Signs Your Marriage is Not Affair Proof

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.

 

5 Biggest Marriage Mistakes

I have counseled with thousands of individuals and marriages, trained hundreds to lead marriages courses, and led more than 80 intensive workshops for marriages in crisis. My experience is that, although there are many other common mistakes that people make, when it comes to marriage, these are the most common core issues that are hidden by the many symptoms that are more visible and obvious:

 

1.   Believing that just marrying the right person will make for a great marriage

               Some people have no business getting married. As long as they stay selfish and dysfunctional, they will not be able to have a fulfilling, long-term relationship with anyone. So many believe that there is somebody out there that will want to be with them forever, so they don’t have to learn how to really love someone. The reality is that nobody is born to be a great spouse… it’s something one grows in to. That growth comes from being a study of what it takes to be a good relater, and then becoming habituated into practicing what they’ve learned. The really good marriages are ones that have celebrated many anniversaries, filled with many ups and downs, growing along the way, and getting better and better at loving.

 

2.   Trying to change what you don’t like about your spouse

               When people look for a mate, they are not in search of someone to “fix” them. They are hoping for acceptance! Sadly, once two people decide to start a life together, they begin to notice things that conflict with their idea of a good mate. It often starts out with trivial things like whether the toilet paper should roll from the top or underneath. As these issues go on unresolved, bigger issues begin to surface. One thinks they should splurge on a nice annual vacation while the other thinks that money would be better saved for the kids’ college fund. As more and more daily, real-life problems arise, the warm-fuzzy feelings they had at the beginning start to fade. So, they begin to think, “If only my spouse was this way, my life would be better”. “If I could fix this about my mate, I would be happy again”.

So, they begin the process of trying to change each other. And, in so doing, they are giving each other the exact opposite of why they got into the relationship in the first place: Acceptance. Furthermore, you CAN’T change your mate. So the very act of attempting to do so only frustrates the both of you. On the other hand, if you choose to accept your spouse, warts and all, you grant yourself the freedom of being able to find joy no matter your circumstances.

 

3.   Letting your happiness depend on your spouse

               First of all, let me say that I believe the pursuit of happiness is, at best, a waste of time. That’s because happiness depends on your circumstances… what is happening TO you. Based on that idea, you are only happy when things are going your way. So, when things aren’t going your way, you attempt to change your circumstances. Since life is primarily about relationships, this means you spend much of your time and energy trying to change people. People don’t like to be around someone who is constantly trying to change them, so they begin to avoid you, leaving you with fewer and fewer meaningful relationships, leaving you less and less happy. Joy, on the other hand, is something you choose. It is not dictated by your circumstances. You can be having a day when everything seems to be going wrong (and everyone has their share of those days) but you still have a great day.

               Second of all, if you believe that your spouse is responsible for your happiness, then you will only see their acts of love as fulfillments of what they are required to do. And when they aren’t acting loving toward you, which everyone does from time to time, you see them as a failure to the relationship. You start liking them less which leads them to liking you less, providing you with fewer and fewer moments of happiness.

               Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for being happy! When my wonderful wife does something loving for me, I get happy. But, since I don’t require her to make me happy, then I appreciate and am thankful for those gestures. This, in turn, makes her want to do those things even more!

More and more I am discovering a bottomless well-spring of perfect, endless joy. Joanna and I are learning to pull our life-sucking IV's from each other and plugging them into a relationship with God. The difference is night and day. As we depend on God for our fulfillment we get a pure flow that is untainted by our own fears, imperfections and insecurities. What we then pass on to each other is more and more a pure, joyful, unselfish love.

 

4.   Believing that how you think and feel about your spouse depends on them

               How we think and feel about someone depends much more on what WE do than what THEY do! A real-life example might make this clearer:

               One of the first things that attracted me to my wife, Joanna, was that she could easily talk to anyone. Joanna loves to converse with people. I, on the other hand, am a little more introverted. After a couple of years of marriage I began to focus more on what I DIDN’T like about Joanna and soon I began to resent her desire to seemingly want to talk all the time. Then, a wise person advised me to start thanking God for her gift of talking. After a year of praying for this, I noticed that I had done a complete 180. I had become a person who had, once again, appreciated this difference between us.

               If you and I were to walk into the same room, at the same time, and place our hands on the same table, you might expect that how we think and feel about that table would be pretty much the same. But if you had just walked in from spending 30 minutes in a 120 degree sauna, and I had just come in from being outside in 10 degrees below zero, then we are going to feel something totally different from each other. To you, the table would feel cool. To me, table would feel warm. If I had spent the prior weekend refinishing that table, I am going to think about it differently than someone who has not invested a single moment into its condition. The table didn’t decide how we think and feel about it. Instead, our actions created our perception of it. The concept also applies to humans. The more time we take to be actively thankful for our spouse, the more we like them. The more we complain, the less we like them.

              

5.   Believing that love is a feeling

               There is no feeling called love. When you love someone, over time you will actually experience every feeling there is: Joy, anger, pleasure, sorrow, etc...  This is because love is something you DO, not something you FEEL. And, since love is something you do, you can never “fall out of love”. Spouses who never learn this great secret of life will end up on one of two roads: (1) Deciding to remain one of the many “miserably married”. (2) Going from one marriage to another when the honeymoon feelings have faded.

               On the other hand, those who understand that love is something you do, begin to learn how to get better and better at doing it, leading to a marriage that just keeps growing better and more fulfilling.

The Fear That Wrecks Marriage

Suppose I could predict, with 100 percent certainty, whether your spouse would end up leaving you or would stand by you for the rest of their life. Would you want to know? Would it make a difference in that relationship?

Let’s look at it another way: If you were afraid your spouse was eventually going to abandon you, would you treat them differently than if you knew they were always going to accept you as a person and as their spouse? 

Even if you would like to think that you would consistently act loving toward your spouse, the reality is that our perception has a tremendous amount of influence over our actions, whether we want it to or not. So far, I don’t think I will get much intelligent resistance with my line of thinking. But let’s keep chasing this rabbit a little further down the trail.

None of us are 100 percent sure that our spouse will never leave us. Some of us are more sure than others, but none of us can fully rest in the idea that we are, and will always be, totally accepted by our spouse. So, it is safe to say that we all have some degree of the fear of abandonment.

 
 

Now think about how these fears play out in day-to-day interaction. 

If one of my biggest motivations for choosing a spouse was to be closer to that person than anyone else, to experience true intimacy, emotional and relational and sexual, then I am going to have to make myself vulnerable. However, the more I fear abandonment, the less vulnerable I am going to be. In turn, the less vulnerable I am, the more my spouse will feel abandoned by me.

For example, let’s say my spouse wants to engage in more deep conversations with me, but I tend to avoid deep conversations because I might say something that could lead to being rejected. My conversation-avoidance leads my spouse to feeling unloved and, in turn, rejected, increasing the likelihood of eventually rejecting me as a spouse. Fear then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we fear rejection, the more we do things that lead to being rejected.

 
 

For several decades now, it has been widely reported that the divorce rate in North America is about 50 percent. This “statistic” has a huge impact on the collective psyche of our culture. If you told me that a huge part of my future was going to be decided by a coin toss, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to totally invest in something that has just as much chance for failure as it does for success. I’m going to keep some things to the side so that I don’t lose everything if it lands on “tails”. Sign a prenuptial agreement that lets me keep my house? Nah, that would be too obvious! Instead I will spread it out over a bunch of things that don’t seem so obvious: I’ll invest some of my time, money, energy, emotions, etc., into some safety-net things, activities, and relationships. In other words, I’m not going to fully commit to this marriage. 

The problem is, if we don’t fully commit to the marriage, we simply won’t have a good marriage. I believe this is one of the great dilemmas in how our society does relationships. But, it doesn’t have to be!

So now I must confess, for I have been a contributor to the great American marriage fear factor by quoting many of these dismal “statistics”. I haven’t been very successful at substantiating them, so instead have held the “company line” that about one-half of all marriages end in divorce. 

But what if my chances are really better than 50/50? What if there are factors which, if applied, would greatly reduce those chances? Here are some recent findings by researcher and author Shaunti Feldhahn and her team:

 
 

The vast majority of marriages are happy.

 
 
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72 percent of those married are still married to their first spouse.

 
 
 

Of Those who report being very unhappy in their marriage, 80 percent report being happily married, just five years later, with that same spouse.

 
 
 

The rate of divorce among those who are active in their faith is significantly lower than the overall average, most likely lower than 10 percent!

As Feldhahn points out in her recent book, The Good News About Marriage, the common denominator behind thriving marriages is hope.


When a spouse operates out of fear within the marriage, they tend to do a lot of things that keep the relationship on what I call “Relational Probation.” A marriage on relational probation will never see its potential. Some examples are:

 

Threatening the relationship with separation or divorce

 

Withholding affection/ love/ sex/ conversation/ approval, in attempt to get the spouse to change

 

Reinvesting (time, energy, emotions, money) into things other than the marriage

 

Developing friendships and social structures as a refuge from the marriage

 

On the other hand, when one operates out of hope, we see more of the following:

 

Showing more acceptance and less attempts to change the other


Giving love, especially when it isn’t deserved


Investing the bulk of their resources into the relationship (like they did when they were dating)


Developing friendships and social structures that have an interest in the marriage

 

Now here’s the rub: If you believe that your spouse is acting primarily out of fear, for Peter, Paul and Mary’s sake, don’t try to change them! Attempts to do so will only produce more fear that you don’t accept them. Instead, love out of hope and do more and more of the things that made them want to marry you in the first place!

When You No Longer Like Your Spouse

Hardly a month goes by that I don’t hear someone tell me that they are having significant problems with their ex-spouse. They will say things like, “My ex-husband is making my life miserable” or “My children’s mother is using the kids against me”.

A few years back, I began to take a different approach when handling such cases. After allowing them to explain a little further, I started with this question:

“Does your ex know you love them?”

The response is almost always one of confusion. Something like:

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Sometimes my question is simply met with a facial expression that seems to imply that I am from another planet.

So, I rephrase the question. 

“Does your Ex know you love your Ex?”

As you might imagine, most people don’t know what to do with this question. Many will try to help me understand that the absence of love for their ex is precisely why they are their ex. Most people who ask for a divorce do so because they define love more in terms of how they feel rather than what they do. However, there is no single emotion associated with love. 

 
 

Love can feel exhilarating, warm, happy, close, peaceful, exciting, pleasurable. Love can also feel frustrating, lonely, sad, angry, depressing and even overwhelmingly anxious.

Those who have children know the feeling, acting out of love when we are totally void of a positive emotion in the moment.

Okay, I will grant that it is more difficult to show someone love when they are characterized by unloving deeds. But who is doing the characterizing in that situation? Let’s say you and I just walked into a room that is 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I walk into that room from outside where I have just spent the last 30 minutes in sub-freezing weather. You walk into that room from a 112 degree sauna where you have just spent the last 30 minutes. We walk into the room at the same time and immediately place our hands on the same granite counter top, within 2 inches of each other. A third person asks us to describe what we think and feel about this counter top. You would describe it as cold. I would describe it as warm. It is not the counter top that dictates how each of us thinks and feels about it. It is what you and I have been doing.

I once worked with a man who was grieving the death of his wife. Two years after her death, he still missed her deeply. But three years earlier, he did not like his wife and secretly wished she did not exist. When they found out she had cancer, he began to feel guilt-ridden because he sort of liked the idea that the cancer could take her out of his world. So, he sought counsel from a respected friend. The friend instructed him to get a journal and write at least one reason, each day, why he was thankful for her. As I thumbed through the journal, something struck me.

The first day’s entry simply read, in cold, terse handwriting: “Good cook.” As I worked my way toward the back of the journal, I noticed that the entries grew longer and longer, while the writing and the words became softer and warmer. Toward the end, many of the entries were several pages long, describing his wife in terms more and more wonderful, as if written by a love-struck poet. It was not her behavior that changed the way he felt and thought about her, it was his.

Have your attitudes and feelings, toward your spouse, soured over the years? Are you having trouble dealing with your ex-spouse? Chances are, they haven't changed that much. More likely, you don’t do all those things you used to do for him or her when your relationship was new and thriving years ago.

It’s simple neurological science! How you think and feel about your spouse has much more to do with what you do than what they do!

 
 


What Makes Us Happy

The pursuit of happiness – a constitutional right – but does this pursuit really bring us more happiness? As I look around it seems to me that those who are chasing happiness are the least happy people… and I think there are some strong evidences for why this is so.

I want to back up a little in time. Let’s look at the past 40 years or so. It is likely that your grandparents didn’t hear their parents telling them:

 
 

This mantra, that the average American child has been hearing for the past 2 or 3 generations, is not only a relatively new concept in our culture, it is still an absurd notion in much of the rest of the World. From historical evidence of the past several thousand years, most of human civilization has valued the good of the people over the welfare of the individual. It was understood that the individual needs are served best when everyone pitched in for the group as a whole. But this doesn’t just apply to antiquated political and social situations. It is every bit as relevant today.

The other day I heard an interview with a person who has produced several reality TV shows. She stated that part of the formula for success was to select a cast that was made up of 70% narcissists. Each year there is a rapidly growing percentage of our population that is being diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. Children who have grown up to believe that they are the nucleus of the family have moved out into the world believing that they are the center of the Universe. So when the Universe doesn’t cooperate with what they want, it is the Universe that is blamed.

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Within the field of Psychology there are two sub-fields that have been the focus of thousands of studies: Locus of Control and Defensiveness. The overwhelming evidence from these studies is that the more we base our moods and attitudes on our external circumstances, the more likely we are to suffer from the very things we are most trying to avoid: depression, addiction, joblessness, crime, relational problems, and psychological disorders. In other words, if our emotional state depends on our circumstances, then our circumstances dictate our emotional state, as well as our mental and physical states. Translate this to relationships and you have people who eventually are never satisfied with anyone because everyone will eventually disappoint you. Why? Because they are humans and humans are imperfect.

 

So, the pursuit of happiness seems to be about attempting to set up circumstances that create a state of perpetual emotional bliss… something that just ain’t going to happen! The person who is in the pursuit of happiness finds a mate. The mate disappoints. The person is unhappy because their circumstances are not what they want. The person blames his/her unhappiness on the mate. The person looks for another mate to make them “happy”. The cycle continues.

There is another way to be. You may have had the privilege of knowing someone who lives according to this other way. (On the other hand, if you run in certain social circles you may never encounter one of these people) You may not know that they live according to a different set of ideas… they just seem to be “happy”. But what you may not realize that it is not their circumstances that are dictating their attitude. They might be out of a job. They might have a spouse that is difficult to live with. They might be suffering from a serious health condition. Yet, they seem to be happy.

This person isn’t waiting for their proverbial ship to come in. They aren’t hinging their hopes on a miracle drug. They aren’t expecting their spouse to fulfill their “needs”. In fact, their personal list of “needs” is probably much shorter than yours and mine: food, water, air, shelter. They probably even have a deep love for their spouse. This person feels complete, not because of their circumstances but because of an identity that is far greater than “self”. They have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. This doesn’t mean they have “settled”. In fact, these people are usually some of the most motivated people you will meet. They accomplish wonderful things, though that is not their ultimate goal. This person has decided that they are going to choose joy instead of pursue happiness.

 
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