Are "Friends" a Threat to Your Marriage?

By Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.

One of the extraordinary precautions I mention when discussing the topic of avoiding affairs is to rule out friends of the opposite sex. To many, my recommendation seems to be an overreaction at best and downright paranoid and controlling at worst. After all, it's healthy to have friends of the opposite sex whether or not you're married. Right?

Well, it's been my experience counseling thousands of couples that opposite-sex friends pose the greatest risk for infidelity. True, there are those who go shopping for sex on the internet or have one-night stands with total strangers while on a trip. But that's not the typical affair. The most common affair is with someone who has become a friend.

Work is a place that many find these friendships, but they are also found in recreational settings, volunteer organizations, and even church. What starts out as casual conversation develops into intimate conversation where personal problems are revealed and help is offered by the friend. Massive Love Bank deposits are made when that happens. The next thing you know, you're hooked.

I've read thousands of letters describing the anguish of betrayed spouses caught in this web, but I'm using the letter I received this week to remind you that danger lurks in what often appears as an innocent friendship.

Dear Dr. Harley,

I am thirty-four years old and my wife is a few years younger. We have been married for ten years and have two children together ages seven and five -- no other children or prior marriages. After discovering some compelling evidence that my wife has been having an emotional affair with a co-worker, I confronted her about it. At first she denied it, but after reading some things on your website about what an emotional affair is, she apologized for it. She said she was just talking to him as a friend and getting a male perspective. Since then (Oct. 2009), she said, she has not seen or talked to him until this last Saturday morning. It was her typical work day, but not his. I believe it stirred up feelings in her. She called me right away when she found out that he was there. Do I mention to her boss about what is happening - so they do not work together again? I'm devastated.

We talked about how she was feeling and she had brought up what she had read about "not to trust" your spouse in your Q&A column, "Coping with Infidelity." This goes against everything she knows about trust. Can you explain? She wants me to trust her, but I am having a hard time trusting. She believes I am insecure. She is on a social networking site and has a personal email which she keeps hidden from me. I do know that the man in question is divorced with one child and is one of her friends on that site.

My wife says she is losing who she is. She used to be able to be friends with anybody she wants and that I am trying to control her. She is an extroverted person and I am not. Recently she asked if she could go to Hawaii with a married friend, whom I do not know, and meet up with another friend who lives there. We were trying to save enough to go together, but she said it would be cheaper for just her. Also, a married relative who is a few younger than my wife asked her to go to Florida for the weekend. This one I am feeling OK with more so than the Hawaii one. Both my parents and her parents have done separate trips/vacations. What is your take on this?


Dear K.R.

You did the right thing by confronting your wife about her emotional affair. And your wife certainly did the right thing by telling you about the feelings she had for him, and making a commitment not to see him or talk to him again. She also did the right thing by calling you to tell you that he showed up unexpectedly at work. But her attitude about privacy in marriage (hiding email and communication on a social networking site) and taking separate vacations raises a huge red flag. Why wouldn't she want you to know about her personal correspondence? Does she have something to hide? Is she still communicating with her co-worker or a new male friend behind your back? And why would she want to spend her most enjoyable moments apart from you?

Those who have had affairs almost always want to be trusted. They usually don't like to be held accountable by making their lives transparent. But it is transparency that makes them trustworthy. Without it, trust is never regained.

As you've read in some of my posted Q&A columns, I believe that we can trust our spouse to avoid an affair under some conditions, and cannot trust them under other conditions. Of course, those conditions vary from person to person, but one condition that makes most people very vulnerable to an affair is the feeling of romantic love for someone other than their spouse. And unless a person understands how romantic love is created, they are usually blind-sided when they experience it.

Your wife's relationship with her co-worker probably began with ordinary conversation about work-related issues that developed into intimate conversation when they talked about their personal problems. It was probably very innocent at first, because neither understood that they were making massive deposits into each other's Love Banks. But before long, those deposits triggered intense feelings of love that they communicated to each other, and the rest is history.

What happened to your wife, happens thousands of times every day to husbands and wives who feel they should be able to have friends of the opposite sex. They don't see the danger of falling in love when their intimate emotional needs are met outside of marriage. They usually understand that sex is off limits. But they rarely see intimate conversation (communication of emotional reactions and personal problems) as the first step to an affair. If enough Love Bank deposits are made to trigger romantic love, then our instincts to meet the intimate emotional needs of affection and sexual fulfillment become almost irresistible. Your wife has said that her affair was just emotional, but you can be sure that if you had not discovered it and she had not put an end to it, it would have become sexual as well.

Your wife is undoubtedly now comparing you to her friend, and finding you wanting. You're not as much fun, not as interesting, not as easy to talk to. That's partly because she's not in love with you anymore. Her primary motive to remain married to you is probably her concern for your two children. And she's right to be concerned. A divorce would be a disaster for them. She has decided to stay married to you for their sake, even though it means she must leave her soulmate behind. But she doesn't understand how important it will be for your children, and for each of you, to restore her love for you - for you to be her soulmate. And she doesn't understand how her love for you can be restored.

How to survive an affair.

The first step in solving the problem you both face is to create extraordinary precautions that make contact with your wife's co-worker essentially impossible. A change of jobs or even cities may be the ultimate answer, especially if your wife's friend can show up at will where she works. Trying to work out something with her boss is unlikely to have the effect you want.

Another precaution that would be much easier to implement is that your wife make all of her email, social networking correspondence, texting, and cell-phone records available to you. Complete transparency is an essential ingredient in recovering from an affair.

If your wife feels that such strict measures of accountability are unreasonably oppressive, consider the alternatives. If she doesn't do these things, you will never know whether or not her relationship has rekindled or a new relationship has begun. You will forever mistrust her, and for good reason. Without these measures, her relationship may actually continue. But if you implement such "extraordinary measures," it will make it easier for her to end her relationship with her co-worker and make it easier for you to trust her.

Ending this affair will be a great achievement for your wife. But the experience should teach her an important lesson about friends of the opposite sex and how dangerous they can be to your marriage. She used to feel that she could have any friends she chose, male or female. Now she should understand that any male friend can become a lover if enough Love Bank deposits are made.

The second step to end this crisis is for you to do whatever it takes to restore your wife's feeling of love for you. That means learning how to associate her best feelings with you and how to avoid associating her worst feelings with you. That can be a very tough assignment in the situation you find yourselves.

You already know that my #1 goal for couples is that they make as many Love Bank deposits, and as few Love Bank withdrawals, as possible. I want their Love Bank accounts to be over the top so that they experience romantic love for each other throughout their lives together.

With that goal in mind, consider the importance of recreational activities. Can there be an easier way to make Love Bank deposits than to be together while enjoying your favorite leisure activities? I think you can see why I encourage all couples to be each other's favorite recreational companions. Love Bank deposits are made almost effortlessly.

The most likely reason that your wife wants to vacation separately is that she's not in love with you. Her emotions are encouraging her to avoid you when she is enjoying herself. If left to her emotional reactions, she would not want to build Love Bank balances with you at all. To fix this problem, her intelligence must override those emotional reactions long enough for you to stop making Love Bank withdrawals and start making deposits. Once her love for you is restored, there won't be any more talk of separate vacations.

But at present, you are probably causing your wife to become very upset with you. She probably feels that you're responsible for her "losing who she is." If you would just leave her alone, and let her follow her own instincts, she would find herself again. But I'm afraid she would lose you in the process. How long can you put up with a wife who's following her instincts when she's in love with another man? Instincts are very destructive in that situation.

Don't make matters worse by making Love Bank withdrawals when you should be making deposits. Avoid demands, disrespect, and anger at all costs. Take every opportunity to talk to your wife in a way that expresses your care for her, rather than the resentment you feel. On the other hand, continue to encourage your wife to read the advice I give to those who are trying to survive an affair. It works every time when followed.

One of the biggest mistakes a betrayed spouse can make is to dwell on the affair. Don't ever bring up the subject after your wife's affair has ended, and you are both working together toward recovery. Every conversation about her affair will make massive Love Bank withdrawals, something you should avoid at all costs.

Three rules can help you restore your love for each other.

K.R., in case you missed my last newsletter, I'll repeat some of the points I made in it that will help you in your effort to recover.

Rules have a great deal to do with the outcome of our lives. If we follow them, we tend to be happy and fulfilled. If we don't, we tend to fail. Just like traffic rules that are written to help us get to our destination safely, marital rules are designed to help create a safe and fulfilling marriage. But as with all rules, we are usually tempted to break them. After all, why have a rule if we already feel like following it?

One of my cardinal rules for marriage is the Policy of Joint Agreement (POJA): Never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse. This rule is based on the fact that almost everything one spouse does affects the other. Another way of putting it is that almost everything one spouse does either makes deposits into or withdrawals from the other spouse's Love Bank. That being the case, each spouse should consider the other spouse's interests and feelings before doing anything. It's not only the thoughtful thing to do. It's also the smart thing to do if you want to be in love with each other.

The POJA is required in marriage because we're often tempted to violate it - make decisions that benefit ourselves at the expense of our spouse, and make Love Bank withdrawals when we should be making deposits. When we yield to that temptation, marriage suffers. But when we make decisions with mutual enthusiastic agreement, marriage thrives. Since we're tempted to do what would make our marriage suffer, the POJA is a rule that may be occasionally annoying, but in the end it helps keep us from ruining our marriages. The same can be said for speed limits.

Another cardinal rule for marriage is the Policy of Radical Honesty (PORA): Reveal to your spouse as much information about yourself as you know: Your thoughts, feelings, habits, likes, dislikes, personal history, daily activities and plans for the future.

This rule is based on the fact that honesty serves three very important functions in marriage.

  1. Honesty helps couples understand each other so they can make appropriate adjustments.
  2. Honesty builds Love Bank balances-honesty and openness is one of the important emotional needs.
  3. Honesty prevents the Love Bank withdrawals that dishonesty creates-dishonesty is one of the six most destructive Love Busters.
As is true for the POJA, we need this rule because we're all tempted to break it. And when it's broken, our marriage suffers.

A third cardinal rule for marriage is the Policy of Undivided Attention (POUA): Give your spouse your undivided attention a minimum of fifteen hours each week, using the time to meet each other's intimate emotional needs for affection, intimate conversation, sexual fulfillment, and recreational companionship.

This rule is based on the fact that it takes time to meet the most intimate emotional needs, and unless time is scheduled, they won't be met.

At first, when a couple is in love, it's easy to meet the needs of affection, intimate conversation, sexual fulfillment, and recreational companionship when they find the time. But after children arrive, time for undivided attention is squeezed out of their lives, and they no longer make the massive Love Bank deposits that meeting those needs produce. When they are no longer met, the couple loses their love for each other, which makes it far more difficult to meet those needs, even when they find the time.

To restore love, a couple must schedule fifteen hours each week to meet each other's intimate emotional needs even if they think it's a waste of time. Because they're not in love, meeting these four needs doesn't seem natural. The easiest need of them all to meet when out of love is recreational companionship, but your wife even suggests skipping that one (separate vacations).

But when couples make an effort to meet these four needs every week, enough Love Bank deposits are made to eventually breach the romantic love threshold. When that happens, meeting all four needs becomes almost effortless. At that point, a smart couple will never again fail to follow the POUA.

These three points I've just made identify three important failures in your marriage that will ultimately lead to divorce unless some changes are made soon. Your decisions are not being made jointly, failure to be open and honest has created a secret second life (at least for your wife), and you are not meeting each other's intimate emotional needs. These failures have undoubtedly led to a loveless marriage that has left a vacuum that your wife's friend was willing to fill for her. The path to recovery is very narrow, and you must both use all of the intelligence you can muster to follow it. But as I mentioned earlier, this path always leads to full recovery.

Best wishes,
Willard F. Harley, Jr.

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