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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

#28: Protocol for handling MARITAL INFIDELITY

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Every building has clear instructions for evacuation in case of fire. Every airplane flight begins with a demonstration of how to respond in case of emergency. Every country has a protocol for responding to natural disasters.

So why not have a game plan for when/ if you or your partner effs up on the vow of monogamy?

It's not a very pleasant thought, especially for those of us who are engaged and all bright-eyed and hopeful. BUT. If there's one thing I've learned about monogamy (from personal experience and the experience of...oh, human beings in general), it's that monogamy is hard as hell to pull off. More importantly, anyone is susceptible to slipping up because no person in the world has lived without ever having made a mistake. No, not even your wonderful fiance. And not even you. While it may be true that neither you or your partner have cheated in the past, it would be naive to be 100% certain that it won't happen in the future. Sorry.

So my fiance, Brian, and I have designed a protocol for handling marital infidelity. When we say our vows in 5 weeks, we intend for our union to be a permanent one, which means that there are no deal-breakers (unless abuse of spouse or children are involved). So...we've designed a "break in case of emergency" glass box; a game plan for when disaster strikes. We've also discussed the "preventative medicine" we must take in order to heighten our chances of success.

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What does this involve? Well, mostly heart-wrenching honesty. Brian and I talked about what forms of "harmless flirtation" piss us off, and what kinds of situations are just too risky ("Want to go grab a drink after work, just the two of us?" asks cute new secretary.) We agreed that if we ever had a major crush on someone we see regularly, that we would share this with one another so that secret crushes don't snowball and turn into secret affairs. We discussed whether or not a one-time drunken kiss is a form of cheating that's worth a small mistake like that could lead to long-lasting psychological scarring for the victimized partner...and how such a humongous consequence does not match the relatively small crime. And finally, we discussed how we would respond if an affair had taken place. Our general plan* in case of infidelity:

  • Immediate divorce: No
  • Temporary separation: Possibly but not necessarily (many factors to consider here)
  • Counseling/ Therapy (individual and/or marital): Hell yeah.

I am the keeper of many married couples' secrets. On more than one occasion a person very near and dear to my heart has shared that their partner has cheated, that they themselves have had an affair, or that they had been "the other woman". Please note: these people are very close to me and I love them. They are not a bunch of low-life cheaters on the prowl, succumbing to every vice under the sun. On the contrary, I tend to roll with folks who are like me -- educated, hard-working professionals who are very close with their circle of family and friends, and are generally traditional in their values yet open-minded.  They are real people with big hearts who have effed up (or been effed over) at some point in their lives.

So all of this to say that having a protocol for handling disaster is not only for walking screw-ups with a history of cheating. And a protocol for handling marital infidelity is not a permission slip to make out with that cute co-worker during happy hour just because you and your partner have a back-up plan. A protocol is simply a smart thing to have...and, I will argue, a loving thing to have. Why? Because if you truly want to protect your relationship, you'll do anything to prepare for the realities of married life. You'll muster all of your courage to have those uncomfortable yet necessary conversations. You'll be brave enough to acknowledge marriage as it is, and not just hope for how you think it should be.

So go home, talk to your partner, and design a protocol of your own. Be brave in the name of love.

*OUR plan is not YOUR plan. This works for us based on our values and attitudes toward marriage. 


  1. Very interesting. I have to disagree with you on this one, but I like your approach and think it will work for you guys. Our approach was different. We both said going into the marriage that infidelity IS a deal breaker for us. Does that mean we will never cheat? Hopefully, but as you mentioned there are no guarantees. But what is DOES guarantee is that should either one of us cheat, we do so knowing in advance that we are engaging in a "deal breaker." We know how much this particular action would hurt our partner, and we also know ahead of time the consequences of that action. I can't imagine a scenario where i would cheat on my husband. It goes against everything I beleive in. I believe, though can't guarantee, that my husband would never cheat on me. Even though we both have defined it in our relationship as a deal breaker, I feel better knowing that it was something we discussed before hand. I think it's important for each individual couple to discuss this issue before hand and decide as a couple what it means to them.

  2. Well said. Even though Brian and I have a different protocol from you guys, it's great that you've discussed ahead of time what your deal-breakers are and that you've come to an agreement. I also like when you wrote "should either one of us cheat, we do so knowing in advance that we are engaging in a 'deal breaker'." Communication and clarity can make a mess feel more manageable.

    One question...IF (a big if) you were to cheat, but you regretted it and didn't want a divorce, would you feel pressured to keep it a secret knowing that being honest would lead to a definite break-up? That sure is a heavy load to take to your death bed!

    Of course, all of this is speculation. Who knows what you or I would REALLY decide if the time ever came. We could end up on Jerry Springer, pulling the hair of the "other woman" shouting "Step off, b*tch, he's MY man!" ;)

  3. Sorry, was bogged down with work yesterday so just getting to respond today. Interesting question!!! I am nortiously BAD at keeping secrets. I'd like to beleive that I would come clean, even if I didn't want to divorce. I don't think I could spend the rest of my life with such an ugly secret. I feel like I would have to live with the consequences of my choice, rather than perpetuating a lie.
    Very good point too that we never know how we'll really react in the event of an actual love emergency, no matter how careful one plans ahead. Good food for thought...

  4. Love the blog (found you through APW) and this is such an interesting post! I love that both you and commenter Steph have a game plan, have discussed the "worst case scenario" up front. I think that's such a great idea!

    I once read about a very sweet idea: couples write each other letters that are sealed and put away, in case of emergency. Letters to remind you how you feel now, when your relationship is strong and healthy. In those tough moments that inevitably come with any relationship, out come these letters for each other. I really love that idea, and plan on doing just that with my partner.

  5. Welcome, Beets! Always a pleasure to meet fellow APW readers on here. :)

    And I must agree that the letter-in-case-of-emergency thing is so "Awwwwwww!"

    Totally borrowing that idea. It would be a great activity for a couple to do together the night before the wedding. In fact, I might just go ahead and do that!

  6. I love this idea, and the letter-in-case-of-emergency. People tend to be too afraid to talk about these things, but it's so important. And to me it's important to open my mind to the idea that I change, and things I once thought were deal-breakers may not be.

  7. Hi Jolynn! And welcome. :)

    " my mind to the idea that I change..." - YES! It's kind of scary not knowing who you'll grow to be, or who you'll disappoint because of it. I guess all we can do is be open and talk to our partner during and throughout our changes so that they don't wake up next to a stranger one day. This kind of slow-moving alienation, as I've seen in many relationships, is more common that I feel comfortable acknowledging. Scary!

  8. This is such a terrific post. I think speaking about divorce and infidelity and how you'd handle it is a must. Sometimes you have to consider possible ends before you can really make a beginning.

    Apologies for my bastardised T.S.Eliot.

  9. I welcome all forms of bastardization. "A" for effort is my general policy. ;)

  10. HOLY CRAP, Kim. I found you through APW and have been reading through your blogs.

    Mental HIGH FIVE for this blog. You just summed up everything I believe about marriage & infidelity.

    You rule.

  11. Yay! I love fellow APW readers. :)

    I appreciate the mental high five, Cortney. I don't often get one regarding our personal infidelity protocol. I posted this on Facebook and it wasn't very popular. Nope. Not at all.

    For most people cheating is a deal-breaker, and at one point in time it was for me. But that was before I got engaged to Brian. Actually, my change of heart has nothing to do with Brian (although he is quite awesome), but more to do with getting older and understanding marriage differently.

  12. I actually just had that problem two days ago!

    I commented on a friend's status on Facebook where they asked a hypothetical question about cheating, and I summed up my thoughts about marriage & infidelity (which my boyfriend shares - we both take the idea of marriage very seriously). I got a total shit storm (pardon my poor French) about "How could you take back a cheater? That is such a deal breaker for me!" And I said something to the effect of:

    "Well, if I go into a marriage with someone, I go in it with the mindset that this is for life (save for abusive situations, as you've stated). The same goes for my husband. If we're not on the same page about that, then there's no way I'd marry him. Everyone is human and prone to mistakes. Yes, it hurts. Yes, it takes a ton of work to fix something of that magnitude. But that's what marriage is. So long as both parties go into it knowing damn well what they got themselves into, and are determined to fix whatever problems they may have, then I believe it's possible to recover from extra-marital issues."

    It's great when the person you're in a relationship actually agrees with you and doesn't give you that same Question Mark face everyone else does. lol You and your fiancé sound very balanced. *:)

  13. Another APW fan!
    And I love this post. It was your "cold feet" post that really helped me get through my own, and I only wish I'd read this weeks ago when Himself & I had a protracted and potentially painful argument about infidelity. We eventually came to see each other's viewpoints, and it felt so good to come to a unified strategy.
    To me the "infidelity as deal-breaker" idea has never sat well. I am a monogamist for sure, but to me, getting a physical thrill from someone else isn't any more hurtful than, say, never coming to my show or verbally insulting me. All of those things show a lack of regard for me, but they happen for a reason, and it's probably partially the result of some negligence on my part, too. But none of them would automatically cause me to give up the family unit I committed to, something I'd given my heart and soul to.
    So our plan is to recognize the red flags, to notice when we want to shut ourselves off from the other person and bring that information to the other person. Then, we figure out what we can do to feel more understood and appreciated, which should keep up from finding comfort elsewhere.
    So thanks for putting this in the heads of us getting-marrieds.

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