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Avoiding the Trap of Infidelity

November 16, 2012

For some reason I am always surprised and disappointed when another powerful man is exposed for having an extramarital affair.  Last week’s resignation by David Petraeus, the retired four-star general and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, demonstrated that even the most self-disciplined people can fail in this area.

I grew up being nearly oblivious to this kind of thing – one of my nicknames in high school was “Snow White”.  So it was quite a rude awakening in one of my first jobs as a young lawyer when I realized the senior associate whose office was next to mine was having an affair with his secretary, whose workstation was directly outside my door.  The view was inescapable.  All day long I would watch her trot in and out of his office, giggling, and see them leave work early to “go work out together.”  As the lowliest of associates I could do nothing but sit there and watch as this soap opera played out in front of me. I noticed the pictures of his wife and young child sitting prominently in his office.  The whole thing made me very uncomfortable.   Eventually, they were discovered and the secretary was fired, his career was damaged, and his marriage fell apart.

As I continued to work surrounded by both young and old male lawyers, I soon realized that there were some men I felt very comfortable with, and others I did not. Some men went out of their way to make me feel safe and respected, while others gave me the creeps.  My best friend and I, both very young, married female lawyers, began to talk about the differences in the men we worked with.  She had to work on a trial in West Texas for over three weeks with an older, attractive senior partner.  But the man made exceptional efforts to maintain appropriate boundaries and she never once felt uncomfortable. Even when they had to do pre-trial preparation in a Best Western motel room, he always left the door propped open and kept a respectful distance.  In contrast, I turned down a similar assignment because I simply didn’t trust the senior partner I would be travelling with.

In today’s workplace, we often spend more time with our coworkers than we do with our spouses.  Being human, it is normal to occasionally be attracted to a person we work with.  However, the cost of acting on those attractions can be devastating to both careers and families.  Because of these temptations, both men and women who want to maintain their integrity and keep their families intact must be proactive to avoid falling into the trap of infidelity.

First, set boundaries and keep them.  Years ago, when Billy Graham’s career as an evangelist began to take off, he realized that women would be attracted to him because of his fame and the emotional appeal of his messages.  He travelled frequently, but he made it a rule to never be alone with any woman other than his wife.  Members of his team even checked his hotel room before he went in for the night.  Some people might find these kinds of precautions laughable, but they are effective.

Second, don’t flirt.  Make an effort to keep workplace friendships strictly on a platonic basis.  We all know when we cross the line between friendly conversation and flirting.  Pay attention to your instincts.  If you feel that a situation is likely to lead you down the wrong path, don’t just walk away, run.  Also, if you are having a difficult time at home, do not start confiding in a coworker of the opposite sex.  You are just asking for trouble.

Third, keep your own marriage strong.  All marriages go through ups and downs, and what seem to be insurmountable problems can often be resolved with time, effort and patience.  Today there are countless books on marriage and relationships and free websites such as MarriageBuilders.com that can offer tips on strengthening your marriage.

Infidelity hurts careers and families, especially children, and often leads to embarrassment, pain, divorce, and financial problems.  It only makes sense to try to avoid it.  As an old proverb says, “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned?   . . . The man who commits adultery has no sense; whoever does so destroys himself.”  I’m sure David Petraeus wishes he’d thought about that a little earlier.

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