Many of us enter a marriage (or a partnership) with the intention to remain committed, and expect the same from our partner. Despite those intentions, studies have shown that cheating can occur often. In fact, 19-24% of study participants noted they had cheated during their current relationship. On top of that, infidelity accounts for about 20-40% of divorces in the U.S. Even more startling is the number of people who admitted that they would cheat if they knew they’d never get caught (74% of men and 68% of women).
Despite the grim statistics, this isn’t inevitable for all marriages. If it is something both partners want, it is possible to have a secure, fulfilling marriage. While there are no 100% foolproof ways to prevent cheating, couples can make it much less likely to occur by building a strong, relational foundation. Just as you would approach your physical health, taking a preventative approach is much more effective than waiting for problems to arise. In this article, we will explore the essential components for creating a relationship built on trust and communication.
It may seem counterintuitive, but begin by acknowledging a reality – you and your partner will find other people attractive. Removing the shame from experiencing a very human emotion allows space for more productive conversation and behaviors.
Next, focus your conversations (yes, more than one) on:
- What are situations you are okay with and which would cross a line?
- When it happens, what would you want the other person to do? What do they feel comfortable doing?
- Define key words/topics. What does “attraction” mean to you each? “Crush”? “Flirting”?
- What situations would cause you hurt, jealousy, or anger?
The more explicit you and your partner can be, the better off you’ll be. That’s because there will be a higher degree of clarity and understanding between you both, decreasing any “well, I didn’t know…” situations. While these situations may not be malicious, they can still be harmful to the health of your relationship.
These discussions will create a culture of openness and vulnerability in your relationship. Like training for a marathon, you don’t just wake up one day and run 26 miles; no, you start running each day and work up to that distance. Each of these hard and vulnerable conversations builds your relationship “muscles” (individually and as a couple). It also allows you to learn how you and your partner react, and how to make adjustments to what you had previously agreed to.
If you find it hard to get started with these conversations or a situation arises that additional support would be beneficial, a couples therapist is a great resource. Couples therapy isn’t a last resort – it can be a powerful aid in setting a good foundation at the beginning of a relationship.
Establish Boundaries Around Infidelity
After normalizing the emotions above, you and your partner can begin to identify, express, and agree upon boundaries in your relationship.
Discussing hypothetical situations does not increase the likelihood it will happen. Actually, having clear mutual understanding around what behavior crosses the line eliminates any areas of uncertainty.
So, what should you talk about?
- Define what crosses the line for each of you. Holding hands, seeking emotional support, texting/messaging… spell it all out.
- Identify and share what is a hard stop for you. Listen to theirs.
- Be open to listening to a differing perspective.
- Come to an agreement and set boundaries you both actively created.
- Commit to having these conversations continually – as maintenance or as outlier situations arise.
Additionally, talk about how you would handle various scenarios related to infidelity and what the consequences would be for crossing established boundaries. Of course, no one knows how they’ll react in a situation until it occurs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t plan for it. This can help communicate how seriously you find each boundary and help both partners feel secure they are being heard.
Cultivate a Culture of Gratitude and Appreciation
Building a strong foundation isn’t only about having the hard conversations, it’s also sharing the good stuff. Make it a point to engage in gratitude practices. These small acts have huge impacts on your relationships. They increase a sense of fulfillment and closeness, and make it less likely boundaries will be crossed.
Some gratitude practices:
- Share one thing about your partner (or an act they did) that you are grateful for. Do this daily, and don’t repeat a previous share.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Then exchange journals and read your partner’s entries once a week or at least once every two weeks.
- Get creative. Gamify your gratitude practice with something like a gratitude-themed scavenger hunt. Create a list of things you’re each grateful for and hide them around your home. As your partner finds each one, share your thoughts and feelings about them. Or,
- Create a gratitude jar. Place it in a common area with small pieces of paper and pens. As moments of gratitude arise, write them down. Read the notes together during time together or when you’re needing a boost of connection.
Take into account that you and your partner may differ in how you’d like to receive appreciation and gratitude. And that’s okay! Mix and match, and make adjustments so it fits each of you personally.
Continue Cultivating Mutual Trust
Trust is defined as a firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something. We can trust (and mistrust) our partners in different ways, and it has a huge impact on the relationship – both good and bad. Trust is built over time, and requires patience, commitment, and constant nurturing.
It’s hard to imagine a relationship that is completely devoid of any misdeed of some kind because, despite our best intentions, we are all humans and make mistakes. However, if these transgressions are not addressed, they’ll continue to erode the foundation of the relationship. Mistrust can trigger other emotional responses such as anger, sadness, fear or jealousy. Those feelings in turn can lead to behaviors that lead to infidelity.
How can you build & reinforce trust in your relationship? Here are a few strategies to keep in mind:
- Be honest and open about key issues in your relationship. Even if it’s inconvenient, awkward, or difficult, don’t sweep these things under the rug or they’ll build up resentment and mistrust.
- Ask. Don’t keep it all in your own head- trust occurs between two people, and you can’t solve or build it alone. Even more so, asking open-ended questions will help in decreasing assumptions, and increase emotional closeness between you both.
- Assume your partner has good intentions. This helps to initiate an honest conversation for both parties.
- Listen to your partner and their side of the story. You may not agree with them, but showing empathy and being open to understanding their perspective is beneficial for the relationship.
- Follow through on promises. Even if they’re small things like taking the trash out when you said you would, these daily acts build the foundation for a trusting relationship.
- Embrace vulnerability. Vulnerability is also a needed ingredient for building trust. Sharing real feelings, questions, and needs is scary; it means opening yourself up to rejection or harm. Start small and build up to bigger shares.
- Be each other’s biggest advocate. Knowing your partner is always in your corner and prioritizes you is powerful.
- Show your love. Expressing compassion and empathy for each other (during these conversations and in general) helps build trust.
While trust is built and maintained based on both partners’ actions, the ability to trust another person requires the ability to trust your own judgment. If you’re finding it’s difficult to trust your partner or others in your life, explore if there are barriers to trusting yourself.
Throughout this process, while it’s crucial that you are open with each other, it’s equally important to respect one another’s autonomy. You can’t force trust and attempt to equate trust with knowing everything will backfire. Privacy also has its place and fosters trust, as well. Neither partner should monitor the other constantly or need to know their every move. Instead, strive to strike a healthy balance between openness and privacy.
Don’t Run Away From Conflict
Every relationship will encounter conflict. How a couple reacts and responds to conflict dictates the strength of the relationship. Allowing conflicts to go unaddressed will lead to resentment. And resentment can begin to color how you view your partner and/or relationship, often tilting it to a perspective that increases resentment and puts the relationship more at odds. Extending grace (rather of simmering in resentment and insisting on being right) will help move the relationship forward, and studies show that the strongest couples are the ones who are able to successfully repair after a conflict.
Solving or managing conflicts means compromising when needed. It also means doing so gracefully and without needing to be convinced. If certain actions make your partner uncomfortable, being willing to make reasonable accommodations to honor their feelings demonstrates care. Of course, it’s not always possible to compromise proactively but look for opportunities to do so when you can in order to reinforce your foundation of trust.
Build Physical and Emotional Intimacy
Along with trust and communication, cultivating a strong intimate life, both physically and emotionally, is key to insulating your relationship from the threat of infidelity. Closeness, both physically and emotionally, can strengthen a relationship and decrease the probability of either partner seeking this closeness inappropriately with others.
Here are some strategies for enhancing intimacy:
- Prioritize time together. Date nights, weekend away, or activities together. Even small moments such as washing dishes together
- Try something new together. Doing something new means putting yourself in a vulnerable space, but doing it with your partner. This gives you the opportunity to experience that vulnerability together.
- Physical touch. Identify the types of touch you both enjoy and integrate it more into your day. This can include touch in erogenous and non-erogenous zones (taking into account any limits requested by each partner).
- Enjoy memories. Lean into the nostalgia and pull up photos, videos, and keepsakes! Reminisce about the memories & feelings, and even take a moment to re-experience them the moment. Re-experiencing it together can also help remind you of any forgotten connection.
- Get Playful. Find your inner child with each other; roll down a hill, go paintballing, or just tease and flirt with one another just for the sake of it. Being playful with each other can be a form of mindfulness; focusing on the moment with each other, and having fun despite what else may be happening in your lives.
- Check in on your sex life. Are you satisfied? What are you wanting more of? Identifying your needs and then asking for them isn’t easy, but it’s worth the work. Also, check in with your partner and their requests. Open conversation is key to finding a space where you both are satisfied and feel comfortable. It’s also helpful in surfacing needs that can be misconstrued; for example, one partner may need a pause from sex due to a stressful work project and explicitly sharing that will decrease any (negative) assumptions their partner may think up.
Express Your Jealousy
Hot take: A little bit of jealousy goes a long way in bonding. It’s natural to feel jealous when you see your partner bonding with others, especially attractive others of their preferred gender(s). Not expressing your less savory feelings to one another sows distrust, because it is inauthentic and means you’re not being transparent; such omissions can even be the beginning of a breakdown in communication or can cause a buildup of resentment. However, being vulnerable enough to express emotions like jealousy, on the other hand, actually reinforces your bond. It takes a certain level of trust to share that kind of anxiety, and most people appreciate when their partners are willing to be so open.
Sharing the jealousy also opens the door to talking about a dynamic that may be making you uncomfortable, which gives the two of you the opportunity to address the problem or figure out how both of your needs can be met. At the end of the day, expressing yourself in this way also shows your partner that you care and that you are invested in the relationship. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should erupt with anger in response to your jealousy, or try to control your partner. So, share your jealousy through healthy dialogue instead of keeping it inside or letting it boil over.
All that said, relationship dynamics exist in which one or both partners experience so much jealousy that it begins to stifle their ability to connect with people outside the relationship, even in non-sexual ways. If this is the case, seek counseling in order to address underlying issues and acquire tools that will help you and your relationship to become more secure.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) About Preventing Cheating and Building Trust
Q: My spouse has become distant lately and spends a lot of time on their phone. Should I be worried about infidelity?
A: It’s good to recognize changes in our partners and the relationship, as long as we can prevent ourselves from jumping to assumptions. Emotional or physical distance and increased phone use (especially if it’s a significant change in behavior) are likely indicators that your partner or relationship is dealing with some difficulty. Instead of approaching them with assumptions or blame, initiate a discussion. Share your observations and approach them with curiosity, and be willing to listen with an open-mind.
Q: I found flirtatious messages between my partner and a coworker. Is this considered cheating?
A: There are so many factors that could shift a situation like this, but the first thing to consider is: does this violate an agreement you and your partner had about acceptable behavior? If you haven’t had a previous discussion, ask yourself if you feel uncomfortable about the messages and then share how you feel with your partner. Use this to initiate a conversation about boundaries, what you each ask of each other, and what you’d both consider as cheating. It may feel like your partner is getting a pass, but if you both have never spoken about it, it’s worth giving your partner the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t mean you can’t share how hurt the messages make you feel.
Q: What constitutes an emotional affair versus a friendship? Where is the line?
A: It comes down to level of intimacy, secrecy, emotional reliance, and whether another person is meeting needs their partner has requested they meet. Of course, how different couples measure these things and to what extent they are willing to tolerate them varies from partnership to partnership…and that’s yet another reason why it’s so important to discuss boundaries around close opposite-sex friendships.
Q: I love my partner but no longer feel “in love,” and I’m starting to worry that one or both of us might cheat. Is this just a phase or should I be concerned?
A: Our definition of love and the experience of it shifts with time and different stages of our lives. The most important barometer is thinking about what you want and need from a romantic relationship, and the same from your partner’s perspective. It’s normal to have “slumps” or “dry spells,” but it is also important to notice those times and check in with yourself and your partner. If it’s a sign that you’re needing more of something (intimacy, physical touch, emotional connection), initiate a conversation and see which of the suggestions above can help. Don’t wait until one or both of you feel the need to fulfill your needs in other places or people.
There is no surefire way to prevent infidelity, but by building a strong foundation and maintaining it throughout your relationship you can set yourself up for the best possible situation by decreasing the odds that it will occur. And if you do find yourself dealing with the difficult situation of infidelity (yours or your partner’s) having a strong foundation makes it much more likely you can repair the relationship if that is what you want.
Dr. Vivian Oberling is the Founding Psychologist at Pace Groups. She is also a licensed clinical psychologist who has dedicated her career to improving the lives of clients across the lifespan. Background-wise, she’s been trained and worked in academic centers and hospitals (Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, Kaiser and Rady Children’s), and utilizes evidence-based treatments and research to enhance non-clinical, supportive services.