Precursors to Infidelity: The Six Warning Signs


“Such silence has an actual sound, the sound of disappearance.” ― Suzanne Finnamore, Split: A Memoir of Divorce

Dr. John Gottman’s research provides key insights in understanding trust and in recognizing the signs, behaviors, and attitudes that indicate a path toward betrayal.

It won’t be a surprise to hear that trust and commitment are the core qualities of what relationships need to flourish and grow in deepening friendship, managing conflict, and creating shared meaning and purpose.

RetiredCommitment signals that our partner is all in, that you are in this together, with willingness to repair the relationship and making things work. It is knowing that your partner puts your needs at the top of the list and is willing to make sacrifices for you and for the relationship. Researcher Caryl Rusbult studied theories of commitment for over 30 years and concluded that commitment to a relationship occurs over a long period of time, with a person more and more seeing the relationship as central to their life and to their needs. Partner’s notice what is going right and avoid negative comparisons with other people; the grass is not greener.

Couple with moving boxes.Trust, the other foundation of stable and happy relationships, is based on knowing your partner has your back, that you can count on your partner when you need him or her. You can express your needs and feelings and your partner will listen without judgment, and turn toward that need. Since none of us are perfect, we aren’t able to always do that, but when the trust metric is high, then there is a lot more room for mistakes and the occasional failure, in other words, repair is a lot easier. Commitment is based on the foundation of trust. Trust is associated with each partner’s ability to influence each other; we listen to those we trust.

What if things aren’t going so well in the relationship, does that mean the relationship is at greater risk for a partner straying? The answer is, no, not necessarily. There are many relationships that are in a fairly high level of distress but the partners remain faithful to each other, despite the unhappiness.

So, what are the warning signs, or more to the point, the path that leads to infidelity and betrayal? Gottman draws his conclusions in “Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples”, and his follow-up book, “What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal”. Here’s an overview that outlines the progressive series of steps, each increasing risks for infidelity.

Opening the Doors to Infidelity – Warning Signs as a Progression, AKA Welcome to the Roach Motel

In relationships that are struggling, the really negative and persistent emotional state they find themselves in is like entering the Roach Hotel, a one way trip unless you can turn it around, especially before getting to Step 6.

Roach Hotel

  1. Ignoring partner’s needs and emotions and turning away from attempts to share or connect. In healthy interdependent relationships couples make constant requests for support, understanding, and connection. Gottman calls these “sliding glass door moments”, referring to the choice we always have to respond positively, or not, to the partner’s attempt to express feelings or a need, or to connect. It turns out that in the research in stable, happy relationships, partners respond positively 86% of the time, while couples headed toward potential disaster only respond positively about 33% of the time, the rest of the responses are characterized by either ignoring the partner or by responding negatively. While we can’t always meet our partner’s needs for support and understanding, when falling short the couples in the 86% versus 33% category have much greater ability to repair those times. Also, conflict (in the 86% category) is characterized by more humor and affection.
  2. As tensions arise from unmet emotional needs and lack of support, increased arguing and damaging conflicts occur, each chipping away at the trust level. When partners are either unwilling to express their hurts, and/or unwilling to listen to the others hurts, opportunities for repair are lost. Each partner becomes a trigger for the other’s hurts, often times related to family of origin wounds and sensitivities. When triggers are pushed, couples get flooded, in other words, their bodies respond with strong overwhelming feelings activated by a natural instinct for survival. Neurochemistry changes activated by the sympathetic nervous system make it nearly impossible to problem-solve or even to listen. This is not a good time to have a discussion, because nothing good is likely to happen, instead the damage piles up.
  3. Unresolved issues begin to pile up and the “Zeigarnik effect” kicks in. Bluma Zeigarnek was a social psychology student in Vienna in 1922, and through her research determined basically that we have much better recall for events that have not been completed or dealt with. Gottman writes that unfinished business leaves unhealed wounds. Neuroscience supports this idea with studies concluding the same thing. Negativity grabs our attention and puts our brain on watch, keeping us very alert to further hurts and unsafe situations.
  4.  Negative sentiment overrides everything. With broken trust, unmet needs, overwhelming feelings, negative perceptions, feelings, and beliefs about the partner gel and define the problems in the relationship. Negative explanations reinforce the belief that the partner is selfish and thoughtless. Our brain puts positive and neutral interactions in the back row: this is about survival. Gottman calls negative sentiment override “a litmus test” for a troubled relationship.
  5. The Four Horsemen: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling create pervasive negativity. The physical distress leads to attacking and blaming the partner, defensiveness, reacting with sarcasm and contempt, and shutting down: all of which are huge predictors of relationship meltdown. There is no ability to constructively mange conflict.

 Gottman’s research indicates that 30% of couples locked in these endless battles remain trustworthy. What he found was that the final step before betrayal is Negative COMP – The last stop before the Roach Hotel

6. Negative COMP is simply a negative comparison, meaning that the untrustworthy partner starts comparing the partner to others, with real and imagined people. The partner ends up losing out to these other idealized people. This is a key dynamic in betrayal. By stacking up the partner against others the stage is set to establish relationships with others who are seen as more understanding, more loving, more interesting, more fun, and so on, believing “These problems tell me I would just be happier with someone else.”  These relationships tend not to be real or realistic. They often serve as fantasies about the relationships: “In this relationship, I feel needed, appreciated…loved.”  It’s a lot easier to be in a relationship when all you do is date and not have to manage the responsibilities of everyday life.

Negative COMP stands in direct contrast to partners who see losing their partner as disastrous. In Positive COMP  partners embrace a “We can tackle the world together” philosophy. Positive comparison leaves the partner feeling, “This is the person I want to be with”.

So, do dissatisfied partners actively seek out affairs after hitting all of the six steps?  Stay Tuned: In my next blog I will cover what research tells us about the most common pathway to actually starting an affair.