affairs

Guardrails: Healthy Relationship Boundaries

Years ago I watched a video series called Guardrails by renown pastor and author, Andy Stanley. The idea was simple: set up guardrails, or boundaries, for your relationship so that you're not ever even close to the edge of being unfaithful to your partner. The execution, however, is not so simple. My primary specialization is infidelity, so you can imagine how many individuals and couples step foot in my office with poor guardrails or ones that are demolished to the point they're unrecognizable.I think most people would agree that you need some healthy boundaries between yourself and members of the opposite sex once you're in a committed, exclusive relationship. The problem is, many tend to see just how close to the cliff they can get before hitting a guardrail. I always use the guardrails on the roads for comparison. If you had a road near a steep cliff, do you want the guardrails as close to the cliff as possible, or set back a ways to where you could hit the guardrails without being in any danger of going over? Vice President Mike Pence seems to be the poster child for guardrails these days, good and bad. Many see his boundaries as too rigid and ridiculous, such as not ever dining alone with a woman who isn't his wife. Although I don't personally ascribe to the same set of guardrails, I do applaud him for putting his marriage before professional and social obligations. I'll tell you this much: I bet his wife doesn't question his dedication to her and their marriage.Do I think everyone reading this blog needs to commit to never dining with a person of the opposite sex? No, certainly not. Do I think most of us could do a better job of agreeing on an explicit set of guardrails with our spouse and holding ourselves accountable? The infidelity numbers in this country and in my office say "absolutely." I'm certainly not going to tell anyone what their specific boundaries should be, but I will always advise that you and your partner agree to your boundaries so that everything is easily interpreted and applied by both parties. This is especially important if either of you have experienced a breach of trust in your past. Here are some potential guardrails for you to discuss with your partner:

  • Is it okay to be linked on social media to our exes?
  • Is it okay to talk/text/message an ex or any member of the opposite sex?
  • How little and how much are we expected to share with our partner when we do interact with the opposite sex?
  • Are we comfortable dining alone with members of the opposite sex? For work? Personally? What's the protocol?
  • Is it okay to flirt with others? How do you define flirt? How far is too far?
  • Are we willing to communicate with each other if either of us feels a legitimate romantic interest in someone else is starting to form?

I know that last one seems like a trap, and I can't promise you it's going to go well if you tell your partner you're starting to develop even the slightest inkling of feelings for someone else. But I challenge you to find a way you can have an affair if you and your partner are sharing that level of detail with each other when an interest starts to develop. Although much of my work is in helping people recover from affairs, I also spend a lot of time helping people "affair-proof" their relationship. I can't tell you where your line should be, but the firmer and further back those guardrails, the less likely you are to fall over the edge.

Infidelity - Clouded By Myth

According to couples therapists, infidelity is the second most difficult relationship problem, surpassed only by domestic violence. Most of the time, the other partner gets blindsided in the knowledge about their partner’s affair. Affairs do not have to be sexual for there to be infidelity. Sometimes the greatest betrayals happen without touching. Infidelity is any emotional or sexual intimacy that violates trust. “At least one or both parties in 50% of all couples, married and living together, straight and gay, will break their vows of sexual or emotional exclusivity during the lifetime of the relationship.” While most people want to be loving and dedicated to their partner, there obviously needs to be more awareness of the appropriate boundaries in friendships, work relationships, and internet interactions. Where are the lines between platonic and romantic feelings outside of the couple relationship? What are the signs or myths to look for? First and foremost, anytime there is a secret emotional intimacy, there is potential for an impending betrayal. Here are some myths encompassing affairs:Myth: Affairs happen in unhappy or unloving marriages/relationships.Fact: Affairs can happen in good marriages.Myth: Affairs occur mostly because of sexual attraction.Fact: The lure of an affair is how the unfaithful partner is mirrored back through the adorning eyes of the new love. Another appeal is that individuals experience new roles and opportunities for growth in new relationships.Myth: A cheating partner almost always leaves clues, so a naïve spouse must be burying his or her head in the sand. Fact: The majority of the affairs are never detected.Myth: The person having an affair isn’t ‘getting enough’ at home.Fact: The truth is that the unfaithful partner may not be giving enough.There is hope after an affair. If both partners are willing and wanting to stay together, here are some ways to bring about healing:

  1. Find a therapist whom you can trust and confide in. Make sure both of partners feel validated and heard in the therapy session.
  2. In order to rebuild intimacy, you must be willing to talk about the affair with the betrayed partner. “Trying to recover without discussing the betrayal is like waxing a dirty floor.”
  3. The aftermath of an affair can offer partners who are still committed to their marriage an opportunity to strengthen their bond. “Exploring vulnerability often leads to a more intimate relationship.”
  4. If you notice you and/or your partner turning outwards in the relationship instead of towards one another, seek help before bigger issues emerge. All relationships need tweaks and tune ups every now and then. Nevertheless, when the tweaks are not attended to, that leads to greater risk of greater damage.

Adapted from: Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity.” By Shirley P. Glass, Ph.D.