Maintain that alarm; love your wife; move forward. You’re protecting your family—something men have been needed and admired for since time began. Keep at it.
All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D. and LoveScience Media, 2009; reprinted with permission, 2013.
With special thanks to the following additional scientists for their groundbreaking work regarding affairs: Dr. Shirley Glass and her book Not “just friends” ; Dr. Thomas Wright; and Dr. Todd Shackelford.