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Why Affairs Happen: Sometimes they can hit even happy marriages if we're not careful about seasons of distance.

I was talking last night with my husband about a couple that had recently split. She had had an affair, and after living with the guy for a time had tried to rebuild her marriage. That didn’t work.

And so we got thinking about why affairs happen. Is there some secret ingredient?

One thing I am very uncomfortable with is the idea that a physical or emotional affair is always caused because there’s something lacking in the marriage. I’m not sure that’s true. I think it’s true in plenty of cases, but I think some affairs happen in perfectly happy marriages.

Let me try to sketch out the path for you.

In every happy marriage, even when you’re getting along with your husband well, you will inevitably experience Seasons of Distance, when you go through a few weeks or months where you don’t connect well.

We’ve gone through such a season over August and September because in August Keith and I were both very stressed. I had a personal crisis I was dealing with, and he had a professional one. In the middle of all that, we were simply away a lot and very busy. Come September, I started traveling for speaking and taking off with my mom for a vacation, and we just didn’t see each other much.

Was anything wrong in our marriage? Nope. Did I still totally love Keith? Absolutely. But I think it’s in those seasons of distance–which every couple will inevitably have–that we can encounter danger of new relationships, especially emotional entanglements, growing.

The key to preventing affairs is to make sure that seasons of distance don’t also become seasons of carelessness.

Picture this: You’re getting along well with your husband, but then you stop really confiding in him much for a week or two or even longer because of inevitable distance. Maybe he’s busy at work, or maybe you are. Maybe you have a sick parent or a sick child. Maybe you’re just experiencing a few crises.

And in the middle of that, you start spending more time with someone from work, or church, or the neighbourhood, or wherever. You don’t mean to, and you don’t mean anything by it. But he starts confiding in you about something, and an intimacy develops. That intimacy grows, and you feel yourself pulled very much towards him. And therein lies the danger.

I remember a woman in my small group once telling us that she had to be very careful at work, because one of her male co-workers, who was about the same age, used her as a sounding board for a lot of his marriage problems. He’d tell her what was going on at home and look to her for support and advice. It got to the point where she had to make sure wasn’t assigned the same task as him during the same shift so that she wasn’t alone with him. She was afraid that he was getting too intimate.

She was also a smart woman, because what if she hadn’t taken that approach? What if she had kept talking to him, and started to feel emotionally attached to him? And then slowly but surely she and her husband entered one of their seasons of distance, when you don’t see each other, connect, or make love very often.

Suddenly that season of distance can become a season of carelessness, too, and now you’ve got a real problem–a real risk for an affair.

I know many spouses where their husband has cheated, and they look back and say: what did I do wrong? How was I to blame? But I’m truly not sure that the non-offending spouse does play a role. I think the inevitable seasons of distance can produce perfect conditions for an affair to bloom.

Business trips are notorious for this, because you’re away from your usual constraints and from your responsibilities. You start to think of yourself differently, because you’re thinking primarily of yourself, and not your family. And in that situation, an affair can begin even if you were happy at home.

I’m not writing this post to scare the living daylights out of you, so that all of you will suspect that your husbands are going to cheat on you! So never fear.

I just mean that none of us should ever feel like we are immune from the danger of an affair.

I think there are times when all of us are susceptible, if the right conditions come. And I also don’t want people to think that if their husbands stray, it is somehow their fault. In some marriages, I do believe that the spouse contributes to the affair by their neglect or even malice. But in many marriages I don’t know that it is the case.

So what is the solution?

Preventing an affair is about identifying when you’re going through that season of distance, and then in pulling together anyway.

Make sure you talk everyday, even when things are tough and schedules are busy. Make sure you pray together, even if you have to snatch a prayer or pray on the phone. Make sure that you buy little somethings for your husband, like pick him up a chocolate bar when you pick up one for yourself, or write him a little note. And then recognize, during those seasons when life is busy and you are more distant, that you are more vulnerable than you think. Don’t be in a situation where you can develop intimacy with another guy.

Does that make sense? Does that match up with what you’ve seen? Have you ever seen a marriage that looks really good disintegrate because of an affair, and wondered how it happened? Let me know!

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