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Jul 16, 2008

Is Your Relationship Safe?

by Douglas K. Snyder, PhD; Donald H. Baucom, PhD; Kristina Coop Gordon, PhD

Do you have a cute neighbor? A flirt buddy at work? Someone you look forward to talking to every day--other than your husband? In this excerpt from Getting Past the Affair, three psychologists set the record straight on those so-called innocent friendships and why they so often lead to more. Find out if you're taking things too far -- and putting your relationship at risk -- with this test.

Is Flirting Hurting?

It feels good to feel attractive or desirable. We all like to receive compliments. “Innocent” flirtation often feels good for similar reasons. It's often reassuring to know that someone else considers us bright, charming, witty, successful, emotionally sensitive, caring, strong, physically attractive, supportive, or whatever other characteristic we'd like to believe about ourselves. It feels especially good to receive such compliments when we tend to have self-doubts or haven't been receiving such comments from our partner.

It's not unusual to be drawn into an affair following pursuit by someone outside the relationship. Such pursuit may come quite unexpectedly from an acquaintance. The pursuit may begin with an explicit intention by the other to have an affair or as a genuine wish to have a special friendship based on caring and trust that subsequently leads to feelings of physical attraction. Sometimes an outsider persists despite clear, explicit resistance and discouragement. And other times a pursuit continues because of an individual's tolerance or subtle encouragement.

If you're uncertain whether an outside relationship has begun to edge toward a “special” friendship that poses a risk, ask yourself the following:

  • Would you be willing to give up this outside friendship for the sake of your marriage? If not, there's a good chance that it has already developed a “specialness” that threatens emotional or physical bonds that your partner expects to be unique to your own relationship.
  • Would you be willing to confront the other person about the “mixed signals” you're getting about the boundaries of your friendship-knowing that he or she might very well pull back from the relationship you're currently enjoying? Are there elements of flirtation or emotional closeness that have already become something you look forward to and would miss if they ended?
  • Are there any aspects of your interactions with the outside person ou'd be reluctant for your partner to know about? Are there any discussions you would not disclose fully to your partner? Are there any times when interacting with the outside person that you'd be uncomfortable in receiving a phone call from your partner?

Thanks, But No Thanks

To reduce vulnerability to outsiders who may wish to pursue an affair--or who may simply be “receptive” to such a relationship--it's important to maintain appropriate vigilance. That doesn't mean rejecting all friendships with colleagues and others. It doesn't mean rejection all expressions of caring or interpreting them as implicit sexual advances. But it does mean being clear about the boundaries of such relationships-that you don't pursue or accept suggestions of separate time together in inappropriate settings, that you guard against personal discussions that push a friendship to a level you can't handle, and that you commit to never keeping interactions with others secret from your partner.

Not That Innocent

We've counseled people who insisted on their right to retain an outside relationship because it was an “innocent” friendship and was not sexual in nature. In most cases, their very reluctance to relinquish the outside friendship indicated the extent to which the other person had become emotionally important to them and made clear why their partners perceived this “friendship” as a threat to their own relationship. If your partner insists that you have no interactions with anyone of the opposite sex outside his presence, there may be problems of trust or jealousy in your own relationship that require some further attention. But if that's not what your partner is demanding, and instead he's raising concerns about a particular outside relationship, there's a possibility that something about that relationship poses a potential risk. This doesn't mean you've decided to have an affair. It's simply that an affair sometimes develops when a person views an outside relationship as “safe” and then gradually becomes more involved with the other person without maintaining necessary limits or boundaries. That relationship then becomes “risky.”

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