What is an Emotional Affair?
When a couple considers marriage counseling after an affair, it’s usually a sexual affair that’s driven them apart. However, there are all kinds of ways to be unfaithful to your partner, and one of the most insidious is engaging in an emotional affair.
An emotional affair occurs when one partner engages in an extramarital relationship that has an inappropriate level of emotional intimacy.
Some people might ask “Is emotional cheating a thing? How can you cheat if there’s no sex involved?”
While emotional affairs may not be actively sexual, they can fundamentally harm your relationship, your social life, and even the way you parent.
Today, we’re getting into why emotional affairs hurt so much, why emotional affairs are hard to end, and the steps of getting out of and getting over an emotional affair.
Emotional vs Physical Affairs
When I first meet with a couple that wants to recover from an emotional affair, one comment I often receive is, “Well, nothing actually happened!” What they mean of course is that nothing sexual happened.
While some people may think that an emotional affair is not as serious as a physical one, that it’s just a crush and doesn’t hurt anyone, emotional cheating can cause severe hurt and betrayal in your relationship.
Part of why emotional affairs are as painful as physical ones has to do with the violation of boundaries. When people come to me justifying their emotional affair by saying that “nothing happened,” what they are really saying is, “I didn’t violate the boundaries we have around sexual fidelity.”
While this may be true, couples also usually have boundaries around emotional fidelity, although they are much less likely to discuss these kinds of boundaries explicitly.
The reason why sex outside of marriage is such a violation of trust is because it’s something that you and your partner have agreed should only be shared between the two of you. But if you dig deeper, you’ll find there are other, less physical activities that should just be between you two that you might not even realize.
It’s important to have these discussions early and often about what is considered sacred to your relationship. That way, you can avoid learning one of your hard boundaries is when your husband confides in another woman, after it’s already happened.
3 Questions to Ask Your Partner About Emotional Boundaries
- What kinds of things are okay to discuss with or confide in close friends? What things are off-limits?
- Is it okay for us to have close friendships that the other doesn’t know about? What kinds of things do we need to disclose to each other?
- Are there certain kinds of people (people who you used to date, people who you are attracted to, people with a history of infidelity) who are off-limits for ongoing close friendships?
If you find that having this conversation starts to bring up uncomfortable feelings or results in one or both partners shutting down, it’s okay to reach out for help! Including someone you both trust in the conversation, like a marriage counselor, can help you both find a safe space to be vulnerable and ultimately have a more productive conversation.
Friendship vs. Emotional Affairs
Another thing my clients usually want clarity on is what the difference is between emotional infidelity and a close friendship.
Emotional infidelity includes a betrayal of trust or doing something that you know would hurt your partner if they knew about it. It involves knowingly crossing a line. Where that line is depends on the specific emotional boundaries you’ve set up with your partner, which is why it’s so vital to explicitly discuss them.
In general though, there are three main differences between a friendship and an emotional affair.
- Intimate or inappropriate information, especially sexual information, is shared.
- The extent of the friendship is kept a secret from your partner.
- There is sexual attraction going at least one way in the friendship, even if that attraction has never been vocalized or acted on.
Emotional affairs don’t happen in just one night, they tend to gradually grow and turn into something more serious over time – the earlier you read the signs, the easier it is to nip it in the bud before it gets out of control.
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8 Signs You’re in an Emotional Affair
- Your partner would feel uncomfortable if they witnessed your interactions with your friend.
- You feel that the friend understands you better than your partner.
- You feel emotionally distant from your partner or find that it’s difficult to communicate with them, compared with your friend.
- You find yourself anticipating being able to spend time with or communicate with the friend more than in other platonic friendships.
- You find yourself sharing more with your friend than with your partner.
- When you learn big news, your friend is the first person you want to share it with.
- You dress up for your friend.
- You feel dependent on the emotional high from interacting with your friend.
If you recognize that you’re in an emotional affair and want to save your current relationship, you need to end it immediately, before it goes any further.
Of course, no one is saying that will be easy. Far from it. Whether or not it was right, you shared so much of yourself with this person, which is part of why emotional affairs are hard to end. You might even wonder, “Can you be friends after an emotional affair? What if you set up super strict boundaries?”
It’s a tempting idea, but affairs do start up again, and can cross even bigger boundaries when they do. The safest thing for you, your partner, and your friend is to end the relationship firmly but compassionately.
3 Steps to End an Emotional Affair
- Clearly state that you feel that the friendship has crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed and that you can’t be a part of it anymore. Ask that they respect your wishes.
- Set clear boundaries. Let them know that you do not want any more contact with them. If they are a work colleague or someone who you will need to interact with, set clear boundaries for the content and method of communication that is okay. For example, you can ask that they only communicate with you through your work email and that your supervisor or other coworkers are included on every email.
- Delete the person from your social media and block their phone number and personal email. While this may seem like an extreme step, it is an additional safeguard you can put in place to make the temptation to reconnect as minimal as possible.
Don’t forget to exercise compassion with your friend as well. You can keep up firm boundaries without being cruel. The point is not to hurt your friend, but to stop hurting your partner, and to keep the most important relationship to you intact.
Signs That Your Partner Is In An Emotional Affair
Because emotional affairs masquerade as regular friendships, it can be difficult to recognize if your partner is participating in one. However, here are a few things that could indicate emotional infidelity:
- Your partner spends more time than usual messaging on their phone or computer.
- Your partner is suddenly or unusually protective over their electronic devices and does not let others use them.
- Your partner no longer shares emotional or personal things with you.
- Your partner suddenly seems to be less interested in hearing emotional or personal things you want to share with them.
- Your intuition tells you that something is not right.
- When you try to discuss your concerns with your partner, they tell you that you’re imagining things or get overly defensive.
If your partner is in an emotional affair and you decide that you would like to work towards healing, they must also make the choice to end the affair and to focus their efforts on repairing trust and emotional intimacy in your relationship.
If your partner is serious about ending the affair and repairing your relationship, make sure:
- They accept responsibility and are genuinely sorry for the ways that they have violated boundaries and broken trust.
- They are committed to ending all contact with the person (or only engaging in appropriate platonic contact if they can’t cut them out entirely)
- They demonstrate their commitment to rebuilding your relationship by putting effort into reconnecting and actively participating in couples therapy.
Getting Over An Emotional Affair
Trying to move forward from emotional infidelity can be a very difficult and painful process. You may find out things about your partner and yourself that are far from flattering and that you don’t like at all. You may wonder if rebuilding trust after emotional infidelity is even possible. That’s where a compassionate and experienced marriage counselor comes in.
The goal of marriage counseling is to heal the rift that has sprung up in your marriage, and examine how it may have gotten there in the first place. Your marriage counselor isn’t there to judge either of you, but to give you the tools you need to strengthen your relationship through honesty, compassion, and communication.
Emotional Affair Recovery
Honesty is the most important factor in recovering from an emotional affair, since the lack of honesty is what causes the hurt in the first place. The partner who was cheated on can have the chance to make their deep hurt known, and vocalize what they need to be able to heal, while the person who cheated can have a safe space to unravel what led them to have an emotional affair in the first place, so they can avoid it in the future.
Having compassion for your partner is another big step in the road to emotional affair recovery. Compassion is not the same as condoning. You can have compassion for why your partner strayed without excusing their behavior. It simply means understanding that your partner’s behavior didn’t just come from a place of outright cruelty.
Rebuilding communication is also critical to rebuilding trust after an emotional affair. Even if we’ve been with our partners for decades, we simply can’t know what’s going on in their heads all the time.
For example, if a woman feels like her husband doesn’t compliment her enough, she might feel less confident in her beauty and inadvertently start seeking attention from other men. Meanwhile, the husband thinks his wife is gorgeous! It’s obvious to him that she’s beautiful, and he thinks if he keeps telling her that, she’ll get annoyed.
So he doesn’t know how much validation she needs, and she doesn’t know how much her husband truly values her! Little miscommunications like this can build up over time and build the bedrock for emotional infidelity.
Emotional affair recovery can feel impossible at times. An affair is a deep betrayal, and takes very painful work to overcome. But if you and your partner are committed to your marriage, and to recovery, you’ll remember what might have been forgotten over the course of the affair: That you’re stronger together.
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