Affairs in the First Year

I was somewhat surprised when I first read the statistic that up to 40% of couples suffer an affair in their first year of marriage. But when I thought it through according to my work with Conscious Weddings, it made sense: if you don’t deal with the issues inherent to the marriage transition during the engagement, they’ll appear during the first year. It corroborated with one of the first statistics I read when I was writing my Master’s thesis (which later turned into The Conscious Bride) that 90% of women experience postbridal depression. (This was a term coined by a woman named Leah Heidenrich whose thesis, Bride Illusion, was a primary source of information for my thesis.)

Both of these statistics point to the same theory: what you avoid on the front end, comes out on the other side. In other words, when women (or men) focus obsessively on the planning details during their engagement to the exclusion of attending to the emotional and psychological aspects of the transition, they typically crash when the distractions are over, either at the end of the wedding day, the honeymoon, or sometime in the first weeks of marriage. With this crash comes the barrage of questions that my clients typically ask during before the wedding: Do I love my partner enough? Am I making a mistake? How do I know that this is the right decision? What if we don’t make it? What if one of us falls out of love? Without the support to address these normal questions effectively, many people panic, feel trapped by the increased commitment and intimacy, and have an affair.

The good news is that it’s never too late to do the important work of the marriage transition. I’ve counseled people years after their wedding who, in the midst of an entirely different transition, came upon my work and realized they never completely separated from their parents or grieved the end of their single identity. The work should ideally be done during the engagement, but if it doesn’t happen then, it should happen as soon as the person realizes that their transition was incomplete and is negatively affecting their relationship and their ability to move through the current transition gracefully.

I’m including an article I wrote several weeks ago below as it goes into greater depth about what it means to lay as healthy a foundation as possible for your marriage. As I say in the article, I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t predict who will have an affair and who won’t, but I do know that without attending to your fears and doubts before the wedding, the chances for panic and flight are much higher afterwards.

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My clients call me with a variety of anxiety-based questions (many of which I’ve discussed in previous articles): Does my anxiety mean that I don’t love my fiancé enough? How do I know that I’m making the right decision? Is there someone out there who’s better for me? Does the fact that I’m not excited about planning my wedding mean that I’m making a mistake? Embedded in all of these questions is another question, the one that they’re trying to articulate and hoping I’ll be able to answer: Will my marriage last?

We’re all aware of the sobering statistics that tell us that 50% of marriages end in divorce. We know that the modern marriage is vulnerable to a myriad of obstacles that couples must learn to navigate if their partnership is to succeed. We want to do everything we can to divorce-proof an impending marriage. Our culture supports premarital counseling for the couple to learn essential tools for conflict resolution but it still fails to prepare each person as an individual for the life-altering transition of getting married. We simply don’t talk about marriage as a transition. We focus on the wedding. We focus on the details of the reception. But we miss the reality that after the wedding each person is irrevocably changed by the simple yet jarring fact that life as a single person is over and the lifetime commitment of marriage has begun.

The result of this denial is illuminated in another startling statistic: A recent study from the University of Washington revealed that 20% of men and 15% of women will have an affair in the first year of marriage. That means that 35% of marriages will suffer infidelity right out of the starting gate! And experts believe that the statistic is actually closer to 50% since the study only reported those people who admitted to having an affair.

So… Half of married couples break their vows in the first year.  Half of marriages end in divorce.

Where does bridal or engagement counseling factor into this equation? Bridal counseling, a field that I pioneered in 1998, helps individuals address the nine key areas that are affecting their marriage transition. Two of the most important of these areas with regard to affair-proofing your marriage are the recognition that the single life and identity are over and shattering the fantasies we all carry about how engagements, love, and marriage are “supposed” to feel.

To say that an engaged person needs to let go of being single might sound obvious, but many people spend their engagement with their heads buried so deeply in the sand of wedding details that they fail to grasp fully that they need to grieve the end of singlehood. In other words, with the hundreds of wedding details that they think they need to accomplish, they can successfully avoid digesting this difficult reality. Furthermore, women who become obsessed by the planning, a phenomena now known as bridezilla, lose sight of everything other than the details, including being intimate with their partners. This leads to a rupture in intimacy before the marriage even begins.

Men are no less accountable and usually no more conscious during the engagement process. They’ve mustered up the guts to propose, but after their big act they usually retreat into the background and allow their lovely others to plan the wedding. With this withdrawal often comes a denial of the reality of what lies ahead and the fact that their bachelor days are quickly coming to a close.  Their fears of intimacy and commitment, their grief that their bachelor identity is ending, their feelings about the inevitable separation from their family of origin, and their floating and amorphous fears are pushed underground or funneled into other distractions.

The result of this massive denial for both men and women is that the reality of marriage – by which I mean the magnitude of the commitment and the irrevocable loss of their single identity – doesn’t hit them until the distraction of the wedding is over and they’re back to day-to-day life. Then the realization of  “Oh my god, I’m married” hits like a ton of bricks, the panic and anxiety sets in, and they look for the easiest back door – which, sadly, is often an affair.

The second primary area that needs recognition and processing is the collapse of the fantasies and conditioning regarding love and romance that most people carry. Oftentimes people don’t even know they’re harboring these fantasies until the day or week after they become engaged and they find themselves depressed and anxious – the polar opposite of the unilateral euphoria they’ve been conditioned to believe they “should” be feeling. A niggling anxious thought begins which says, “If you really loved your fiancé you would be on cloud nine from the moment you got engaged through your honeymoon.”

Thus begins the cascade of anxious thoughts that usually have the word “enough” somewhere in the sentence: Do I love him enough? Am I attracted enough to him? Do we have enough chemistry? We’ve all been bread on the romantic fantasy – pumped into our psyches from Jane Austen to Hollywood – that you just “know” when you’ve met “the one” and your massive “chemistry” will propel you into ecstasy as you fulfill the fantasy of the perfect engagement that leads to the perfect marriage. While my clients may rationally know that this is a fantasy, successfully shattering the fantasy and rebuilding the conditioning on solid ground requires intentional work and often guidance. If this work isn’t done, one or both partners will carry the false beliefs about love into their marriage and the ground for having an affair is laid – so to speak.

When an engaged woman or man calls me for counseling during their engagement and are fraught with anxiety that they’re feeling sick, I try to impress upon them the fact they’re the lucky ones: the anxiety became so disruptive that they had to seek help and, by doing so, they found me and became more prepared for their marriage than the ones who flew through the engagement focusing more on their flower arrangements than their inner world. For there is nothing more important during an engagement than becoming emotionally prepared for the marriage transition.

I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t promise a lifetime guarantee, but I can offer my clients a greater likelihood of succeeding in their relationships by providing them with the tools that will allow them to walk through the portal of marriage – the wedding – with as much consciousness as possible. Being conscious means recognizing that the engagement is a time to analyze your relationship, often putting it under a painfully high-resolution microscope. Being conscious means recognizing that the engagement, while on one level is a time to plan your wedding, on a deeper level is about preparing yourself emotionally and psychologically for marriage. Being conscious means accepting that you might not feel happy or excited for much of your engagement as you find yourself in foreign emotional territories and have to grapple with the enormity of making a lifetime commitment to the one you love. Being conscious is not always easy or fun, but it’s the only way to walk through any transition and emerge on the other side prepared for what the new life has to offer. And being conscious means you reduce the likelihood that you’ll have an affair in your first year of marriage because you’re entering marriage with your eyes wide open.

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Sheryl Paul, M.A., is regarded as an international expert in transitions. In 1998, she pioneered the field of bridal counseling and  has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” and her websites, www.consciousweddings.com and www.consciousmotherhood.com. She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally for all types of transitions.

2 comments to Affairs in the First Year

  • Maya

    This statistic really surprises me, since marriage has been easy for me compared to engagement – guess I was one of the “lucky” ones! 😉 It is so true, I wish I had understood this at the time. Wish I had not been so jealous of those seemingly blissful brides who I see now dealing with a host of issues.

    And many of the anxious questions (the “what ifs” and “enoughs”) simply do not have definitive answers! What does it even mean to “love someone enough,” you know? The mind keeps asking this because it can’t answer it. I had trouble accepting that uncertainty, for ex. even if there was a 1% chance it would end in divorce– that chance was still there and it terrified me. I wanted to control it and attain absolute certainty, an impossible task. Now I try to coexist with the uncertainty, in marriage and all areas of life. This is much a easier and more truthful way of living!

  • So wisely said, as always – thank you. Yes, that’s one of the most challenging aspects of transition: the uncertainty about what lies ahead. You hit the nail on the head when you said “I wanted to control it and attain absolute certainly, an impossible task.” Look for a future video on exactly this topic, which really lies at the heart of consciously walking through any transition. It’s SO hard for us humans to accept that we can’t control the outcome, and so hard to surrender to that state of uncertainty that defines the liminal stage.