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 in his phone, she often talks admiringly about a work colleague, or weekends now involve more “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 or emotional infidelity. Unfortunately, emotional affairs are quite common. Researchers report that 35 percent of wives and 45 percent of husbands admit to 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 but understanding the complexity of an emotional affair can be more confusing. It is difficult to spot warning signs without understanding what you should be looking for. People may also be confused about what is considered inappropriate when it comes to non-physical relationships outside of a committed relationship. Unfortunately, emotional affairs are common and can be as damaging as physical affairs. Some couples struggle even more to understand and heal from emotional infidelity than they do from sexual infidelity. Women in particular tend to struggle more with healing after an emotional betrayal whereas physical betrayal tends to be a more difficult recovery for men.
An emotional affair occurs when one partner is secretly channeling emotional energy, time, and attention into someone other than their partner. This relationship often grows to a level that interrupts the intimacy within the marriage. One partner may fantasize about spending more time with this person or even having sex with this person.
According to 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 emotional infidelity is to understand what separates an innocent “just friends” relationship from something more intimate and inappropriate.
The Building Blocks of an Emotional Affair
Many factors and environments can be a building ground for emotional infidelity. Three of the biggest factors that create “the perfect storm” for an emotional affair are 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 an inappropriate emotional connection is 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 partners. When emotional intimacy is created with someone outside of the committed relationship, a boundary is crossed. People often stop sharing feelings with their partner when they are confiding in someone else. This creates 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. Healthy intimate relationships with these individuals are possible as long as you are not sharing intimate details and/or struggles about your romantic relationship with them. Such concerns should be addressed with your partner. 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 your partner what they are comfortable with and respect their boundaries.
Another common component of emotional infidelity is secrecy. If there is nothing more than a platonic relationship going on, there should be no reason to keep a friendship a secret. Secrecy about a relationship outside the committed relationship can create pressure and distance between the committed partners. Secrecy can also increase the intensity and excitement of the new relationship. Using secrecy as a scale may help determine if a best friend outside of the marriage is just a friend or if there is a risk of emotional infidelity posing a threat to the marital relationship.
A third red flag of an emotional affair is chemistry. There will be people we feel connected to or people who just seem to “get us.” This is a natural part of how we build bonds with others, feel inspired, and grow. Chemistry alone is not the sole determining factor of emotional infidelity. However, when the chemistry is coupled with emotional intimacy and secrecy, there is a greater risk of 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. Although an emotional affair may leave out the physical affection, it can lead to marital devastation and often leads to having a physical affair. Some spouses report that it is more hurtful to the marriage for their partner to have an emotional affair rather than a sexual affair. Emotional infidelity is often deeply personal and intimate because affair partners typically 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 nice to have a close friend at work to share the experience with. However, sharing work secrets with them and keeping those things from your partner can lead you into dangerous territory. Also, if you are sharing intimate details about your life with your work spouse and not your actual spouse, 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 triumphs at work and in life in general.
You flirt online
It may be easy to banter playfully when you are not face-to-face with someone, but this can quickly lead to an intimate situation. 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 need to be secretive about what you are doing/saying online, 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 all of their functionality can easily lead to spending more time on your phone than connecting with your spouse. Other indications of an emotional affair may include spending your time texting others, connecting on social media, or scrolling through chat rooms rather than talking with your spouse.
There are practical ways to protect your marriage from phone overuse. Try creating a “screen-free time” in your home. Spend that time with your spouse talking about your days and reconnecting.
You are too close to your opposite-sex BFF
Being friends with members of the opposite sex can be okay as long as the necessary boundaries are in place. However, the inclination to talk to or spend more time with your friend than with your spouse may indicate that you are heading into an emotional affair. If you want to keep the details of your friendship a secret, 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. The ability to share all things with your spouse is critical in maintaining your marriage. This includes 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 a connection; if you feel the need to keep this from your partner, you are in emotional infidelity territory.
Maintain professional and cordial interactions while away from your spouse. Pretend that your partner will be joining you at any moment. Consider if you would say or do what you are thinking with your partner present. If not, it may be time to excuse yourself from the situation.
You have an addiction to pornography
Pornography addiction is a real thing and leads to intimacy issues in a committed relationship. Unreal sexual expectations can lead to an inability to perform sexually or feeling unfulfilled. Regularly watching pornography or using other means for sexual fulfillment will negatively impact 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
Notice if you are consistently dreaming or imagining a sexual partner other than your spouse. This could be leading to an emotional (or sexual) affair due to disconnection from your spouse.
Share openly with your spouse about your sexual fantasies. Talk about what you like and what you do not like in bed. As them to share the same with you. Restore the fun of sex with your spouse and it’ll be a little more difficult to imagine anyone else!
Many other instances can lead to emotional affairs. Do you find yourself talking about and sharing life with someone other than your spouse? Perhaps you are lying to your spouse or hiding information about what you are doing with someone else. These are indications that you are likely experiencing emotional infidelity. Left unattended, you are at risk of disconnection and loss of intimacy with your spouse. First, you need to recognize the situation and admit to yourself and your partner what is happening. Next, it is important to reach out for professional help to begin healing from that betrayal.