11/10/2012 02:14 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2013

David Petraeus' Affair: Could This Happen To You?

The sudden resignation of CIA Director and Four Star General David Petraeus on Friday stunned the nation (if not many parts of the world) and still has the security and military worlds spinning. While not given any details, General Petraeus stated in part "...I used poor judgment in engaging in an extramarital affair." General Petraues is not alone when it comes to what the Family Psychology field calls "Extra Marital Involvement (EMI) (Allen, et. al, 2005).

How many people engage in EMI over a life time? The best available data (to my knowledge) is that about 25 percent of men and 15 percent of woman engage have an affair during the course of their marriage. While most of my colleagues that I talk to in the couples therapy and research field, view these rate as high many readers may breathe a sigh of relief perhaps saying to themselves "the risk of infidelity in my relationship is lower than I thought."

Who engages in EMI? EMI crosses all boundaries. While the news media chronicles the affairs of our leaders, the rich and the famous (e.g., the Wall Street Journal on November 10 offers an interactive graphic with the pictures and affair details of Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Brian Dunn and Harry Stonecipher; and further on in the paper has a story on the incoming CEO of Lockheed Martin resigning do "improper conduct" with an employee), we all likely know of couples in our own social networks where infidelity has occurred. Unlike voting blocks, the limited research that is available suggests that EMI happens across ethnic and racial lines, in red states and blue ones, in the homes of the rich and the poor, regardless of educational levels and by both men and woman.

Can you prevent EMI in your relationship? The answer is that while you and your partner can not completely affair proof your marriage, you can do things alone and together to decrease the risk of EMI. Here are three research, theory and clinically based recommendations:

1. Recognize that engaging in EMI is a DECISION! While many partners who engage in EMI have excuses, (my partner does not have sex with me, my marriage is awful, I was drunk, he or she came on to me, I made a mistake), I believe that people DECIDE to have an affair, even if it didn't seem like a decision in the first place. If you want to have a happy marriage over time, when faced with the opportunity (and most of us are), realize you are facing what may be one of the most important decisions of your life.

2. Make every effort to do your part to protect the commitment in your marriage. My good friend and colleague, Dr. Scott Stanley writes in his outstanding book, The Power of Commitment, (Jossey-Bass, 2005) that partners need to act to proactively protect the commitment in their relationship and to create safety and security in your marriage. So for example, when at a conference, call your partner, tell him or her you love them and miss them in a way that reaffirms you commitment to your marriage and communicates implicitly that you 100 percent faithful no matter. While its too late for General Patraeus, try to avoid situations that are tempting. So it might have been better for him to have chosen a male biographer.

3. Make wise choices about your mate in the first place. Too many couples live together without a commitment to marry and often do what Dr. Stanley and colleague Dr. Galena Rhoades, describe as "sliding" into marriage, without having the relationship qualities associated with marital happiness over time (see Dr. Stanley's excellent and insightful blog at for more information on this and other key topics in the relationship field).

4. Finally, it is important to recognize and deal with early signs that EMI may be starting or a at risk for starting. My colleague, one of the most influential Couples Therapists and authors in the country, Dr. Frank Pittman, has often said that wrote that the corrosive effect of EMI is (and I am paraphrasing here) not whom you lie with but whom you lie to. If you notice that your partner are starting to hide or to lie about phone calls or emails or texts in general supportive confrontation and discussion is likely better than ignoring it and hoping it will go away or becoming a detective. If need by, ask your partner to go to couples therapy with you to deal with thee destructive behaviors and other issues that may be occurring in your marriage. While biased, I recommend my book, Fighting FOR Your Marriage, (Wiley, 2010) as a resource for learning and using effective communication and conflict management skills, as well as increasing positive connections and commitment in relationship.

What to do when an affair is discovered? The short answer to this question is that there are research based approaches that work to help couples, who want to deal with the affair and save their marriage (and I personally hope, without knowing any details, that General Petraeus and his wife do so). I will write about these approaches and give some research-based advice in a follow-up blog. In the meantime I offer Fighting FOR Your Marriage workshops and relationship coaching (see and there are some great books on dealing with EMI (e.g., by Drs. Shirley Glass, Doug Snyder, Kristi Coop-Gordon, Frank Pittman and Don Baucom).