We have worked with hundreds of marriages that have experienced extra-marital affairs. In most cases there are specific patterns of intentional behaviors that, to many, don’t seem to be harmful in the beginning.
1. Not understanding the dynamics of Limerence
Limerence is the scientific term for what the general public calls “being in love”. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it before. I was 10 years into my career as a counselor before I discovered it. I choose to use the word limerence instead because it more accurately describes this seemingly universal human dynamic, while it also correctly labels it as something other than love. Limerence is associated with strong emotions and feelings, while love is a verb… something you do. Limerence typically lasts about 6-18 months, while love lasts a lifetime because “love never fails” and “remains”. Limerence is the illusion of being fully accepted, while love is the act of acceptance, despite unacceptable behavior… something we are all guilty of from time to time.
When someone is in a state of limerence, they become totally convinced that the person, who is the object of their limerence, is the one they were naturally meant to be with. Someone who has experienced limerence more than once will believe that it is the first and only time, each time they experience it. Furthermore, the person in limerence will have an unrealistic ideation of the person they are in limerence with, lacking sound judgement. A textbook example is an 18-year-old daughter being confronted by her parents because they are concerned about the boy she is dating. When they mention his 3 convictions for drug dealing, she exclaims, “but that’s because he was saving money for college.” We often deal with men who are involved in some sort of ministry within their church. A seemingly innocent relationship is struck up with a female who is involved in the same ministry. When that relationship evolves into a full-blown affair, the guy has not only convinced himself, but is now attempting to convince others, that it was meant to be. Otherwise, why would God put them in this ministry together. (Yes, I’ve heard such an argument from multiple people)
Limerence is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Actually, I believe it is a design of God to help “jump-start” the marriage relationship, something most would be unwilling to commit to if we weren’t somewhat, unrealistically, hopeful about. However, if we don’t understand some of it’s basic features, we will not understand our need for establishing healthy boundaries for ourselves.
2. Developing friendships that can supplant the marriage friendship
Most extra-marital affairs start off as seemingly “innocent” friendships. The paramour appeared to be a “safe” person such as: a close friend of the married couple; a co-worker or fellow church member, or; even and in-law. One reason these relationships seem safe is because they are all in plain sight and part of the social circles of both spouses. It is not unusual for someone, who has had an extra-marital affair, to tell us that they weren’t even attracted to the paramour, at first. It usually starts out as a friendship.
Friendships are great but, if the level of conversation, and/or the type of activities they are involved in together, are supplanting what should be taking place within the marriage, you have a recipe for disaster! Joanna and I have some close couple friends but I choose to keep personal boundaries around myself which prohibit me from personally developing close friendships with any of the wives of those couples. Time spent with them includes Joanna at my side. If it seems to be easier to talk with one of them, about a certain subject, than it is to talk to Joanna, then that is an indicator to me that I need to work on further developing my friendship with Joanna. In fact, one of my goals is to work toward a state in life where Joanna is my first human “go-to” for ALL subjects that matter to me. Our mutual striving toward this goal has brought us closer together than I would have ever imagined in our early years of marriage. The primary thing that nudged me onto this path of deeper intimacy with my wife was setting healthy boundaries for myself.
3. Lack of appropriate boundaries
As stated earlier, most extra-marital affair relationships don’t start out with the intention of being sexually involved. We have dealt with a lot of people, people better than myself, who have found themselves in scandalous situations. I say, “found themselves” because these are people who had no intention of ever being in an affair. They often have good marriages and see themselves as “affair-proof”. Consequently, they don’t have boundaries set up for themselves that safeguard against being in the seemingly innocent situations which can so easily become problematic.
Everyone needs their own specific set of boundaries so I won’t try to tell you what yours should be. But, as an example, one of my boundaries is to avoid meeting alone with another female unless she is a blood relative. (“Alone” would include meeting for lunch or riding in a vehicle together) For some this would seem too extreme or impractical but it has served me well, time and again.
Some people have some good boundaries but fail to understand that they need to add one or two, not because they are personally at risk, but for the sake of the relationship. We often hear people say things such as, “I don’t have a problem in that area, it’s my spouse with the problem”. What they mean is that they don’t think they are in any real danger in that specific realm of life… it’s their spouse’s own weaknesses or insecurities that are the problem. I want to be very clear here: Some boundaries need to be set simply for the sake of the marriage. Some of the boundaries, that Joanna or I set for ourselves, are not because we personally think we need them. We set them because they build trust and security for our marriage.
Finally, when it comes to setting boundaries, it is very important to understand that you shouldn’t attempt to set them for your spouse. As a matter of fact, you can’t really set boundaries for them anyway. And, your attempts to do so will likely just push them further into secrecy and deceit. That being said, Joanna and I have regular conversations about our boundaries. We invite each other into examining our personal boundaries, but I know that her invitation is not a pass to be her “boundary police” and she knows the same goes for her.
Do you know of a marriage that is dealing with any of these issues or is just simply hurting? Get them to the next Love Reboot. Click on the “courses” tab above for more information.