Emotional Affairs: What They Are and How to Prevent Them

Cynthia had a special friend, Frederick, with whom she had deep conversations about life, love, and often, her relationship difficulties with her husband, Garrett. She felt too ashamed to tell her husband just how fulfilled and excited she felt from these often secret conversations. Frederick was Garrett’s friend long before he had ever met Cynthia. It was not unusual for Garrett to get home from work late and, instead of dinner being ready, Cynthia was on the phone with Frederick. Cynthia would end her phone conversation shortly after Garrett came into the room. For a long time, Garrett rationalized that they were just friends. They barely even hugged when they saw one another. Still, he felt increasingly uncomfortable with their relationship. This is an emotional affair.

Hal worked with Marta. He enjoyed talking with her. She understood him in a way that his wife, Sally, didn’t. Marta was an empathic sounding board for his problems with Sally, but Hal also felt excited to be with her. He found ways to arrange private meetings or lunches with Marta. Confident that she was “just a good friend,” he felt it was unnecessary to mention this “relationship” to Sally. This too is an emotional affair.

The traditional definition of an affair is having sexual activity with one person while being in a relationship with another person, but Joyce and I have found that infidelity shows up in many different, and often subtle, ways. Often, emotional affairs cause just as much pain, betrayal, and shattered trust as sexual affairs.

So what constitutes an emotional affair? An essential ingredient of any affair is secrecy. If there is something you are doing with another person, feeling about another person, or even thinking about another person, and you are too ashamed or afraid to tell your primary partner, then you are having an affair. Cynthia’s phone conversations with Frederick may not have been much of a secret to her husband, Garret, but the secrecy of the content are what define this relationship as an affair. And Hal’s “friendship” with Marta was a complete secret to his wife.

“The truth shall set you free,” is no idle statement. If Cynthia was completely honest with Garrett, true, it would most likely hurt him more deeply, but would it cause more pain and suffering in the long run? We think not. The deepest suffering is caused by secrecy, which slowly erodes love. It’s the same for Hal’s secret friend.

Another ingredient of an emotional affair is the depth of the shared feelings, especially a depth that is not present in your primary relationship. There is a giving and receiving of emotional energy that is not happening with your partner. It’s the breaking of an emotional trust that hurts so much.

Denial is another ingredient. If you’re involved in an emotional affair, you may not think you’re having an affair at all. The denial keeps you guilt-free, like Hal, who rationalized his actions, “I’m not doing anything wrong. It’s just a friendship.”

And finally, if you’re having an emotional affair, your primary relationship is emotionally shut down in some way. You probably do not feel safe to share your feelings with your partner. The other person allows you to feel accepted, loved, and not judged.

Most people are not looking for an emotional affair. They find themselves connecting with a person in a deep way. In the modern world of social networking, it has become very easy to slip into an emotional affair via email, Facebook, and more new sites each week. They start to depend on these friends for the emotional highs. There is often an addictive component to an emotional affair. It can quickly become an obsession. The secrecy often adds to the excitement and the attraction. As the intensity of attachment and involvement rises, so does the possibility that the affair will become sexual.

If you are having an emotional affair, what can you do? First, you have to overcome your denial and admit it to yourself. Then you have to be completely honest with your partner. And finally, you may need professional help to do the emotional work that is needed in your relationship.

So how can you have connections with other people while married or in a monogamous relationship? The answer is simple: include – and respect the feelings of – your primary partner, so it’s not a secret. Imaging sitting or conversing with someone else, and your partner suddenly walks into the room. Would there be a way for you to immediately welcome and include your mate into the conversation? If so, then you’re healthy with your boundaries. If you create a relationship with someone that excludes your mate, or a conversation that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing with your mate (except of course with a professional counselor or therapist), you are having an emotional affair, and are causing separation, secrecy, and suffering.

I have to admit, my lack of healthy boundaries, and my lack of sensitivity to Joyce’s feelings, caused her lots of pain early in our marriage. I created relationships that did not include her. I touched a few hot stoves, burned myself but good, then learned some valuable lessons. I’ve learned that when I’m vulnerable as well as honest with my feelings with Joyce, I receive her love and acceptance. I’ve learned the joy of feeling Joyce in my heart no matter where I am or who I’m with. This actually allows me to love other people more deeply, for I love as two people, not just one. Joyce does the same. We hold each other deeply together, whether physically together or not. As a result, people feel safer with us.

Joyce and I invite you to this level of honesty and emotional connection with your mate, which will allow you a whole new world of oneness and love.

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