Emotional affair? I thought affairs meant extramarital sex!

He tells me they’re just friends. Am I wrong to be concerned?

Can’t I have friends of the opposite sex?

Isn’t it better to give them a long leash?

Emotional affairs have become a hot topic in the last several years, resulting in much needed clarity for some and complete confusion for others. Conflicts arise in couples where one person’s friendship with someone else leaves their partner feeling neglected and angry, but also confused and uncertain about how to respond. “After all, they’re just business associates having lunch. I shouldn’t be so possessive.”  In the U.S., jealousy is frequently seen as a negative character trait.  This leads many to try to deny the experience of jealousy even when there might be good reason. If this sounds like you, it probably has been relieving to learn that there is such a thing as an emotional affair. Identifiable patterns of behavior between “friends” that can end up as a full- blown sexual and/or love affairs have come to light.  This is not to say that spouses shouldn’t have friends of the opposite sex.  But understanding how boundaries can easily melt, pushing the friendship across the line can be an important part of taking care of one’s relationship.

The Pattern

Most emotional affairs start at work, on the internet, or in some kind of intimate group experience, such as a spiritual community. The initial attraction is not sexual. Rather, it is the feeling that “this is someone who I can really talk to;” “this person gets me and I get her;” “we are great supports for each other;” “we are helping each other to be better people.”

Fueling the connection is the shared interest, for example, of work or spiritual growth. However, the conversations eventually become very personal and the talk turns toward relationships, specifically the primary relationship that one or both individuals are currently in. Suddenly, aspects of one’s marriage or primary relationship that had never been talked about with anyone other than the spouse become the focus of conversations. That may seem a bit strange, but after all it’s just talk, so it is labeled as harmless. And there can be  such a need to talk, one that hasn’t been satisfied in a long time.

Gradually, the intensity of these conversations grow; whether in person, on the phone, or on line, and so does the anticipation of these conversations. The conversations become the thing that is looked forward to more than anything else during the day, more than seeing the spouse, even.

It somehow seems a good idea not to share much about this friendship with the spouse, certainly not the intimate things that are spoken of. And bit by bit, one finds oneself  less “into” the primary relationship in comparison to the new one.

Time is needed to talk to this friend, or check  e-mail or text messages and compose responses. And this starts to take more and more time and energy. Never mind that the spouse  is alone in the kitchen trying to do the dishes and tend to a screaming baby at the same time. Or maybe it’s at night when the spouse is asleep that one sneaks out of bed to check their devices.

The spouse asks what is wrong and gets stonewalled.  They are told everything’s fine. If the spouse asks about the friendship with this person, they can be brushed off or met with defensiveness.

The distance between the spouses grow.   There is less and less chance that the primary couple will address what can now so easily be talked about with the new friend. The stage is now completely set for the friendship to become more than friendship.

It’s an Emotional Affair If…

You are talking about intimate aspects of your primary relationship that you are not talking about with your primary partner.

Time and energy are being siphoned from the primary relationship into this new friendship.

Aspects of the “friendship” are kept secret.

You are not comfortable sharing this friend with your partner.

You would be uncomfortable if your primary partner was having this kind of relationship with someone else.

You have more excitement about contact with your friend than you do about contact with your primary partner.

The Surprising Truth About Emotional Affairs

What seems so innocent in the beginning can end up being more damaging to a relationship than some other types of affairs. The most damaging affairs are ones in which the connection is primarily emotional rather than sexual. One-time anonymous sexual encounters are the least difficult for a couple to work through and heal. Some studies show that this varies according to gender. Statistically, women have more trouble getting over the emotional connection their partner had with the lover while men have more trouble getting over the affair if there was sex involved. However, an emotional connection can leave the person involved in the affair more confused about where their loyalties lie.

What To Do if You Think

Your Partner Is Having an Emotional Affair

Whether or not you give your partner “a long leash” is not the deciding factor in whether an affair will occur. If the affair is occurring because of relationship problems (and not all affairs occur for that reason) it is almost always because channels of communication have either broken down or were never developed in the first place.

If you feel uncomfortable about a friendship your partner is having with someone else, it is important to bring up these concerns. Invite them to talk about feelings about the relationship between the two of you, specifically, things that they previously may have felt uncomfortable talking about. Get clear on what is happening in your relationship that is making you uncomfortable, both in terms of your partner’s withdrawal, refusal to open up, and relationship with the other person. Be clear about what is okay and not okay with you. Ask him or her to read something about emotional affairs. If you are Asian American, you might want to read “Asian Americans and Affairs.”

If you cannot get through to him or her, advocate strongly for couple’s therapy.

I have seen hundreds of individuals and couples struggling with these issues. If you are thinking that individual psychotherapy or marriage counseling may be beneficial and you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, please feel free to contact me at 925-948-0562 or at therapy@susanberger.net.  If you live outside of the area, please visit my “Links” page for a geographical listing of therapists who are especially effective with affairs.