Sometimes it is very clear that your spouse is cheating on you. You find lipstick on his collar, someone tells you they saw her with someone else in a hotel, the unexplainable credit card receipts, or you have that nasty gut feeling and the stories just aren’t lining up. There are also times when you wonder if your partner is cheating, but the signs are not so clear. He’s always wrapped up on his phone, she seems to all too often talk admiringly about a work colleague, or the weekend now involves more team “work projects” than usual. Is it possible that your partner may be emotionally relying on someone else? This is typically referred to as an emotional affair. Unfortunately, emotional affairs are quite common, as researchers report that 35 percent of wives and 45 percent of husbands admit having emotional affairs, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy.
What is an Emotional Affair?
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.
An emotional affair is when one partner is secretly channeling emotional energy, time, and attention into someone other than their partner. Often, this relationship grows to a level that interrupts the intimacy in the marriage. One partner may fantasize about spending more time with this person, or even having sex with this person.
If you find yourself talking about and sharing life with someone other than your spouse, or telling a lie or hiding the amount of time spent with that person, then it’s highly likely you are in an emotional affair.
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.
The building blocks of an emotional affair
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 bond 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 close friends, 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 committed partnership can create pressure and distance between the committed partners. It can also increase 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.
The Impact of an Emotional Affair
Many people involved in an emotional affair deny that it has any negative effect on their marriage. However, an emotional affair may leave out the physical affection but it can lead to marital devastation and often leads to having a physical affair. Some spouses report that it is more hurtful and harmful to the marriage for their partner to have an emotional affair rather than a sexual affair. There is something deeply personal and intimate about an emotional affair, as affair partners often share personal details about their lives, marriages, and spouses.
7 Signs You are Having an Emotional Affair
You have a “work husband/wife”
It is a good idea to have a close friend at work to share the experience with, but if you are sharing work secrets with them and keeping those things from your actual spouse, then you are headed into dangerous territory. Also, if you are sharing intimate details about your life with your work spouse and not your actual spouse, then you have crossed over into having an emotional affair.
The easiest way to avoid this situation or to begin to repair it is to share your work life with your spouse. Make sure that your spouse knows about the struggles and the triumphs at work and in life in general.
You flirt online
It may be easy to banter playfully when you have the barrier of not being face to face with someone, but this can venture into an intimate situation quickly. No matter how “innocent” an online flirtation is, it can still be an emotional investment that you may feel the need to hide from your spouse.
An easy way to steer clear of this trap is to limit the amount of time on social media or share your actions with your spouse. If you can’t tell your partner what you are doing/saying online, then it is probably a good idea to log out!
You are having a “phone affair”
Phones have become an important part of our daily lives. But if you find that you are spending more time on your phone than connecting with your spouse, this could be leading to a problem. Also, if you find that you are spending your time texting others, connecting on social media, or scrolling through chat rooms rather than talking with your spouse then you may be involved in an emotional affair.
To protect your marriage from phone overuse, try creating a “screen-free time” in your home and spend that time with your spouse talking about your days and reconnecting.
You’re too close to your opposite sex BFF
Being friends with members of the opposite sex can be okay, if the necessary boundaries are in place. However, if you find that you are more inclined to talk to or spend time with your friend over your spouse, then you are headed into an emotional affair. Also, if you do not want to share your interactions that you have had with your friend with your spouse, then you are in the danger zone.
Be open and honest with your spouse about the time that you do spend with your opposite sex friends. It is critical in maintaining your marriage that you can share with your spouse about all things, even what you talk to your friends about. It may also be a good idea to include your spouse and best friend in common activities.
You cross the line with strangers
Meeting new people in new places or situations can be exciting for some people. The anonymity of it can lead to boldness in how you interact with strangers. Flirting can lead to connection that you feel you need to keep from your partner and then you are in emotional infidelity territory.
Maintain professional and cordial interactions while away from your spouse. Pretend like your partner is going to be joining you at any moment. If you wouldn’t say or do what you are thinking about with your partner present, then it may be time to excuse yourself from the situation.
You’re addicted to pornography
Pornography addiction is a real thing and leads to intimacy issues between you and your spouse. Unreal sexual expectations can lead to inability to perform sexually or being left unfulfilled. If you find that you regularly watch pornography or use other means for sexual fulfillment, then you are negatively impacting the intimate connection with your partner.
Getting help with pornography addiction by way of a counselor should be a consideration.
You dream of other lovers
If you are consistently dreaming or imagining a sexual partner other than your spouse, this could be leading into an emotional (or sexual) affair due to disconnection from your spouse.
Share openly with your spouse about your sexual fantasies, what you like and what you do not like in bed, and have them share the same with you. Get back to the fun of sex with your spouse, and it’ll be a little more difficult to imagine anyone else!
There are many other instances that can lead to emotional affairs. If you find you must lie to your spouse or hide information about what you are doing with someone else, then you are likely involved in an emotional affair. This will lead to disconnection and loss of intimacy for you and your spouse. Once you recognize the situation and admit to yourself and your partner what is going on, it is important to reach out for professional help to begin to heal from that betrayal.