Emotional Infidelity – How To Protect Your Relationship
That girl he really clicks with at work, or the old flame you’ve struck up a new friendship with on Facebook – are they harmless relationships or could you be heading for an emotional affair? Heidi Scrimgeour explains how it’s not as clear-cut as you might think.
Having an affair might be the furthest thing from your mind. But research shows that affairs aren’t just the preserve of cheating ‘types’ who deliberately seek out illicit liaisons behind their partner’s back.
In her book, Not Just Friends, relationship therapist Shirley P. Glass writes: “Eighty-two percent of the 201 unfaithful partners I’ve treated have had an affair with someone who was, at first, just a friend.” Those of us who think we’d never cheat on our partners can also be slow to recognise when a friendship turns into something more. And affairs commonly unfold in contexts where connections with the opposite sex are unavoidable – at work, online, and in our social circles.
Glass calls this “a new crisis of infidelity” wherein people in good marriages who never planned to stray end up having affairs. But experts agree that it’s possible to take preventative steps to affair-proof your marriage, and to salvage your relationship from the wreckage of emotional infidelity.
What is an emotional affair?
Doug and Linda (surnames withheld) are the founders of www.emotionalaffair.org, a website which offers support to couples dealing with emotional affairs. They identify an emotional affair as “a relationship which someone invests more energy into than their marriage”, that provides significant emotional support and companionship, and that involves secrecy and lying.
Though emotional affairs aren’t physical, Glass writes that they are often a precursor to a full-blown affair, with around 80% of emotional affairs becoming sexual. Glass defines emotional affairs as relationships “characterised by secrecy, emotional intimacy and sexual chemistry” and asserts that an emotional affair can be much more damaging to a marriage than a sexual betrayal.
“You can have an affair without having sex,” she writes. “Sometimes the greatest betrayals happen without touching. Infidelity is any emotional or sexual intimacy that violates trust.”
Emotional affairs: why?
Saying ‘I do’ doesn’t signal the end of your days of being attracted to others, and acknowledging that can help ensure you’re not swept off your feet by the experience when it happens. “Being attracted means you’re still breathing,” writes Glass. “We meet good-looking, dynamic smart people at work, at class reunions, in restaurants and on the Internet. As electrically-charged beings, we continually respond to the positive charges of others. It doesn’t matter whether we are happily married. In the moment of attraction, we are fully alive to the possibilities of potential intimacy.
But while attraction might be inevitable, infidelity is not. So why do some of us give way to temptation while others resist it? Glass asserts: “The answer lies in the complex interweaving of opportunity, vulnerability, commitment and values.”
“Emotional affairs happen when there is a lack of clear boundaries,” agrees Doug. “Combine that with the perception that one’s needs aren’t being met within the marriage, and the fantasylike perception that the affair partner can fulfil those unmet needs, and that’s a recipe for an emotional affair.”
How to spot the signs
Denial often plays a central role in an emotional affair, obscuring your ability to spot it, and it can be easy to rationalise a non-physical relationship in your mind, but sharing any kind of intimacy with someone other than your spouse can be an early warning sign of emotional infidelity.
For Linda, secrecy is the first sign of an emotional affair. “If you don’t talk to your spouse about your relationship with the other person, or if you hide things about the relationship from your partner then you’re crossing over from platonic friendship to an emotional affair.”
Other warnings signs include sharing confidences with your friend at the same time as withdrawing from your partner, daydreaming or obsessing about the relationship, and prioritising opportunities for your paths to cross.
Rebuilding after emotional infidelity
To avoid fuelling an emotional intimacy, resist the temptation to tell the other person how you feel. Affair partners often confess their attraction to one another under the guise of clearing the air or clarifying that nothing will happen, but the very act of doing so is a deep emotional disclosure that can’t be reversed, so save it for a counsellor.
But what should you do if you’ve already crossed that line? “Run for your life!” advises Linda. “Talk to a trusted friend or counsellor who might be able to talk some sense into you and steer you back towards reality, away from the fantasy world of the affair.” It’s also vital to redefine your boundaries after an emotional betrayal if you want to salvage your marriage.
Glass explains: “In a love affair, the unfaithful partner has built a wall to shut out the marriage partner and has opened a window to let in the affair partner. To re-establish a marriage that is intimate and trusting after an affair, the walls and windows must be reconstructed… you install a picture window between you and your marriage partner and construct a solid or opaque wall to block out contact with the affair partner.”
Affair-proofing your marriage
“To affair-proof a relationship, a couple needs to communicate constantly and honestly about their needs, and whether those are being met,” Linda says. “Work on your marriage every day, not just during the bad times. Every morning, ask yourself: ‘What am I able to do today that will make my marriage better?’
On the subject of unmet needs, Glass also writes that, contrary to popular opinion, it is often the case that the partner having the affair is the one who has withdrawn or is not giving enough to the marriage, not the one whose needs are neglected. So paying attention to your own emotional commitment to your spouse can be a good indicator of the health of your relationship.
My emotional affair
“I’ve been having an emotional affair for eight years. I wasn’t looking for extramarital involvement – I loved my husband, we had a family, and I thought we were very happy together. But then I met a man through work and there was instant chemistry between us. My career was taking off, but my husband wasn’t getting the recognition he deserved at work so I couldn’t share my success with him.”
“Things felt very bleak at home and a big gap opened up between us. The other man filled the emotional void. I kidded myself that it was just an intense professional relationship, until we started texting each other late into the night. My heart would leap whenever a message from him appeared. I did say that I thought he might be going a bit too far with the messages because I was married, but it was too late. I think I was already addicted to the attention he paid me.”
“My husband discovered the affair. He found emails – and was devastated. He insisted that we weren’t to text each other or be in touch, but after a year we were in contact again. Maybe I shouldn’t have got married or had children so young, because I didn’t have those romantic experiences of being swept off my feet by someone writing me poetry and being intensely in love with me. What you haven’t experienced, you do wonder about, and that can be a big danger.”
“I’m not sure what the future holds. Maybe my husband will get the success he needs. I might outgrow my need for the love and attention my affair partner gives me. But my advice would be pay attention to each other. Be happy for one another’s successes. Share the challenges, and reassure each other.”
Have you any experience or tips to share? Let us know in the comments.