Think an Affair Can Improve Your Marriage?


The folks at Your Tango recently claimed Sometimes Cheating Can Actually HELP Your Marriage. But they offered no data suggesting it ever has done so.
Instead, they referred to a 2009 blog post by Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., a board certified counselor in Pennsylvania.
With no data at all, Formica mused that a person might improve his or her marriage by recognizing he or she was in or moving toward an affair.
This, in my experience, is a thought that occurs to an awful lot of people as they contemplate an affair — or soon after succumbing to temptation.
Oh yes, my marriage will be better if I just get some more interesting sex. Or have someone to really listen to me. Or can have sex at work as well as home. Or find a hobby to fill all the time between those rare moments when we can be together.
Baloney! The only way back to love is through love.
Lies drive you further apart. Broken vows damage your will to be the better man or woman your spouse imagines you to be.
Being listened to by someone else won’t repair the loss of intimate communication with your spouse.
Routine, boring sex doesn’t become more enjoyable or endearing with a dash of excitement on the side.
Spending even less time together doesn’t restore the love you used to feel for each other.
Finding ways to tolerate an unhappy marriage does not benefit the two of you or your children.
The emotion of love requires daily sharing of positive emotional experiences. Check out Barbara Frederickson’s Love 2.0 research for the evidence.
The commitment of love involves thinking of yourself as part of an “us,” not as an individual independently maximizing your own happiness, as shown by Caryl Rusbult’s and others’ research.
Research by Rusbult and others shows positive illusion and positive sentiment override are important to your spouse’s commitment to you, and you put them on the line with an affair.
John Gottman’s research shows that the ratio of positive to negative interactions is vitally important to remaining a couple. It’s 5:1 or better while discussing disagreements and 20:1 or better in ordinary conversation for those in stable, happy relationships.
How do you manage 20:1 when you’re working to keep your secrets or comparing your two separate lives during an affair?
You can also turn to Barbara Frederickson’s Positivity Ratio research to see that for you to flourish, you need 3 times as many positive emotions as negative ones. If you find them with your lover, how do you find your way back to finding just as many with your spouse?
How do you find another 3 positive emotions for every flush of embarrassment over cheating or fear of being found out?
The only way back to love with your spouse is through love — through more moments of shared positive emotions, through more positive interactions or fewer negative ones, through more positive emotions or fewer negative ones.
If you want those, find some Third Alternatives for the things you disagree on, not third parties to your relationship. That rationalization that stepping outside your marriage can improve it is a fantasy not supported by research into what really works.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Sadly, I have known many people who either had affairs or whose spouses had affairs.
    I have NEVER seen an affair improve a marriage. In every case, it made the marriage worse. As soon as someone starts lying and keeping secrets, the couple drifts farther apart. When the affairs is eventually revealed, it causes terrible pain for the betrayed spouse, and often for the betrayer as well.
    Some people manage to repair their marriages after an affair. But it takes a huge amount of time, effort, and suffering – and probably lots of money, since they are likely to need professional counseling. It’s not worth it. It’s so much easier to invest a little more effort into the marriage you already have.

  • So true, Rosemary. And what you say about affairs causing pain for the betrayer, too, shows up in so many comments on this blog. Often, the betrayer has issues with the relationship before cheating, but once the cheating is revealed, it’s a rare betrayed spouse who will be ready to even listen to those until fully recovered from the incredible breach of trust.

  • Hi Patty,
    Thanks for the nod, but I should point out that the YourTango commentary was taken completely out of context for the sake of sensationalist journalism (loosely termed).
    In point of fact, what I said was that the material from an affair could be used in the therapeutic container to fuel an evolution in a relationship, if both partners were willing to hold space for the transgression.
    At no point did I suggest that having an affair would be good for a marriage.
    You might want to read the original article, so you can edit your own post accordingly.
    Warm regards,
    Michael J. Formica

  • Michael, I am honored to hear from you. I provided a link to your original article in my 2015 post after reading it myself. I do agree YourTango sensationalized what you had to say, but I’m happy to hear what you’re saying now that I still do not see in the original article.
    That article appeared to be aimed only at the person engaged in or moving toward a secondary relationship, not at the spouse or a therapist working with the couple, encouraging either of them to learn from the lack that led to the relationship. I think this is a great addition, and I thank you for adding it here.
    The lack that drives the secondary relationship (and, I would argue, the other three types of affairs you listed, too) was the subject of my August 3, 2016 post, I’d be delighted if you would care to add a comment there about how either spouse might learn from recognizing this lack and how to engage a therapist to help deal with it positively.

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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