Do you want to know one way affairs often happen? Let me tell you a story.

John and Shirley were friends with Tom and Debbie. Debbie, Tom’s wife, worked in the same office building as John, so they often went out to lunch together.

These lunch meetings weren’t secret. Shirley and Tom both knew about them. In fact, no one thought much of it, because they were all such good friends and the situation seemed “safe.”

One day Debbie met John for lunch in tears. She and Tom were having problems in their marriage. To try and console her, John gave Debbie a hug. The hug went on a few moments too long and Debbie and John both felt a spark.

They knew they had crossed an invisible boundary, but neither of them said anything about it for a number of reasons: They didn’t want to compromise the friendship, they were afraid of what had happened, they didn’t want to admit it to themselves, they enjoyed the fun they were having in the moment and they thought they could keep it under control, John wanted Debbie to continue thinking he was only comforting her in her distress, and many other reasons.

John and Debbie both went home that day after work and neither said anything to their respective spouses about what happened, largely because they could maintain a fiction: if they didn’t talk about it then it didn’t happen. They also probably didn’t want to hurt their spouses’ feelings over “nothing” Besides; they thought the situation was safe. They believed nothing would come of it.

A week went by and they didn’t see each other. Then, one day they crossed paths in their building, and Debbie pulled John into a corner and began to weep again. She and Tom seemed to be on the verge of splitting up and Debbie wanted to talk to John about her problems.

They agreed to meet for a “quick drink” after work just to talk. John called home and let Shirley know he was going to be late. He told her he was going to have a drink with Debbie to try and console her since she was having problems with Tom.

What he was really looking for was some kind of implicit permission from his wife that meeting with Debbie was okay, even though down deep he had some illicit excitement about the meeting.

Shirley agreed (again, without thinking about it), because they were all old friends and she trusted her husband completely.

That night John and Debbie went to a bar next to their office building. John noticed that Debbie seemed to be made up more than usual, but he didn’t give it much thought. After all, he straightened his tie and pressed a few of the wrinkles out of his pants beforehand.

They ordered a round of drinks and began talking. The talk was intense-intimate. They were sitting very close to each other. They looked in one another’s eyes. Their faces were inches apart.

More drinks were ordered. Debbie slipped her hand into John’s. She began thanking him profusely for his friendship. If only Tom understood her the way John did .

Debbie asked John to come back to her house so they could “keep talking.” Tom was away on business and she wanted to continue the conversation.

Knowing that he shouldn’t, knowing that he was walking a fine line, John agreed. After all, he wanted to help Debbie. He wanted to be a nice guy. He couldn’t just abandon her in this time of need could he? At least that’s the way he justified his behavior to himself.

So they went back to Debbie’s house. They started out on opposite ends of the sofa as Debbie poured another round of drinks. Soon enough they were sitting right next to each other. Their thighs were touching. Debbie leaned into John for a hug. He held her. They kissed .

John went home that night and told Shirley that he went back to Debbie’s house for another drink, but he didn’t tell her they kissed or held each other. He didn’t want to hurt his wife. He told himself he was saving her from something that wasn’t going anywhere. No need to alarm her about “something that wasn’t even happening,” which is what he pretended to himself. He was protecting her. It was “for her own good.”

Soon enough these transgressions turned into more and more lies. Eventually John and Debbie were drowned in a cycle of deception-one that started with very small steps and eventually spiraled beyond their control.

They got to a point where they didn’t think they could turn back, it would hurt too much and they seemed to be falling in love.

After they finally had sex together, John felt caught in the middle. He thought he really loved Shirley, but his guilt was pushing him to love Debbie so he could fool himself into thinking this was something special and he could fool himself into thinking he was not a common philanderer

But as more time went by, John began to realize his whole relationship with Debbie was a fantasy. It wasn’t real. The person he really loved was his wife Shirley.

Eventually he realized that the only hope he had to save his marriage was to come clean with Shirley. So he told her the truth, or at least some of the truth, and it brought their marriage to the brink of destruction.

By this time, John lied to Shirley so much that she could no longer count on anything John told her. He shattered her trust and they were both left to try and pick up the pieces.

Affairs (or other forms of betrayal) generally don’t happen because one spouse wants to tear the other apart or to destroy the marriage. Most people aren’t that malicious.

The affair happens progressively. One small lie or transgression turns into another and another until the cheating spouse goes down a slippery slope into betrayal and deceit. The cheating spouse repeatedly puts herself in situations that test her will power beyond what can easily be managed.

Think about it. Who would wake up one morning and say to himself, “I’d like to do something that will cause incalculable pain to me and the people I care most about in the world. I think I will betray the person who counts on me most and by doing so take us both down a long path of pain and remorse. I think I’ll go out and have an affair today.”

People don’t think or behave this way.

As I have said in the past, cheaters cheat because they have a character leak-a breach of integrity that allows the kinds of choices John and Debbie made in the story above.

How can you avoid a situation like this?

Put a “fence” around your marriage.

Draw some specific boundaries about behavior that is acceptable and behavior that isn’t acceptable. Discuss this with your spouse and come to an agreement between each other and within yourself that you will monitor your actions and do your best not to cross the boundaries you establish.

Building a Fence around Your Marriage is an Exercise in Risk Management

If John and Debbie were serious about their marriage, there were many points where they could have set boundaries and changed the outcome.

And, if they didn’t want to risk an affair in the first place, John and Debbie shouldn’t have been going out to lunch so regularly to begin with.

Just consider the story above. It isn’t unusual. In fact, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard similar stories.

Even if you think your particular situation is safe, it may not be. The paramour is often a person both the cheater and the injured once felt was “totally safe.”

Why be so socially conservative about socializing with the opposite sex? Because the risk is simply too great. How much do you value your marriage? Repeated lunch dates with a friend of the opposite sex (or other similar interactions) could lead to an affair. Is this a risk you are willing to take?

If you have already had an affair, the risk is greater that it will happen again, particularly if you are still interacting with people of the opposite gender in the same way you did before the affair.

And this time you may not get another chance.

So I recommend you build a fence around your marriage. Here is what to do.

How to Build a Fence around Your Marriage

This is basically a two-step process.

The first step is to become sensitive to activities, actions, and people that could endanger your relationship and set internal boundaries for yourself regarding these dangers.

This will only work if you are willing to be honest when your internal sensors are telling you not to get involved in a particular situation.

This is one of the skills for creating and maintaining a long-term, loving relationship. And, in my view, it’s worth it.

Potentially dangerous situations you might want to avoid include:

. Physical touch of any kind (unless your spouse is explicitly comfortable with this and with the person you are touching)
. Long, intimate phone calls, emails, or other communications
. Drinks after work

This is only a partial list of dangerous situations. You should think about your experiences and write your own list.

If any of these situations does occur, it is your responsibility to go home and tell your spouse about it immediately and in full detail. This means revealing your own feelings about the situation and even the temptations you experienced.

This won’t be easy. But it is part of the price you pay for a wonderful marriage. In the long run your spouse will appreciate your honesty (even if he or she is made uncomfortable or even angry by it in the moment), and this will lead to a deepened feeling of trust in your marriage.

The second step is to sit down and discuss boundaries explicitly with your spouse. For example, you might review some personal experiences with persons of the opposite sex and talk about which of these made your spouse uncomfortable.

Another way to approach this is to ask one another a series of graded questions about potential situations. For example you may start with, “How would you feel if we hugged at the shoulder when we met?” or, “How would you feel if we kissed on the cheek when we met?”

Experiencing this exercise can help you develop a better understanding between you about where your boundaries lie.

The key is to make a commitment within yourself to stick to these boundaries.

Building a fence around your relationship helps complete the work you have done to rebuild honesty and trust. If you do it well, your spouse will feel more comfortable as he or she recognizes that you have made an internal commitment to stick to these boundaries.

Using these steps and the ones I outlined in the last two articles in this series will help you rebuild honesty and trust in your marriage and create a relationship that is better than ever.

In the meantime, let me know how it goes with you. I’d love to hear about your marriage. Post a comment to this blog by clicking the comments links below.

Wishing you hope and healing for your marriage,

Stephanie Anderson

Editor-in-Chief

Marriage Sherpa

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