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We all get married fantasizing the happily ever after — after all, we found “the one.” But studies have shown that up to 50% of married people will have an affair, which begs the questions: Why are so many people cheating on their spouses? And how can you stay out of that statistic? Today’s guest explains how to “affair-proof” your relationship.

Steven Ing, MFT

Steven Ing, MFT, had a seriously messed up childhood… Like, mobster-shot-to-death-by-police messed up. Out of this beginning came a lifelong fascination with two questions: “Why do people do what they do?” and “How can all of us figure out how to move to what healthier families enjoy and how they get their needs for love met?”

A marriage and family therapist for over 30 years, Ing helps people figure out how they too can have healthy sexuality and intimacy. He’s literally written the book on human sexual needs, “We’re All Like This” used in university-level human sexuality classes.

Steven is the creator and host of the true crime podcast, Sex Crime Central. He’s also a contributor to Psychology Today, Psych Central Podcast, HuffPost, The Advocate, SheKnows.com, The Rage Monthly, Adelante Magazine, and Gannett newspapers. Published author and TEDx Talk presenter (“What’s Your Magic Sex Number”), Steven talks about sexuality in a way that won’t embarrass you (even if your kids are in the car).

Gabe Howard

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast, I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and I want to quickly give a shout out to our sponsor, Better Help. You can get a week free by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. And calling into our show today we have Steven Ing, MFT. Mr. Ing has been a marriage and family therapist for over 30 years and says he talks about sexuality in a way that won’t embarrass you even if you are in the car with your kids. Mr. Ing, welcome to the show.

Steven Ing, MFT: Well, thank you, Gabe, it’s a pleasure to be here talking to you about this subject.

Gabe Howard: In preparing for this episode, I did a lot of research on marital infidelity and discovered that finding the exact percentage of married couples who cheat is difficult because the studies rely on self-reporting.

Steven Ing, MFT: Right.

Gabe Howard: That said, the most commonly cited research shows that about 15-20% of married couples cheat and that while men and women cheated, basically an equivalent rate, men do still slightly cheat a little bit more. And most of the cheating seems to occur at people who have been married for 20 or 30 years, which was surprising to me because I just always thought it happened like year one. So these are people between the ages of 50 and 60 and more than 50% of the cheating spouses on both the men and women side did say, again in self-reporting, that they confessed to their spouse about their affair. Mr. Ing, is any of what I just said surprising to you?

Steven Ing, MFT: Actually, I am a little surprised that the numbers you found were so low. Myself, I’ve read studies that indicate over 50% of men who are married have had some sort of an affair. And with women it’s slightly less, but over 50%. So I think it depends so much on the study. And, you know, in terms of taking some preventative measures, which is what we’re talking about today, it’s more of a question of not if, but when this happens in my life.

Gabe Howard: I did see numbers as high as 65%. But the thing that I want the listeners to take away is this isn’t some low occurrence. This is very, very common. It is reasonable to assume that you know somebody who is cheating on their spouse. It’s that common. All the research agrees on that.

Steven Ing, MFT: Oh, yeah, and part of the reason I think these statistics are skewed is not only the methodology of the data collection, but also that even when I’m assured that my response is anonymous, it’s a little bit like coming out and admitting that I’m an alcoholic. Because that requires my having processed the information and becoming at least somewhat OK with it. And for a lot of people, some sort of dalliance that occurred once upon a time when I was out of town, to admit that makes it so much more real and then troubling because I then I have that cognitive dissonance where I’m now keeping a secret from my spouse.

Gabe Howard: Now that we’ve established this is very common and that it could [GH1] happen in your marriage, whether it’s you or your spouse, we want to talk about affair proofing your marriage. That’s the goal of this episode. Mr. Ing, what does affair proofing your marriage even mean?

Steven Ing, MFT: I’m laughing because of your tone, but not because of the subject matter, I take it really seriously, Gabe. But I think the tone of incredulity is probably well placed because after all, we can’t affair proof our marriages in the sense of making it 100% free of any possibility of affairs. But we routinely use language like fireproofing a home or any other building or drown proofing our own children. And it doesn’t mean the little monsters can’t be drowned if we really put our minds to it, but it means that they’re far less likely to drown if they fall out of the boat. And in the same way, I think we can dramatically reduce the odds of affairs just happening by grappling with the subject matter and taking some intelligent steps.

Gabe Howard: But I’m over on the other side and I’m thinking, hey, if you don’t want there to be affairs in your marriage, then don’t cheat. Like in my mind, it’s that simple, but the research does very clearly state that people who consider themselves good, honest people are falling prey to this.

Steven Ing, MFT: So really, when you think about it, human behavior isn’t the result of causality, right? It’s the result of choice. And people choose to engage in certain behaviors. And some of those behaviors make it less likely that an affair will occur. And some, of course, will make it more likely that an affair will occur. The problem, I think, is typically we are so uncomfortable with talking about sexuality that we want to reduce it to a moral diagnosis and then say, well, then just don’t do it. You know, don’t have affairs, don’t have sex outside of marriage, don’t have sex before marriage, and for God sakes, don’t masturbate. In fact, while we’re at it, don’t even think about sex because that’s a sin, too. But if we embrace human normal human sexuality, that would include everyone having thoughts and feelings and fantasies and sometimes behaviors that are problematic. And if we can just embrace that as the reality in which we live, then we can begin to intelligently manage our sexuality. The alternative is we can keep going with, frankly, what I see most commonly happening with religion in that we can say don’t or to put it in more religious language, thou shalt not. But that’s just sexual repression. That’s like saying to a starving man, don’t steal people’s food. And the response has got to be something like, OK, but then what should I do?

Gabe Howard: It reminds me of the issues that we often have with people who live with severe and persistent mental illness. It’s that just cheer up mentality. Oh, you’re depressed? Just don’t be. Oh, you’re having sexual thoughts that don’t fit in? Well, just stop it like we’re

Steven Ing, MFT: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: Good, right? We’ve solved your problem. Just don’t think about it anymore. And it sounds like part of affair proofing your relationship is to have this ongoing conversation with your partner, including, please correct me if I’m wrong, including admitting when thoughts of an affair enter your mind.

Steven Ing, MFT: I actually do agree with you, however, the answer is a little more nuanced than just a yes or no, because I think everybody listening to this would admit that Americans are far more comfortable having sex with somebody than they are talking about having sex with anybody. We are really a very sexually active culture, but we have a tremendous amount of inhibition when it comes to talking about it, especially talking intelligently. I don’t mean like a flirtation; I mean an actual conversation with someone I care about. And that’s hard for us, not because it’s intrinsically difficult to talk about, but I think because we’ve literally never been taught the sentences. We’ve literally never heard anybody actually talk about this. I’m hoping today that we can begin maybe giving people some ideas about how they might safely bring up subjects so that if, let’s say it was me, how could I conceivably disclose to my spouse that I’m having some sexual thoughts or feelings or I’m intrigued or excited by the fantasy of having an affair with someone? How would I actually do that? And I think to be able to do that requires what I would call laddering up our disclosures, where we start with something that’s relatively safe and maybe a little bit inhibiting, a little bit fearsome. A trial balloon, if you will. We float that trial balloon past a partner or better yet, a potential partner. And if the trial balloon gets shot down? Well, I’m sure as heck not going to go on to the next steps on the ladder to really get to that point where we’re talking about personal things that could get me really hurt.

Gabe Howard: Now you have a concept called a sexual contract. Now I’m thinking about all the contracts I’ve ever signed. And they involve just so much negotiation, conversation. Just the meeting of the minds is intense. And that’s just over a job or money or a house or a car. I have so many questions about the sexual contract, but obviously, let’s start with what is the sexual contract?

Steven Ing, MFT: Well, I love the way you framed the conversation, and I think it might help people begin thinking about this in a different way, because usually when the subject comes up, people just without hearing any explanation get very uncomfortable. And I’d like to bring up a friendly memory, hopefully from grade school, where Benjamin Franklin hundreds of years ago said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s a lot easier to prevent something from happening than it is to fix it once it’s broken. And when we’re talking about a contract, you know, marriage is a contract. If we are going to be entering into a marital contract, obviously, part of that contract includes sexual commitments and generally speaking, we’re all quite comfortable with the conversation beginning with a commitment to monogamy. Problem is, we end the conversation after that commitment has been made, whether we’re talking about holy matrimony, living together, dating exclusively, going steady, whatever language we use when it comes to monogamy, we’re pretty much done talking about it at that point. And that creates a problem, a real problem, because the parts of my brain that were attracted to my lovely wife in the first place, they don’t become neutralized upon taking marital vows. I’m still a guy who was attracted to women in general, through no fault of my own. I happen to be hetero. And oh, even after getting married? Yes, I’m still attracted and I have to deal with that somehow. Now, if we’re really partners, wouldn’t it be great to deal with that as a team and be able to have a conversation about that instead of having to keep it a shameful secret that I never share with my spouse?

Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after we hear from our sponsors.

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Gabe Howard: We’re back with marriage and family therapist Steven Ing discussing ways to affair proof your marriage. This sounds great in theory, I want to be very clear, everything that you’re saying on paper looks beautiful, but introducing this idea of creating a sexual contract and negotiating and as somebody who has been both married and divorced, it just seems so impossible. And one of the things that I’m wondering is it seems like something where one partner would get on board first and would have to introduce it to the other partner. How can you introduce this concept of a sexual contract into your marriage, especially if your marriage is 5, 10, 15, 20 years old and you’ve never discussed this?

Steven Ing, MFT: Well, if you’re already married, of course, it’s way too late, your life is over and it’s ruined. I’m joking. I’m joking because and you’re right, it’s always one person who wants to begin these things. But that’s also true of talking about children or money or politics or anything else. It’s always one person who takes the lead. And I, I honestly don’t think it matters which of the two people involved want to begin the discussion, but it is important that the discussion begin. Like you, I have been married and divorced and now I’m remarried and I’ve been together with my wife making it work for quite a long time. And I think for us, we’ve accepted that just as we are constantly needing to get to know each other again and again because we’re always changing. It’s important for us to keep talking about sexuality because we’re experiencing sexuality, our own personal sexuality, in ways that are unfolding as we develop and get older.

Steven Ing, MFT: It’s an ongoing conversation. It’s not one we can nail down and then walk away from and, well, okay, brushing our hands. We took care of that chore. Glad we don’t have to ever go there again. I think most of us, when we talk about sexual needs, we’re usually wanting to talk about the need to have sex. But we have dozens of other sexual needs. So to get to the point where we’re intelligently managing our sexuality, we have to kind of know what our sexual needs are. Right? It’d be like managing our diet if you don’t know how much vitamin C you need to avoid something like scurvy, then it makes no sense to talk about planning a diet based on some sort of intelligent management of your nutritional needs. And it’s the same way with our sleep. It’s the same way with socializing.

Steven Ing, MFT: And I think with sexuality, we can also find a lot of common ground when it comes to talking about our needs. And if we can’t find that common ground, oh, boy, now we’ve got a problem, because if I announce that I have a need for, let’s say, some sexual play and humor, that includes being able to tell an off color story to my spouse because I really want to see her giggle about this. And I share that story or that joke or that one liner. And she looks at me stone facedly, and there’s no response whatsoever, that’s going to be problematic when repeated over the years. That’s simply not going to work. Fixing that once I’m into that relationship then becomes much more challenging because then I have to say, hey, honey. So then we have to unpack it after the fact, after we’ve been together for a year or 10 or 20.

Gabe Howard: I completely agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that it would be great if we would have all known this before we got married. But what about the folks that have been married for the ten years that are there thinking about it? They’re weighing this idea of having an affair. How can they discuss this with their spouse and avoid it? Like an actionable step?

Steven Ing, MFT: You know, this is going to call for some courage. I appreciate the scenario as you set it up, because let’s imagine we’re talking to a couple in their 50s and they have gone along without any apparent problems. And then all of a sudden, one of them feels an incredible strong attraction for another person outside of the marriage. And, well, let’s look at what usually happens. What usually happens is they deny it to their dying day. No, I’m not attracted to her or him. No, I’m not feeling feelings like that. No, I don’t find them attractive in the least. I was just checking out her shoes. Didn’t believe she wore those shoes with that outfit. If we can find the courage to get past the lying, then we’re able to start having a conversation that may or may not include a professional. They can certainly do it on their own. And that would be to start with, you know, I’d like to talk to you about something. I’ve been really troubled lately by some sexual thoughts. And again, that’s my trial balloon, right? Because if I bring up just sexual thoughts, I’ve been troubled by some sexual thoughts. I’m not admitting to anything except that I’ve had some sexual thoughts. I can find out pretty quickly, is it even safe to have that conversation? So in terms of action, if you’re the listener and your spouse starts a conversation with something like that, to be able to take a deep breath and abstain from self-centered fear and to simply reply with something that encourages further disclosure.

Steven Ing, MFT: Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me about it. Instead of oh, my God, you better not be thinking about having an affair. If you do, I will ruin you. So we want to keep the disclosures coming with the confidence that number one, we don’t get married with the idea that we want to get divorced. We get married with we’ll live happily ever after together. That’s what we want. And let’s just proceed on that basis, have a little faith that we want to get along. We want to make our marriages work, and we can do that. But we’re going to have to stop attacking. That means the door is open now for an ongoing conversation for which I’m not going to punish my spouse for bringing it up, for having thoughts, for having feelings. And if those thoughts and feelings, if it’s just a passing thought, well, maybe it doesn’t require any solution because a passing thought is kind of a normal human thing. It’s normal human sexuality to notice attractive people and have sexual thoughts. But what if it’s something deeper? What if it’s something like I just feel so understood whenever I’m around them and I really think I’m starting to have feelings for them? Well, that’s a whole different conversation, isn’t it? In terms of actionable, letting go of my self-centered fears and doing what I need to do to encourage disclosure and continued conversation, that isn’t of a punishing, shaming or guilt tripping nature

Gabe Howard: At the top of the episode, we talked about the Truth About Deception survey that said more than 50% of cheating spouses, both men and women, ultimately confessed to their spouse. It doesn’t say whether they confessed after they got caught or before, but that does mean that at the very least, 50% of affairs get found out. And that makes me wonder if your marriage has suffered from an affair, can it recover? And if so, how?

Steven Ing, MFT: Well, you know, that’s probably the heaviest question of all, because we’re talking about somebody who’s feeling very hurt and very betrayed while the other person who acted out and violated their own self sworn oaths is feeling very guilty and shame faced. In fact, so many people, men and women I’ve talked to over the years, they feel like they deserve to be punished. You know, I need to spend X number of days in the doghouse, which could include weeks or months of cold shouldering. It could include all sorts of other punishments, like hyper vigilance that’s more vindictive than anything else or even stalking and stalking by proxy, having my people outside the marriage, keeping an eye on my spouse lest they stray again, that sort of thing. And I think recovery has got to start off with realizing that, as is always the case, the behavior of that any one individual is utterly and totally about them. It’s not about me. It’s not a reflection on me or my worth or my attractiveness. If my wife has an affair or her husband has an affair, it’s about the individual having the affair. And starting from that place of and they really didn’t get married to start having affairs. Nobody wants to be that guy. Right? And yet somehow, we end up so often being the guy that we really don’t want to be. So we painted ourselves into some kind of a corner. And if people’s attitude is right, sometimes it comes across as I just want to heal this thing, this division between us, this trespass, this violation of our vows, I want to heal it and I want to move on.

Steven Ing, MFT: But, and that’s a very doable thing. In fact, I would say most of the people who come into a counselor’s office are capable of that kind of healing. The unfinished part, though, is what are the variables that contributed to the problem behavior in the first place? Is there a lack of intimacy? And when I say intimacy, I don’t necessarily mean a lack of sex. I mean just a lack of a meaningful sharing of our lives with one another. So taking a look at those variables is probably the gift in this failure to maintain our vows, the gift is a deeper understanding of ourselves and our marriage. And we want to understand this even if then we decide to dump the other person because we just can’t. It’s just too much hurt. We still want and need to figure out how it happened so that we can avoid it happening in the next relationship. And I hope people can wrap their brains around that because this is a journey that takes a lot of courage. They have to be willing to sit in the chair and talk about my fears and hurts and what it is I’m feeling and sort through it all. And it’s also very confusing in the moment. If we can do that, though, there is a prize at the end of that. Because that prize is wisdom. To become a wiser person and not that person who goes out and repeats the same mistake again and again and again. None of us want to be that person.

Gabe Howard: Mr. Ing, thank you so much. There’s so many questions that I think people have when it comes to affair proofing their marriage, getting over an affair. But it really seems like the biggest takeaway that people should have from this particular episode is that communication matters. And if you start keeping secrets from your spouse, you’re making yourself very vulnerable. Is that an accurate take away to get people started on the path of learning more to affair proof their relationships?

Steven Ing, MFT: Absolutely, although I eschew blaming the lack of communication, because I think we all speak English pretty well, the problem is you put your finger on right there is how do I start talking about these things that are so awkward and difficult to talk about? And another actionable choice for people listening to this is to find a safe person. And what I mean is somebody you really feel safe with, perhaps a very close friend, maybe even a clergyman, perhaps even a therapist, and to say, I’ve been having these thoughts and these feelings and they’re really bothering me and I don’t know what to do and to be able to talk about those things with someone who doesn’t necessarily have any skin in the game but who is really trustworthy. That’s a rehearsal for how I might begin talking about these things with my spouse. Keeping secrets is a very big sign that something is really wrong. But how I disclose those secrets is equally fraught with danger. Because I don’t want to disclose very personal secrets if all I’m going to get from my spouse is a guilt trip or some other sort of moralizing sermonette that makes me feel horrible and bad and doesn’t bring us closer together. We want to solve our problems that are keeping us apart. We want to resolve them so that we can be even closer than we were before the disclosure.

Gabe Howard: Mr. Ing, you literally wrote the book on this subject. Can you tell our listeners the name of the book, where they can find it and where folks can find you?

Steven Ing, MFT: Finding me is really easy. StevenIng.com, and it’s Steven with a V. I’ve got tons of media, including this interview will be there as well. The book is available on Amazon. “We’re All Like This.” And it’s a book without any medical terminology or any vulgarity. So it’s the safe sort of coffee table book you could leave out even if the grandchildren come over.

Gabe Howard: I appreciate that, thank you so much for being here.

Steven Ing, MFT: You’re very welcome. It was my pleasure. I really enjoyed talking to you, Gabe.

Gabe Howard: And a big thank you to all of our listeners. Wherever you downloaded this podcast, please follow the show. It’s absolutely free. Take a moment to review the show, tell other people why you like it and why they should tune in. And hey, if you have a topic idea, there’s something you want to see or even if you don’t agree with me, hit us up at show@PsychCentral.com. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as a nationally recognized public speaker who would love to be at your next event. You can grab a signed copy of my book and get free swag or learn more about me over at my website, gabehoward.com. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at show@PsychCentral.com. Previous episodes can be found at PsychCentral.com/Show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.