Will an Emotional Affair Undermine Your Relationship?

7 subtle signals you need to look for.

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By Jed Diamond Ph.D

I’ve been a marriage and family counselor for more than 40 years. Most people I counsel want a loving, committed relationship that lasts through time. But too many have suffered from betrayal from a partner they thought they could trust. Here’s the thing, most partners don’t intend to betray their lover. We think of betrayal as being sexual. One person has an affair, keeps it secret, but then gets caught and the relationship is thrown into turmoil and often ends.

Dr. John Gottman may be the most important researcher in the world on what makes relationships work and what undermines them. In his book What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal he describes common betrayals that often go unnoticed until, seemingly out of the blue, the sh*t hits the fan. Gottman reminds us that

“a committed relationship is a contract of mutual trust, respect, nurturance, and protection. Anything that violates that contract can become traitorous.”

As more men and women spent time in the larger world beyond the home, there are greater opportunities for joy, but also greater opportunities to slip from a friendship or collegial relationship into an emotional affair. The line between innocent connection and betrayal may not be clear until it’s too late.

Like many professionals, I attend conferences three or four times a year where I interact with colleagues and learn the latest information in my field of gender medicine and men’s health. At one conference I met a woman. We had a lot in common professionally, and we learned that both our fathers had suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. We did similar kinds of work in our therapy practice. In other words, we had a lot in common, both personally and professionally. We spent a lot of time during the conference talking and sharing experiences. I felt I had found a long-lost friend and looked forward to seeing her again.

When I got home I told my wife about meeting Brenda. At first, she seemed mildly interested, but as I talked more she became increasingly uncomfortable. She became suspicious about what had happened. I kept insisting that “nothing had happened.” In my mind, a betrayal involved something sexual. Although Brenda was certainly attractive, I kept the boundary clear and “nothing had happened.” But my wife wasn’t suspecting that we’d jumped into bed together. She was feeling the possibility of an emotional affair.

It took us a long time to work through our perceptions and fears. I wish I had the benefit of a recent book by marriage therapist Sheri Meyers, Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love, and Affair-Proof Your Relationship.

She helps answer these critically important questions:

  • When does a friendship become more than a simple friendship?
  • When does an innocent acquaintance turn into something extra?
  • When does a relatively platonic situation evolve into a deeper connection?
  • How do you know if there is someone else?
  • How do you know if your partner has crossed the line?

If my wife and I had read Meyers’ book, we would have better understood that becoming intimately involved emotionally with someone can be as much a betrayal as becoming sexually involved with them. She makes this clear as she describes “emotional sex” and offers the following descriptions:

  • Emotional Sex is the unspoken attraction, the deeply rooted need to bond, attach, and feel loved that can turn a friendship into an affair.
  • Emotional Sex is an affair of the heart that feels the same as romantic love and can manifest itself in numerous ways — physically, chemically, romantically, emotionally, lustfully, verbally, even in cyberspace through texts, emails, and video chats.
  • Emotional Sex happens when you feel that someone else gives you what you are missing in your primary relationship, and because of this, you channel the bulk of your emotions, hopes, and desires onto the other person.

The key to recognizing the early signs of a developing emotional affair is when we begin comparing the other person with our primary partner and finding that our primary partner falls short. Subtly at first, we begin looking for the emotional connection that we are missing in our primary relationship in our “new friend.”

Luckily in my case, my wife picked up on the potential danger earlier than I did. Of course, I felt confident enough in our relationship to tell her about meeting Brenda at the conference. Often the flames of emotional affairs are fanned by deception. We tell ourselves,

“Nothing happened so it’s not worth telling my spouse about. She/he’ll just became needlessly jealous and grill me every time I go to a conference. Besides, we all deserve to have our own friends, don’t we?”

Here are some of the behaviors described by Sheri Meyers that may indicate an emotional affair:

  • Flirts with others (i.e. sends signals that they are romantically available or interested).
  • Discusses confidential things about our relationship with a member of the opposite sex.
  • Shares their most private thoughts and feelings with someone else and not me.
  • Discusses sexual desires and fantasies with someone other than me.
  • Regularly exchanges personal emails or text messages with a friend or ex-partner.
  • Purchases intimate gifts for others whom I don’t know about.
  • Develops a crush or feelings for someone else, even if not acted upon.

These, and other behaviors, can be signs that an emotional affair is developing. All violate that circle of intimacy and safety that surrounds a healthy partnership. Everyone has their own boundaries and needs. We’ve all been hurt by violations of trust from past relationships. The key to a successful relationship is to develop trust early on, to talk about the areas that may be sources of betrayal, and to continue to keep current with our partner as our needs for intimacy and our vulnerabilities change through time.

I look forward to hearing about your own experiences. If you, or your partner, are having difficulties in these areas, I offer support and counseling to help you to prevent an affair before it occurs or to heal from one if it has occurred. You can contact me through my website, www.MenAlive.com.

This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.

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