A Perfect Storm: The Painful Truth About Emotional Affairs
Most people know what a physical or sexual affair is. They’ve seen movies about affairs, know people who have cheated or been cheated on and are familiar with some of the warning signs. Emotional affairs tend to be a lot more confusing for people. Most people aren’t clear on what an emotional affair is, how to spot the warning signs or what’s considered inappropriate when it comes to relationships with the opposite sex that aren’t physical. Unfortunately, emotional affairs are common and can be as damaging as physical affairs – some couples struggle even more to understand and heal from emotional affairs than they do sexual affairs. Women in particular tend to struggle more with healing after an emotional betrayal whereas for men physical betrayal tends to be a more difficult recovery.
In a recent study in England, 40% of all reported adulterous relationships were “affairs of the heart.” In other words, almost half of all affairs were emotional affairs. One of the first steps to avoiding an emotional affair is to understand what separates an innocent “just friends” relationship from something more intimate and inappropriate.
There are many factors and environments that can be a building ground for emotional affairs. Three of the biggest factors that create “the perfect storm” for an emotional affair – emotional intimacy, secrecy and chemistry. These boundaries determine the difference between a platonic relationship and an affair. When these boundaries are crossed, it’s likely there is an inappropriate emotional connection occurring.
Emotional intimacy is considered to be the most powerful bond partners can share. This is the bond that allows us to share our hopes, fears, aspirations, and worries with our partner. When emotional intimacy is created with someone outside of the committed relationship, a boundary is being crossed. People often stop sharing feelings with their partner when they are confiding in someone else thus creating a sense of disconnect in the committed relationship.
So can you have friends outside of your marriage? Of course. You may have a close bond with a childhood friend, an old college roommate or a family member. You can have a healthy intimate relationship with these individuals as long as you are not sharing intimate details and/or struggles about your romantic relationship with them – you should be talking to your partner about those concerns. Creating emotional intimacy with someone of the sex or gender that you are attracted to can create an uncomfortable situation which may lead to an emotional affair. If you have friends of the opposite sex, be sure you are being transparent with your partner about the relationship. Ask them what they are comfortable with and respect their boundaries.
Another common component to emotional affairs is secrecy. If there is nothing more than a platonic relationship going on, then there should be no reason to keep a friendship a secret. Secrecy about a relationship outside the marriage or committed partnership not only can create pressure and distance between the committed partners, it actually increases the intensity and excitement of the new relationship. This may help define the difference between a best friend outside the relationship who you are able to be truthful to your partner about and someone who you have more intimate feelings towards.
A third red flag of an emotional affair is chemistry. There will people we feel connected to or people who just seem to “get us.” This is natural and how we build bonds with others, feel inspired and grow. Chemistry alone is not a sole determining factor of an emotional affair; however, if it’s coupled with emotional intimacy and secrecy there is a significant risk to finding yourself crossing the lines into an emotional affair.
These three things together lead to a betrayal of trust between committed partners and crosses many boundaries that were most likely previously agreed upon if not simply assumed. It can be very painful and confusing when a partner discovers these lines have been crossed and the relationship is not what they thought it was. If you are feeling confused or hurt about a relationship you or your partner is involved in, we recommend you to join our affair recovery group. There is a group for betrayed partners and one for unfaithful partners, led by one of our therapists specifically trained in helping couples recover from emotional and physical affairs.
Want more information? Read our other related blog posts: Why Did My Partner Have an Affair and Warning Signs of an Emotional Affair and What to Do About It .