What is an Affair and How Do We Get There?

Couple standing on an island surrounded by water

There is a common belief that affairs, physical or emotional happen to marriages that were doomed from the beginning. There was a time in history when social psychologists believed affairs happened due to high expectations. Lower your expectations and you’ll live a life of a fulfilled relationship. Researchers have discovered what we now see as the obvious, you will get what you expect. So, what is an affair?

What is an emotional and physical affair?

An affair as defined by the foremost experts of the field of couples counseling, Drs John and Julie Gottman is, an emotional or sexual encounter with someone other than the spouse, which violates traditional wedding vows of sexual and romantic exclusivity. Affairs take place in relationships that are committed and have chosen to forsake all others. Affairs are not only emotionally devaluing, but serve as a form of betrayal and trauma. If you’d like to know more about the trauma that impacts our relationship due to an affair read more here. Researcher and expert Dr Shirley Glass says a precursor to emotional or physical affairs is the reversal of walls and windows. The spouse or partner that is being betrayed becomes excluded by a wall of secrecy and is unaware of what is happening on the other side of the wall. Meanwhile, the affair partner has a vantage point of the committed relationship or marriage through a window.

Do Affairs have warning signs?

Most couples that I have worked with would dare to say they did not see the affair coming. There was a belief that the marriage was “happy”. To be clear, not all marriages that experience affairs are unhappy. Affairs are birthed from loneliness and opportunity. So, how do we know we are cascading toward infidelity? According to research, trust erodes and betrayal follows. Here are a few ways the trail toward an affair may begin.

The trail towards an affair

As a level 3 trained Gottman Method Couples Therapist I frequently study the work of Drs John and Julie Gottman. According to their research for over the last 40 years, they have found that couples typically cascade toward infidelity. The cascade generally looks like:

Turning away or against instead of toward your partner, seeing them as the enemy

Frequently becoming flooded or physiologically over arounsed

Conflict increases in entrance but not exit. In other words, repair attempts (laughter, touch, apologies) do not work.

Avoidance of conflict takes place and couples begin to suppress, disallowing each other into their inner worlds.

Self-disclosure decreases, meaning secrets are being kept

Spouses begin negatively comparing their significant other to others

Investing and sacrificing less for the relationship

Maximizing partner’s negative traits and minimizing positive traits


Fewer pro-relationship thoughts

Reversal of walls and windows

Crossing boundaries with those outside of the relationship

Is There A Way Out of the Trail towards an Affair?

If both parties are willing to seek the appropriate help, there is a way out. Working toward re-building of trust, reversing of walls and windows to allow your partner in and the third party out and working toward re-building intimacy by rediscovering who your partner is and developing a new marriage. If you’d like to get help, please visit here to begin your journey toward a healthier relationship or to recover from the trauma of betrayal!