[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, January 2013]

With all the seemingly infinite complexity within a relationship, it’s an irony that most of the problems within one can really be narrowed down to about four major areas: sex, money, kids and family.  With the exception of money, the rest come about primarily because of communication issues inside the relationship itself.  Either partners don’t know how to talk about a problem, or they’ve stopped talking meaningfully altogether.

One of the biggest fallouts of any breakdown in marital communication is the looming specter of infidelity, often called simply “cheating” or “being unfaithful.”  We have very specific definitions today for what constitutes infidelity, and most of them involve the physical side of an adult relationship.  Perhaps it’s because this is behavior; it can be observed, measured and is very difficult to deny when one partner or the other “gets caught.”

But is this *really* where unfaithfulness starts?  I believe that it does not.  Rather, by the time an observable moment of betrayal exists, we’re talking about the high watermark on a long drizzle of problems that started much sooner.  But often, one partner or the other failed, willingly or not, to notice the earlier signs, and so is taken aback when that horrible moment of betrayal comes to light.

In my professional and personal experience, healthy relationships manage to strike a good balance between boundaries and disclosure.  Boundaries are parts of a person that they don’t feel comfortable sharing.  Every couple has them.  For example, I never touch my wife’s purse, look on her computer or check her cell phone.  She doesn’t read the private journal I’ve kept since 1993.  We have separate finances.  Even within an intimate relationship, we all need to feel we have our own space, our breathing room.  What that means is different for every couple, and has to be negotiated during each stage of the relationship.  Some couples share finances, for example, or leave the bathroom door open.

On the other hand, good couples also disclose and share of themselves.  I think the lynchpin between these two extremes is knowing how to protect one’s boundaries without being deceptive.  You see, *deception* is where infidelity begins, not the moment one partner or the other takes off their clothes with someone else.  There is a difference between saying something is private, that one doesn’t want to discuss it, and saying there is nothing to discuss.  Once deception gets introduced, it must be maintained.  That means lying.  Evading.  It costs energy.  To slow down the drain, one has to minimize communication, avoid the topic.  Then trust falters.  What exchanges remain can become either perfunctory and distant, or negative, criticizing.  Many of my patients in the past were able to recognize the problems of the latter, since it is more unpleasant.  But they would often fail to see a problem with the former.  Oftentimes, they would even brag, saying, “I’ve been married X-number of years, and we’ve never even had a fight.”  In which case, I’m thinking, “Then clearly you aren’t talking.”  Every relationship has disagreements in it, and only communicating to the point of reconciliation can fix it.  Not staying in an uneasy truce all the time.

I guess the lesson here is that the best way to avoid infidelity is to be upfront about your boundaries, and then avoid introducing deception about them into the relationship.  Betrayal begins first between the two people in the relationship, not with a third one in the bedroom.

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