The Path to Infidelity: What Gottman Research Tells Us

Part 2 of a series on Dr. John Gottman’s research on Trust and Infidelity

In my last blog, “Precursors to Infidelity: The Six Warning Signs”, I reviewed findings from Dr. John Gottman’s five studies onWaterfall - Iguazu trust and Infidelity, summarized in “Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples”, and his follow-up book, “What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal” . John describes the progression of infidelity in “The 24-Step Gottman-Rusbult-Glass Cascade Toward Distrust and Betrayal”; the core elements of this cascade are summarized and outlined in the six warning signs.

While neglecting the relationship plays a large role in marital dissatisfaction, it is not enough to lead to affairs usually. What may start off as different streams of upset, anger, hurt, and disconnection can eventually flow  into a powerful force  within the relationship when negative comparisons of the partner with idealized other people take hold. These negative complaints reinforce what John describes as an “absorbing state”, driving unhappiness into a destructive force of negative thinking – “Why am I even in this relationship? Why can’t my partner be more loving?…caring?..interested in me?…laugh at my jokes?..smile more?…care about recycling?…etc?”

The worse combination of factors increasing risks for infidelity are:Red Light

  1. Negative comparisons between the partner and other, idealized people
  2. Consistent turning away from opportunities to connect with the partner
  3. Not acknowledging or talking about  feelings with the partner about the unhappiness.

Couples that confide unhappiness about the relationship with each other instead of somebody new are then in a position to do something about it, before the cascade develops more momentum. John Gottman writes, “Repairs are the life jackets of all romantic relationships. Their effectiveness determines whether a relationship will live or die.”

Prevention is the Best Policy: What Not To Do

John refers to researcher Dr. Shirely Glass, who for more than two decades studied infidelity and published  her findings in her book “Not Just Friends: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity”. Dr. Glass provided one of the few research-based descriptions of  infidelity, discovering that the vast majority of affairs are not caused by lust.

Window closedDr. Glass describes secure relationships with the metaphor of walls and windows. A protective wall surrounds the couple where choices are made to not share any relationship problems with anyone who is not an advocate of the relationship,  in other words, with somebody who could potentially be an alternative to the partner. The secure couple shares a window of transparency allowing them to be open with each other about their problems. The walls and windows place responsibility for partners to be honest with each other, to advocate for the relationship and for the couple to be a unit in dealing with the stresses of life and in the relationship.

Window open

When a partner starts disclosing relationship problems to another person and not to their partner, a wall starts to develop with their own partner and a window with the new person gets constructed. If this continues for long, a  transition, barely perceptible at first, begins to switch these boundaries. The protective wall with the partner is becoming  a wall of secrecy and a window of  increasing levels of intimacy and trust begins to develop with the new person. Glass notes that most affairs didn’t start off with the plan of having an affair. Deepening friendship and intimacy with the new person along with negative comparisons with the partner create a high risk environment for betrayal. Glass writes, “Eighty-two percent of those who had affairs started out being social acquaintances, neighbors, or workplace colleagues with their future affair partners.” The so-called “affairs of the heart” are characterized by:

  • Secrecy by not telling the partner about the other relationship
  • Emotional intimacy
  • Sexual chemistry

While attraction to other people is normal, given what the research shows, partners need to avoid risky situations that on the surface could seem harmless. Fantasizing about what it would be like to be with another should give way to talking with the partner about  what is wanted in the relationship. It is important for partners to share with each other what is working, what they appreciate, and what they would like differently. Turning toward your partner means not hiding or minimizing your feelings or needs. In a personal conversation with John Gottman I asked him how he defined interdependency. He replied, “It’s trust based on mutually being able to get each other’s needs met. ”  Something to keep in mind when we think about what our relationship needs to be successful and safe.

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