How Infidelity Creeps into Marriage — and How to Protect Against It

Learn about how maintaining friendship in marriage can help your relationship.

What are the dynamics of infidelity in a marriage? Why do some people have affairs, and others don’t? Are some people just wired for infidelity? What is passion and attraction truly generated by? 

Renowned marriage psychologists Drs. John and Julie Gottman studied these dynamics and found something surprising. As it turns out, infidelity isn’t driven by sexy lingerie, diamond bracelets, expensive candlelight dinners, or a hot body. It’s grounded in something so seemingly mundane that it is easy to overlook until it’s missing from your marriage: friendship. 

Over more than 20 years, the Gottmans have collected data from thousands of married couples and have discovered “the determining factor in whether wives feel satisfied with the sex, romance, and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s friendship. For men, the determining factor is, by 70 percent, the quality of the couple’s friendship.” 

Usually, we think of friendship as the death-knell for a romance. We regularly use the term to describe a person we are not attracted to sexually. We hear it all the time: “He played the friend card.” Or, “She’s only interested in being friends.” 

To be more precise, what we’re really saying with those lines is, “I only want to be acquaintances with this person.” In other words, we’re not interested in sharing more of ourselves with them — we want to keep them at a surface level. Friendship, by contrast, is actually about intimacy. 

Here’s an analogy that might explain the way friendship functions in marriage: think of it like a protective levee. 

Just ask anyone from New Orleans if levees are important. When the levees holding back the Mississippi River broke when Hurricane Katrina hit, the city was devastated. Before that crisis, though, levees weren’t something anyone wanted to make a priority before because it didn’t sound sexy. It wasn’t going to win politicians a re-election to say, “Hey, we should make a more secure levee!” (Though maybe today it would.) 

The same dynamic is at play with friendship in marriage. It doesn’t sound sexy at first, but friendship is vitally important to the well-being of the relationship. When the storms of stress come at us in all their various forms, do we have a strong emotional levee of friendship in place to keep one or both partners from seeking comfort and safety outside of our wedding vows?

The Gottmans weren’t satisfied with just discovering that a lack of friendship between partners causes most infidelity. They also made a list of the most essential practices to help strengthen friendship in marriage. Here are four practices you can start incorporating into your relationship today.

Create cognitive room for your partner

Make space in your mind to remember things about your partner and allow them to influence your actions. Most of us already make the effort to remember the bigger things about each other, but friendship grows even more in the little things. 

Does your spouse love mushrooms even though you hate them? When ordering pizza, get half with fungus to surprise them. Or maybe your spouse has confided to you as they were leaving this morning that they are nervous about a big meeting at 11 a.m. Text them at 10:55 to encourage them, or call afterward to see how it went. Turn a small moment into a connection that builds trust by showing the other person that they matter in the tiniest of ways. 

Build a love map — and update it

Remember early in your relationship when you had time to talk with your partner about everything, and you knew so many things about them? The Gottmans call these shared learnings a “love map” that traces the contours of our personalities and experiences in one another’s imaginations. 

This love map needs regular updating. You can’t really create cognitive room for your spouse (as above) if you don’t have enough material to work with. The solution? Work in time to get to know each other again. If you have a hard time knowing where to begin, turn to resources like the question-of-the day table sets or Gottman’s free Love Map Card Deck app. 

Create rituals and habits of trust  

The Gottmans recommend setting aside time to regularly connect with your partner by creating rituals you do at the same time and in the same ways daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly. 

Sound like a lot of effort? The purpose is to create predictable ways both partners encounter emotional intimacy. That bond functions like a safety net, but it takes time to develop. Setting aside this much time and protecting it from other obligations may seem impossible at first, but here are a couple ideas to start with:

  • Find 15 minutes out of your day to check in with each other. Maybe your mornings aren’t hectic and having a cup of coffee together before the smartphones come out works. Maybe it’s a quick lunch phone call, or a face-to-face conversation in the last 15 minutes of the day before lights out. 
  • Try incorporating a once-a-week date that lasts a couple of hours. You don’t have to go out, and it doesn’t have to be expensive — just make it a special set-aside time to share a meal together without the distractions of kids, work, or social media. (My husband and I set up patio dates during the pandemic where we would make special appetizers and share a glass of wine.) 

Recognize the importance of bids

Every time we make a small request of time or energy from our partner, we are extending a bid for attention. A bid can be something as small as glancing at your partner when you laugh at a funny joke, or as serious as asking your partner to come with you to a family funeral. A bid is offered anytime we look for connection, validation, or a shared witness to our lives with our spouse.

In reality, bids come at us from all directions, all day long. We can’t open Instagram without seeing a sales pitch (that’s eerily on-point). But when we made our wedding vows, we promised that our spouse’s bid gets first priority. Attending to those bids is a key way to cultivate intimacy and friendship. 

Friendship is built with time, trust, and attention, and it creates a sense of loyalty and passion that no amount of physical attraction alone can compete with. By contrast, the physical manifestation of infidelity usually follows misplaced emotional intimacy. When we intentionally invest our emotional intimacy into our spouse, we are fulfilling our wedding vows to “love and honor” one another. The result is a boundary against infidelity and a richer, more satisfying experience of intimacy and love. 

It’s heartening to realize that the key to a strong relationship isn’t maintaining a perfect body or finding the ideal (usually expensive) get-away. Those things can be really good — staying healthy and spending time together are excellent goals to share — but the most important thing you can do for your marriage is to connect with each other in the ordinary, everyday ways you share life together. 

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