Our local fire station recently conducted their annual fire safety lesson for my son’s third-grade class, complete with the shiny red pumper truck and fun gizmos to help children remember the seriousness of fire prevention and response. However, its fire prevention leaflet for parents brought to mind an issue I had personally experienced a few weeks earlier and one I have counseled hundreds on over the years: relationships and partner infidelity. Interestingly, the educational approach used for fire safety may also be useful to help us prepare for and respond to partner sexual infidelity as well.
In 2013, public fire departments responded to more than 1.24 million fires. Each year more than 2,500 people die and 12,600 are injured in home fires in the United States (FEMA, 2014). An estimated $11.5 billion in property damage occurred from fire in 2013 (Karter, 2014).
Estimates of marital infidelity among American couples range from 26 percent to 70 percent for women and from 33 percent to 75 percent for men (Eaves & Robertson-Smith, 2007).
Infidelity is the leading cause of divorce around the world (Buss, 2000), and between 14 percent (Atkins, Baucom & Christensen, 2005) to 27 percent (Atkins, Marin, Lo, Kann & Hahlweg, 2010) of couples in therapy report infidelity as the problem in their relationship. Associated with the increased risk of mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, infidelity is one of the most damaging issues in a relationship (Whisman, Dixon & Johnson, 1997).
Fires can happen anywhere, to anyone. They occur even in the best-equipped buildings in the wealthiest and most secure neighborhoods. One home or building fire happens every 65 seconds in the United States (Karter, 2014).
Infidelity is a possibility in every committed relationship. Male, female, education level, income level, employment, race, culture, mental health and personality issues all have varying but unclear links to who is more or less likely to engage in a sexual act or relationship outside of a committed relationship (Cano & O’Leary, 2000). None of these characteristics has been shown to be a protective factor against infidelity.
Preparation and practice are key to detecting and responding to a problem before serious, sometimes permanent damage is done.
“Plan for your risks,” FEMA says. “Be prepared for disaster by heeding official warnings. There are actions that should be taken before, during and after an event that are unique to each hazard. Identify the hazards that have happened or could happen … and plan for the unique actions for each.”
Like fire, adults are keenly aware of infidelity and the torrent of emotion and damage it can cause. However, few take the time to think through a plan for detecting and responding to this problem. Knowing in advance what the “fidelity detectors” are, monitoring those signals, and knowing how to respond when an alert is triggered might save considerable time and pain.
Early Warning Signs
“To protect yourself, it is important to understand the basic characteristics of fire,” FEMA says. More than one-third (37 percent) of home fire deaths occur in homes without smoke alarms, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
Each relationship needs numerous, well-maintained methods that will indicate signs of infidelity before it can deeply wound. There are dozens of personality and behavioral indicators that should serve as early-warning signs of a problem (See Appendix: Indicators of Infidelity). Being obsessive or paranoid about these signals is not healthy or effective, but being aware of the signals and how to respond are critical in harm reduction.
In an alarm, “Decide where you would go and what route you would take to get there,” cautions the American Red Cross.
The same holds true in our relationships. When infidelity indicators arise, we need a plan with a route to take to get us to a safe place of clear, rational thinking. Intimate monogamous relationships tend to force us to ignore or deny what we notice. Like many other times in our lives when we need someone to help us manage our emotions so we can see more clearly, when an infidelity signal flashes, knowing who you will turn to as an objective assessor may help you to determine whether to continue, investigate or end the relationship.
Extinguish the fire before it begins to burn and causes irreparable scarring:
- Stop what you are doing if your clothes catch fire. Do not try to pat the fire out or run.
- Drop to your knees and lie down on the floor on your stomach. Close your eyes and cover your face and mouth with your hands to protect yourself from flames and smoke.
- Roll onto your back and front repeatedly until the fire is out. Fire needs air to burn; rolling from your back to your front will help to smother the fire (ABCO Fire Protection Inc., 2011).
If your partner is suspected of infidelity and is unwilling to discuss it, or if you have hard evidence of his or her infidelity (and hopefully after you have discussed the situation with a professional counselor, friend or family member), the best decision may be to Stop-Drop-Roll:
- Stop the denial and self-delusions. Look through the obfuscation and haze of emotion and remember the best decisions are often the hardest to make and execute.
- Drop the person from your life. Seek help from a professional counselor, family and friends.
- Roll on with your life and have faith that your pain will subside and new happiness will come your way.
“Prepare, practice your fire escape plan twice a year,” says the U.S. Fire Administration.
Good times to remind yourself to plan for infidelity and monitor it might be:
- The start of each new relationship.
- Relationship anniversaries.
- Valentine’s Day.
- Whenever the fire department delivers its fire safety program at your child’s school.
Infidelity is possible in any relationship. Its psychoemotional repercussions can be devastating, affecting current and future relationships and the ability to trust and love wholly. As with all negative life events, prevention should be preferred over treatment. In the midst of any crisis, fire or infidelity, the ability to see and think clearly is diminished. So in a good Stop-Drop-Roll plan, the safety steps will be already marked to guide you to safety rather than deeper into the fire.
Appendix: Indicators of Infidelity
In this noncomprehensive list, think of each item as a separate alarm. Each item has a different degree of sensitivity for detecting infidelity, ranging from not being an alarm at all (if occurring by itself), to being a strong likelihood of infidelity. However, like monitors placed throughout your home, the more detectors going off, the greater the likelihood there is infidelity and it is just a matter of time before you and your family are going to get hurt if you don’t act.
Changes in Partner Attitudes and Behaviors
- Partner begins to make excessive or unusual excuses to avoid intimacy with you.
- Partner begins to make excessive or unusual excuses to avoid spending time with you.
- Sudden “emergencies” or “mistakes” requiring partner to work late or on days off.
- Starts to be overly lavish with gift-giving.
- Loses interest in hobbies or activities you did together.
- Taste in music suddenly changes.
- Begins locking his or her telephone.
- Arrives home with a new or unfamiliar perfume or cologne.
- Frequently picks fights or points out shortcomings with you or the relationship, with or without basis in fact.
- During an argument or some other opportune moment, your partner states your relationship together is not a good one or is on the path to ending.
- Says or does things that indicate he or she wants you to end the relationship.
- Changes in the way he or she kisses you or has sex with you.
- Changes in how he or she dresses or grooms.
- New interest in exercising or spending more time in the gym.
- New interest in having cosmetic procedures performed.
- Becomes easily offended when you ask normal, natural questions, and snaps back about why you’re spying or checking up on him or her.
- Stops telling you he or she loves you.
- Begins to criticize aspects of you that haven’t changed and that he or she once found attractive.
- Loses interest or does not inquire about significant events in your life, e.g., medical results, family issues, work issues.
- Begins to ogle or flirt with other members of the opposite sex or other homosexuals.
- His or her vehicle is maintained differently, or the passenger seat is in a different position.
- Purchases sexy underwear or clothing you never see.
- Becomes emotionally volatile, from outbursts of anger to crying and sadness.
- Stops planning or putting effort into dates and events for the two of you.
- Would rather stay inside instead of go out with you.
- Does not consult with you on scheduling vacation time.
- Schedules time away or vacations without you.
- Spends less time contributing to the workload at home or in your projects.
- Begins to use or express uncharacteristic catchphrases or opinions.
- Begins to accuse you of cheating.
- Becomes eager to volunteer to go to the grocery store, post office, or any place that gets him or her outside of the house, or, after arriving home, sits in the car talking on the phone, texting, or clearing call/text/email history.
- Stops wearing his or her wedding ring or a symbol of significance you gave him or her.
Electronics and Internet Activity
Telephone and texting behaviors are secretive
- Discontinues calls when you enter the room.
- Receives calls and, when asked who called, responds, “No one,” “Wrong number,” etc.
- Suddenly talks to a coworker or friend at unusual times, compared to the past.
- Gives hostile or dismissive responses when asked about calls.
- Will keep phone on his or her person at all times.
- Will not let you hold his or her phone.
- Continuously checks phone for texts, Facebook/social media messages, “updates,” etc.
Online connection and socializing
- Spends inordinate amount of time on Facebook and other social media sites.
- Does not let you have access to their computer, or suddenly shuts down the computer when you walk into the room.
- Excessive Internet usage, especially late at night.
Mental health issues (short list)
- Low self-image / self-esteem
- Emotional “baggage” or sensitivities from previous relationships.
- Has an emotional connection and relationship with a member of the opposite sex (or same sex if bi- or homosexual) from their past that serves as their sounding board.
- Develops a relationship with a member of the opposite sex (or same sex if bi- or homosexual) with whom he or she begins to communicate frequently or use as a sounding board.
- Has a friend who has ethical standards, values, views or lifestyle that may promote or support infidelity.
When asked about any of the above actions, the responses and/or explanations may have the following characteristics:
- Feasible, but not likely.
- A reasonable, uninvolved person would be highly skeptical.
- Contradictory to previous statements.
- Resulting in explosive emotional reactions of anger, crying, pleading.
- Appearing to be more of a scheme.
- If sent into a relationship advice column it probably wouldn’t be viewed as believable or would be red-flagged as highly suspicious.
- “Gut” feeling is telling you something isn’t right.
ABCO Fire Protection Inc. (2011) Stop. Drop. Roll. http://www.abcofire.com
Atkins, D.C, Marin, R.A., Lo, T.T.Y., Kann, N. & Hahlweg, K. (2010) Outcomes of couples with infidelity in a community-based sample of couple therapy. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(2), 212-216.
Atkins, D.C, Yi, J., Baucom, D.H. & Christensen, A. (2005) Infidelity in couples seeking marital therapy. Journal of Family Psychology, 19(4), 470-473.
Blow, Adrian J. & Hartnett, Kelley. Infidelity in Committed Relationships II: A Substantive Review. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (April 2005), 31 (2), ProQuest p. 217.
Buss, D.M. (2000). The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy is as Necessary as Love and Sex. New York, NY: The Free Press.
Cano, A. & O’Leary, K.D. (2000). Infidelity and separations precipitate major depressive episodes and symptoms of nonspecific depression and anxiety. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 774–781.
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (2011). Fire Deaths and Injuries: Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/fire-prevention/fires-factsheet.html
Eaves, Susan H. & Robertson-Smith, Misty (2007). The Relationship Between Self-Worth and Marital Infidelity: A Pilot Study. The Family Journal, October 2007, 15: 382-386.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (2014). Home Fires. http://www.ready.gov/home-fires
Federal Emergency Management Agency (2013). Plan For Your Risks. http://www.ready.gov/plan-for-your-risks
FEMA (2014). Home Fires. https://www.usfa.fema.gov/prevention/outreach/
Karter, Michael J. (2014) Fire Loss in the United States During 2013. Quincy, Mass.: National Fire Protection Association Fire Analysis and Research Division.
U.S. Fire Administration (2014). Home fire escape planning outreach materials. http://www.usfa.fema.gov/prevention/outreach/escape.html
Whisman, M.A., Dixon, A.E. & Johnson, B. (1997). Therapists’ perspectives of couple problems and treatment issues in couple therapy. Journal of Family Psychology, 11, 361-366.