Humans are social creatures. We need other people for companionship, validation, sex, growth, and even survival. It’s just a way that we are programmed to be. Our romantic partner often fills all those roles. When we get too busy, are feeling emotionally distant, or just haven’t invested in keeping the connection with our romantic partner, we become vulnerable to an emotional affair.
What’s an emotional affairs? Here’s the 411 on emotional affairs.
It starts by spending time with someone outside of the relationship. This can be a co-worker, someone who enjoys the same hobby that you do, a neighbor, a friend, or a stranger. It usually starts out harmlessly enough, but at some point, things change and you start to share things you know are not good for your relationship. This creates a feeling of closeness with the other person. Because you don’t want that connection to end and you don’t want to reveal to your partner what you’re doing, you start to hide things.
Closeness and connection are other words for intimacy. By “intimacy” I don’t mean sexual closeness, but emotional closeness. Each relationship is different. Some people are able to maintain intimacy with two people at the same time. Most withdraw from one relationship as the other strengthens because it feels wrong.
Some people who engage in emotional affairs can carry on guilt-free because they don’t see it as a violation because no sex has occurred. However, affairs happen decision by decision. Engaging in an emotional affair can be a step away from a sexual affair. In either case, the betrayed spouse is likely to be hurt by the deception.
How can you tell if a friendship is crossing the line? Here are some signs of an emotional affair:
- you feel you have to keep your conversations and meetings a secret
- you spend a lot of time thinking about your friend
- you are withdrawing from your partner
- you feel sexual tension around your friend
- your behavior around this friend is more guarded when other people are around
- you pick fights with your partner to give you an excuse to be with or talk with your friend
- you’re starting to spend more time with your friend and less time with your partner
- you talk about things with your friend that you don’t talk about with your partner
- you’re starting to feel closer to or better understood by your friend than your partner
- you contrive excuses to be alone with your friend
- you’re engaging in loving gestures with your friend (gifts, acts of kindness, spoken words, touching, time)
- other people have asked you about the friendship or expressed concern about it
- you defend the relationship by saying “We’re just friends”
- you’re having more fun, feeling more alive, or experiencing more challenge with your friend than your partner
- you’re talking with the friend about problems with your partner or you avoid talking about your partner(s) altogether
Repercussions of an emotional affair
If you are found out, the trust in your primary relationship will likely be destroyed. The sense of betrayal is not easy to overcome. Once you know someone has lied to you, it’s hard to believe in them again. In some cases, it is a bond that can never be mended.
If you break off the primary relationship to carry on the affair, neither partner can ever feel truly at ease because the new relationship started in secrecy. Who’s to say that when this relationship hits trouble that one of the partners won’t take the same easy way out and cheat again? It’s hard to trust the cheater who cheated with you.
Finally, cheating can be a blow to your own self-esteem. No one wants to think of themselves as unfaithful, a liar, or a cheat. We often justify our actions by pointing out how badly we had it as if to say, “He made me do it” but in reality we’re always responsible for our own choices.
Breaking up is hard to do – especially in a relationship with a co-worker or friend as you will likely still have to see each other. If there are problems in your primary relationship, it is so easy to just run back to your friend as the door is warm and open. Who wouldn’t want that? Still, you can do it. Here’s how.
Tell the person that you must end all contact. Ask him to respect your request. Unless you are in a dangerous situation, everyone deserves the courtesy of an explanation.
Cut contact. If you can go cold turkey, this is best. If you have to see the other person in professional or social settings, reduce the time you spend together and make sure that it is never alone. It’s too easy to slip back into old habits and start things up again.
Expect that things will be difficult for a while. Breaking up is like losing someone to death. You grieve. This may mean you are moody, sad, distant, or start to pick fights with your partner. Give yourself time and space. It doesn’t mean that you can’t live without the other person. All of that is normal.
Get real. It’s easy to idealize the emotional affair because you don’t really know the other person. All you’ve seen of him is the happy, supportive, flirtatious side. Think about the red flags you saw and ignored. Does he have a temper? Does he want kids? Does he want your kids? Is he reckless in some way? Do you agree with his religion, politics, or general lifestyle? Does he come with a combative ex-wife? If your partner leaves you because of this will you lose your lifestyle? How will this affect your career? How will it affect your family?
Reconnect with your partner. Spend more time talking to your partner about the things you haven’t been talking about. Connect.
Refrain from engaging in relationships with people who are not friends of the couple. This will reduce the possibility of having secret friendships.
Schedule gripe sessions with your spouse so that conflicts don’t build up. Plan to talk about one issue each. Take turns speaking and listening. Allow each person 3-5 minutes to speak while the other listens without interrupting. Time each other and respect the clock. Come prepared to talk about the problem, your feelings about the problem, and a proposed solution or two. Then brainstorm until both parties enthusiastically agree on a solution. This is not a compromise where both parties give up something to gain something. That only leads to discontentment. You want something that both parties will abide by because each supports it.
Here is how that might work. A decides to spend her time discussing the issue of how to transport their daughter to after school activities. B decides to spend his time talking about how to create a Man Cave so that he has his own space in the household. The timer is set and A talks for 3 minutes about her topic. The timer beeps. B talks about how he sees the issue, what he feels about it, and what he wants. Then they talk about what they’d like to do about it. If no solution is forthcoming within ten minutes or so, the issue is tabled until another time. If the discussion becomes heated at any time, the discussion is tabled until both parties have settled down. Once A’s issue is resolved or tabled, the couple discusses B’s topic. This should take no more than an hour. You want to keep it easy, flowing, and productive. No marathon discussions!
Often when couples refuse to engage, it’s because they fear they won’t be heard or fear that things will just get worse. When you use this formula, everyone gets a chance to be heard. Often you don’t need all of the allotted time because both parties come prepared to speak and no one is interrupted. So, you can cut to the chase and simply resolve things in a satisfying way.
Schedule connection time. This can be a Date Night or morning coffee. It is uninterrupted time that is not used for problem solving, unwinding from work, or doing anything except having fun and enjoying each other.
Always show respect. Especially avoid the Four Horsemen that destroy relationships: contempt, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
Understand what created the emotional affair in the first place. Emotional affairs occur because something is missing from your life. What is that? How can you get it in a way that allows you to maintain your integrity and doesn’t hurt other people? Do you need more connection? Fun? Admiration? Something to do? Or maybe you are hurting from old childhood wounds or past relationship issues? If your vulnerability comes from this, it could be a sign that you need to seek help.
They say everything happens for a reason. Let your emotional affair teach you something so that it has a positive result. If you come away with having learned something about yourself or with the ability to strengthen your relationship, it will have been a force for good.
If you’re feeling like your emotional affair is an indication that you’ve found “The One,” I suggest that you break it off anyway and attempt to repair the primary relationship. What you learn along the way is invaluable. If you and your secret lover are meant to be, you can find each other again when you are both unencumbered and free to love out in the open.
Anyone can be vulnerable to an emotional affair. We all want love and validation. We all want our emptiness filled. Knowing how emotional affairs start and develop can give you the ability to head them off before they start and nip them in the bud before they create damage that can’t be undone.