Did you know that practicing mindfulness in marriage may help you avoid an affair and all the pain that comes with it?
For those of you who read the word “mindfulness” and were hoping to learn a new yoga pose that prevents infidelity, I’m sorry to disappoint. This post isn’t an impromptu yoga lesson. However, I have good news to share:
The practice of mindfulness can help prevent infidelity in a marriage. Mindfulness lets you pause and move from a fight-or-flight mindset to one of thoughtfulness. When you’re mindful, you’re less likely to take rash actions that lead to infidelity. Practicing mindfulness can help you address your thoughts and emotions, rather than burying them and acting out with an affair.
Mindfulness helps you:
- Cultivate awareness.
- Focus your attention on the current moment (your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations).
- Observe your experience with compassionate curiosity rather than judgment.
When you’re able to move out of your fight-and-flight response and into a thoughtful decision-making response, you’re less likely to make the rash, regrettable mistake of cheating in your marriage.
Stop and Think Before You Cheat
In my work with couples who have gone through an affair, there’s one question I hear over and over again. The hurt partner turns to their spouse and asks, “What were you thinking?!”
More often than not, the answer that’s given is, “I wasn’t thinking,” or, “I don’t know.”
Without a doubt, engaging in an affair is one of the most destructive, life-altering decisions you can make. Not because the solution is to always stay in a marriage, but because having an affair:
- Obscures any other issues in your relationship.
- Delays healing and repair.
- Sets you up for a cycle of mistrust and hurt – whether you reconcile your marriage or end up with your affair partner.
There are usually a lot of little steps that lead to an affair: not knowing how to connect with your spouse, to that first flirtatious text, to meeting up in hotel rooms. Now, one simple mindfulness exercise won’t fix your marriage in an afternoon, but the magic of mindfulness in marriage comes into play when you practice it every day.
By committing to mindfulness, you’ll learn to:
- Accurately label your thoughts and emotions.
- Treat yourself with compassionate curiosity.
- Make decisions you feel confident in and proud of.
I teach my clients a simple acronym for their mindfulness practice: STOP. But first, let’s take a quick look at what mindfulness is, and why it matters.
Mindfulness in Marriage to Avoid an Affair
For many years now, mindfulness has been sort of a buzzword in the couples counseling community. My favorite definition of mindfulness is from Mindfulness.org:
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”
When you hear the word “mindfulness,” you might conjure images of meditation, yoga, or of just this woo-woo idea that has no real bearing on the real world or on your relationship.
I get it.
For a long time, I felt the same way – as if mindfulness was reserved for monks and yogis. I didn’t see how it could play a role in my life or in my work with hurting couples.
Over the last decade, though, I’ve learned to appreciate the role of practical mindfulness in marriage to bring awareness and intention to relationships.
Mindfulness and Your Brain
Thanks to improved brain imaging tools (like fMRI scans), we can now see how mindfulness can physically change our brains.
One of the most exciting and growing fields in neuroscience is what’s called “neuroplasticity.” For many years, the accepted belief was that once your brain has fully developed, there’s no way to change it.
What the field of neuroplasticity explores, though, is how certain practices like mindfulness can have real and lasting effects on how your brain operates.
Essentially, fMRI scans show that consistent mindfulness can:
- Shrink the fear center of your brain (the amygdala).
- Grow the thoughtful decision-making center (the cortex).
What these changes in your brain actually mean is that practicing mindfulness can make you less reactive and more intentional. And, given that most affairs “just happen,” bringing intention to your decisions can make all the difference.
If you’re interested in finding out more about how exactly mindfulness can change your brain, check out this article: How Does Mindfulness Work?
What Does Mindfulness Look Like?
Practicing mindfulness can give you the skills you need to prevent an affair. Truly! To help my clients bring practical mindfulness into their relationships, I teach the acronym STOP:
S – Stop
T – Take a few deep breaths
O – Observe your thoughts and feelings
P – Perspective
This technique can be used in any situation where you want to experience more awareness. For this blog, though, I’m going to focus on how to use this technique in the context of preventing affairs.
Stop: Pausing Is the First Step to Mindfulness
The moment you recognize something unpleasant or difficult is going on for you (maybe it’s a thought, an emotion, or even a physical sensation), STOP.
Literally, pause what you’re doing. This could mean:
- Setting down your phone before you send that text.
- Shutting down your browser tab before scrolling through your ex’s Facebook profile.
- Ending a conversation you suspect is crossing a line.
Whatever you need to do to stop – do it, just for a moment.
In this moment you don’t need to be able to name what you’re thinking and feeling, or to recognize where it’s coming from. All you’re doing is giving yourself a beat, a moment of space to consider your next steps. Without pausing, you risk simply continuing down the path you’re on and ending up somewhere with unnecessary regrets.
By stopping briefly, you’re taking the first step in bringing mindfulness to your experience.
Take a Few Deep Breaths
In a moment I’ll share a specific technique for relaxation breathing. The important thing here, though, is that deep breathing – whether you use a specific technique or not – is proven to help you relax and recalibrate.
Deep breathing takes you out of the “fear center” of your brain and into the “thoughtful response center.” Instead of basing your decisions on fear and a sense of panic, after a few deep breaths, you’ll be able to process what you’re experiencing and make thoughtful, rational decisions.
And the good news is, breathing is already something you do every day. Deep breathing just means making a slight modification to how you do it.
The Quieting Response Exercise
For those of you who like specific steps when trying something new, here’s a deep breathing technique recommended by the American Institute of Stress called the “Quieting Response”:
- Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose.
- Hold for 3 seconds, then slowly breathe out through your mouth or nose.
- As you’re breathing, relax your shoulders – bring them down away from your ears.
- Unclench your jaw.
- Repeat this 5-10 times, or more if you’d like.
Abdominal Breathing and Visualization
To get the best effect, try breathing into your abdomen, not your chest. One way you can check is to place your hand on your stomach and feel the rise and fall with each breath.
For even more relaxation, you can close your eyes and visualize holes in the soles of your feet. As you breathe in, picture warm air coming in through the soles of your feet, up through your legs, through your abdomen, and into your lungs. Feel yourself relax as the warmth moves up your body.
Then as you breathe out, picture that same warm air draining out through the soles of your feet.
You may feel silly, but try taking three deep breaths before scrolling down to the next section. One thing I love about deep breathing exercises is that no one has to know you’re doing it, and the only supplies you need are your two lungs.
So, go ahead, take a few deep breaths and feel yourself relax.
Observe Your Thoughts and Feelings
Now that you’ve paused and moved out of your fear response, you’re in a better position to clearly identify what you’re experiencing and why.
- What thoughts are you having?
- How are you feeling?
- What sensations are in your body?
With thoughts and emotions, the key is naming them. You have to name them to change them, so just call them out. Write them down. You can grab a pen and paper, jot it down on your phone – whatever’s handy.
Before you dive in, though, keep in mind that the point of this exercise isn’t to judge or criticize yourself. The point is NOT to tell yourself that you’re a terrible person for having these thoughts and feelings. You’re not.
The goal is to view yourself with compassionate curiosity.
Observe what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, and remember that the goal is growth, not judgment.
Use Specific Words to Label Your Emotions
One thing I see often with my clients is the use of umbrella terms for emotions. For example, “stressed,” “angry,” and “sad” are all umbrella emotional terms.
Underneath each of these terms are many nuanced options. And each one is distinct, like a different flavor of that emotion. For example, there’s a difference between feeling “disrespected,” or “ashamed,” even though we might file those both under feeling “angry.”
By only using umbrella terms for emotions, you’re not able to pinpoint the underlying cause. Accurately labeling your emotions helps you understand what you’re experiencing and then address that particular feeling.
When you’re observing your emotions, it’s easy to get stuck with only being able to think of broad emotions. Dr. Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist who pioneered the concept of emotional agility, recommends trying to think of two other emotions you identify with.
Peruse this helpful chart to get an idea of words you can use to specifically label your emotions. (Source)
In the case of infidelity, you might be thinking:
- I deserve better than this…
- My life would be so much better with this other person…
- This isn’t a big deal, we’re just friends…
- He/she would make me so happy…
- I’ve tried everything and nothing works…
- I don’t even know if I love my partner anymore…
- The sex would be amazing…
Some of your feelings might be:
Labeling your emotions specifically gives you the foundation to thoughtfully address your situation and decide on your next move, rather than getting swept up in the emotion itself.
Perspective: Give Yourself a Reality Check
Once you’ve done the work of identifying your thoughts and emotions, it’s time to consider them from a different angle.
Often there’s a perspective, an element of truth, or some piece of rationality that you haven’t quite seen yet. Imposing a new perspective on your thoughts allows you to reframe them and essentially perform a reality check on yourself.
For example, a different perspective on your thoughts might be:
- There are parts of this problem that I can own…
- Every relationship will have its issues. We just need to work better on ours…
- I know this is crossing a line…
- We can try therapy…
- I know my spouse isn’t intentionally trying to hurt me…
- This will really hurt my children and my spouse…
- An affair will not fix anything…
Remember, seeing the situation from another point of view doesn’t discount or invalidate your feelings, it just gives you more information to make a rational decision in the moment.
The Slippery Slope of Cheating
The truth is, very rarely do people set out with the intention of having an affair. Sure, it does happen. But more often than not, affairs seem to creep up on people, and they end up deep in the weeds before they even realize what’s happening.
Maybe your intimacy is lacking and then someone flirty and sexy comes along. You start by just having a small chat. Soon you find yourself dressing up more for work, or being excited about seeing them at your next corporate affair.
Maybe you feel overly-burdened or responsible at home and someone comes along who represents freedom and fun. Or you feel your partner doesn’t need you and someone comes along who does need you, and that feels validating.
Pay attention to the butterflies you feel, the smiling and flirting, the increase in texts. Pay attention, because what seems harmless in the moment is oftentimes a step towards infidelity.
Practice Mindfulness in Marriage to Avoid Infidelity
Having an affair is one of the most damaging and destructive decisions you can make. And more often than not, clients I work with look back and see that they never even consciously made the decision to have an affair.
Bringing mindfulness to your thoughts and emotions – especially those related to infidelity in your relationship – can help you catch yourself before irreversibly crossing a line.
This saves you and your partner immeasurable hurt, whether you stay with your current partner or not. And mindfulness allows you to feel confident in your decision instead of experiencing regret.
If you’re currently in a situation and are wondering if you’re crossing a line, see my blog about setting healthy emotional boundaries (check out point number seven).
Remember, when it comes to mindfulness in your relationship, all four steps are critically important:
S – Stopping lets you pause and be present with what’s going on.
T – Taking deep breaths takes you out of your reactive fear response and lets you make thoughtful decisions.
O – Observing your thoughts and feelings lets you accurately uncover their cause.
P – Putting on a new perspective lets you reframe your experience and ground it in reality.
As you go through these steps, remember to do them lovingly, and without judgment. If you’re in this place, it’s likely you’re hurting. Be compassionate around that. Give yourself the gift of getting help and getting healthy.
You might still decide to leave your marriage. But it’s always better to make that decision with integrity rather than with infidelity.
If you need help navigating a difficult time in your relationship, don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified couples therapist for help. You don’t have to go through this alone.
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