THE BLOG
09/03/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

Flirting With Disaster: How Your 'Harmless' Intrigue Is Undermining Your Marriage

Poor you! You're married and bored to tears. Not only is the thrill long gone, sometimes you have to check your wrist just to make sure you still have a pulse. Thank God for that hot [circle the appropriate noun] coworker/secretary/neighbor/gym buddy/friend/friend's spouse. Boy, do the two of you have chemistry!

At least someone's into you, because your wife sure isn't. It's just boring old everyday life over at your house. Kids, grocery shopping, work, chores, homework, school meetings. It's all so routine.

Your flirt buddy, on the other hand, is anything but boring. But it's nothing to worry about. It's just a harmless game of intrigue -- flirty glances, Facebook banter, suggestive texts, inside jokes, maybe a lunch date or two. Nothing physical -- not that you haven't thought about it. Getting this kind of attention feels so great. It's a total mood booster. So, in that sense, it kind of helps your marriage. If you're in a better mood, then that's better for everyone -- including your family, right? And as long as you don't get physical, what can it hurt?

Allow me to flesh out that answer for you. Because I am a divorce-specific behavioral coach, I talk to plenty of people who are going through divorce. In most cases, these marriages are ending because someone had an affair. And in all of those cases, the affairs started out as just a little "harmless" flirting.

Here's what's wrong with your analysis.

Your outside interest is fueled by energy robbed from your marriage. All of the sexy banter, flirty texts, and inside jokes? Those are hot in more ways than one. Not only are they steamy, they're actually stolen -- as in the time and energy that you are putting into those rightfully belong to your marriage. Just as a flame deprived of oxygen cannot continue to burn, your marriage cannot continue to thrive when you are denying it the basics necessary to sustain it.

Your outside interest will weaken your marriage. You may justify what you're doing by telling yourself that it has a positive effect on your home life because it boosts your mood. But what you refer to as a mood boost is actually an ego trip. Imagine that your family is allotted just enough food to feed everyone, but before you divide up your family's allotment, you skim off a significant portion of some of the best food and squirrel it away for yourself. You justify this by telling yourself that you need this extra food to keep yourself feeling good, which benefits your whole family. Then, when your family starts to show signs of malnutrition, you blame your wife.

What you're doing with your flirt buddy is no different. In a marriage, you're supposed to share your resources with your family. But you're secretly diverting away the best of what you have to offer and lavishing it on yourself. Why? Because you think you deserve more than everyone else. Face it: Your ego is the problem.

Your wife is at a competitive disadvantage. Comparing your wife to your flirt buddy isn't fair. Out of the three of you, your wife is the only one who does not realize there's a competition going on. Remember when the two of you mutually decided to stop shopping around and commit to each other? Your wife took you at your word. But now you're secretly playing by a different set of rules. You're out there sizing up melons and squeezing the Charmin. She's not comparing you to other men who are sending her flirty signals; she's focused on you and the kids. If you're really interested in having a marriage that is satisfying, you have to play by the same rules. Otherwise, your relationship is fundamentally unfair.

Your wife looks way better (and you look way worse) than you realize. You and your flirt buddy don't see each other nearly as often as you and your wife do--and when you and your flirt buddy see each other, it's under much more favorable conditions. It's easy to be alluring for little snippets of time. You may not realize it, but your wife looks every bit as enticing to other people who only see her in limited situations like the ones in which you see your flirt buddy.

When you live with someone you have to give each other permission to be real people--and real people have morning breath, get food stuck in their teeth, and occasionally come down with the stomach flu. Your spouse doesn't judge you for wearing those dingy boxers to bed every night; but I'll bet if your flirt buddy saw you in those you'd get a much frostier reception.

Your actions will lead to a physical affair. If you are rationalizing an outside intrigue, your ego has already caused you to cross a line. Once that line has been crossed, it's that much easier to rationalize your actions as they escalate into a physical relationship. And even without physical intimacy, emotional intimacy can be every bit as damaging to your marriage. You might not end up having a full-blown affair with your current flirt buddy, but your behavior has set you on a course that is destined to result in an affair sooner or later. And when married people have affairs, things don't just get messy, they get disastrous.

So, if you currently have a flirt buddy, what should you do? I'm glad you asked. The answer is really very simple. You need to decide if you (a) want to be married, or (b) want to be divorced. In case that's not clear enough, let me dumb it down a little further: you need to either (a) break it off with your flirt buddy, or (b) get a divorce.

Obviously, option (a) is the simplest way to go. All it requires is that you make the choice not to take your energy and put it into outside intrigues. And this really is a choice. Just as your wife chooses not to be open to others' advances when she comes across them in her daily life, so can you.

Then, take all that chemistry that you've been channeling to your flirt buddy and reroute it back to its rightful owner: your wife. Buy into your relationship enough to develop inside jokes with her. Be into her to the point that you send her flirty texts when you're apart. Care enough about her to pick up a pack of her favorite gum on your way home from work. Value spending time with her enough to justify having lunch with her during the week rather than just seeing her when you both get home at the end of a long day. And when you have the opportunity to do any of these things with a potential new flirt buddy, don't.

If you are convinced that your wife is part of the problem (or even the entire problem) and it's not simply a matter of choosing to feed your marriage rather than feeding an outside intrigue, then in addition to pulling the plug on your outside interest, you should power up some honest and constructive communication with your wife about what's wrong with your relationship. If your efforts to improve your marriage fail, that doesn't justify picking up where your left off with your flirt buddy; it means you either keep trying until you either succeed or conclude that your marriage is not fixable, at which point you should proceed with getting a divorce.

But if option (a) doesn't sound right for you, then you're left with option (b) -- getting a divorce. You may think this sounds premature, but trust me, it will save everyone a lot of trauma in the long run. Once your outside intrigue leads to full-blown affair, it will only be a matter of time before your little chemistry experiment blows up. The thing about explosions is that they don't just blow up on the people who caused them -- they harm innocent bystanders, too. If you think that the only things at stake are your marriage, your reputation, and the potential for a little personal humiliation, and the only person you might hurt is your wife, your ego is making a fool of you yet again. Once you get exposed as a cheater, lots of people will get hurt -- like your kids, other people's kids, coworkers, relatives, neighbors, and friends. The collateral damage is far worse that you can possibly imagine.

Maybe you're thinking you'll take a wait and see approach -- rather than getting a divorce right away, you'll just stay married and continue with your extra curricular dalliances for now. Maybe things won't blow up on you; and you'd hate to put your kids through the trauma of a divorce if you can avoid it.

You're right about divorce being traumatic for kids. But you know what's more traumatic for kids than their parents getting a divorce? Dealing with their parents' divorce and having to come to terms with the fact that Daddy cheated on Mommy because he was too selfish to keep from sleeping with someone else, but he was too cowardly to get a divorce first.

Don't be a selfish coward. Your kids and family deserve better than that. You are better than that. If you want to act like you're single, don't be married. If you're married, don't act like you're single. Like I said, it really is that simple.

[Blogger's note: I wrote this post depicting the husband as the cheater because in my line of work that's what I see most often. I realize, however, that both men and women cheat; and my opinions and advice on this topic are the same regardless of whether it is the husband or wife that has the outside interest.]

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