What does faithfulness, or fidelity, mean in your marriage? What does it look like? Are your boundaries strong enough to protect your marriage from an affair?

What got us started down this road of thinking is the observation that you can be in a committed marriage and never have sex outside that marriage for forty years, but still be giving members of the opposite sex a lust filled looking over.

This begs the question about what loyalty and fidelity mean in a marriage. If you proudly say “I am faithful to my wife… but that doesn’t stop me from enjoying the scenery”, is that really fidelity?

Let’s assume for a moment that we’re all clear that the extremes of unfaithfulness are wrong: we’re not talking about adultery here, or pornography use, or any act of physical intimacy, or even an emotional affair with a person you’re not married to.

However, disloyalty can go in all sorts of directions, and show up in many different ways:

  • A wife makes a comment about some famous Hollywood actor being ‘eye-candy’? There is no hope of an actual act of infidelity occurring there, so is it OK?
  • A husband rubber-necks as he drives through town on a warm summer day. Is it OK for him to check out other women?
  • A spouse says, “Why can’t you look like that?” (Ouch…)
  • Perhaps it’s just the joking and camaraderie that kind of fringes toward mild flirting – even in a group setting. Is this allowable?

While some definitions of fidelity are really clear (like having sex), others are very much going to be defined by each couple. In The Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy (JMFT), Blow reported that a breach of trust has more to do with the perspectives and beliefs of the individuals within the relationship than any overarching norms. In other words, the couple creates their own standards.

[Again, we’re holding this up in the assumption that we’ve already established that there are objective, moral boundaries that must not be crossed. Like, no sex outside of marriage. We are NOT promoting ‘open’ marriage; we promote the Biblical values of faithful marriage.]

For example, a wife or husband on a business trip sits down on the airplane beside an attractive, friendly member of the opposite sex. For one couple, the expectation might be to limit the interaction to a friendly greeting and then plug in the headphones or read a book. They’re comfortable with that boundary.

For another couple, it may be totally OK to have an engaging conversation and share pictures of your spouse and children. No flirting, just friendly and proper, and then that spouse relates the conversation when he/she gets home to the other spouse. Both spouses in that marriage are comfortable with that boundary.

Neither scenario is morally wrong. Does the second approach carry a higher element of risk? Yes, probably! This is where couples need to discuss what they consider reasonable and what they can tolerate in their marriage.

There is a subjective element to fidelity. Scheinkman and Wenecke in the Family Process also support this subjective aspect.

Nevertheless, here’s what’s so important to know. It IS a fact that there is a slippery slope from smaller disloyal thoughts and behaviours towards an affair.

The Clinical Psychology Science Practice (2005) pointed out that the decision-making process before extra-marital involvement consists of smaller decisions and steps. Like, having coffee with an opposite-sex coworker…then spending more time with them…then engaging in more intimate conversation.

This is where we start to get some practical checkpoints for early warnings of infidelity. Following are two items you need to watch for in order to be proactively working against affairs in your marriage.

1. Pros VS Cons

Decisions to engage in extramarital involvement are conscious decisions that involve weighing potential costs and potential benefits. Ask yourself, am I doing a cost/benefit analysis about the behaviours or thoughts I am engaging in? If so, I could be on a slippery slope towards infidelity.

2. Suppressing Thoughts

Individuals who begin to develop feelings for a potential extramarital partner actively suppress thoughts related to that partner. This increases the intensity of the thoughts, which is problematic, but here’s the point: if you find yourself working to suppress thoughts, you have another signal to yourself that you’re heading into dangerous territory. Ask yourself: am I actively suppressing the thoughts of another person?

Are you having thoughts that you’re trying not to think about? Are you weighing costs/benefits about interacting more deeply with someone? Are you rubbernecking?

You need to stop and own your thoughts and behaviours. Admit that you are having them, then ask yourself why? Have you become less vested in your relationship? Are you not getting what you need from your marriage? Is that because you’re not investing in it what you should be? Have you allowed yourself to believe things that aren’t true? (Like, a more attractive spouse will lead to better sex).

At the end of the day, we need to come back to the fact that “Commitment is one of the most important determinants of marriage stability” (Clements and Swenson – Current Psychology).

Don’t give your spouse reason for jealousy by lending your admiration to other members of the opposite sex. Show your commitment and have those conversations about what you’re both comfortable with. The willingness to discuss and uphold those values together is a huge step towards fidelity that will strengthen your marriage and make it resilient against unfaithfulness.