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Increasing numbers of individuals and couples are entering counseling because of the fallout of emotional infidelity. In an emotional affair, one partner is accused of having an inappropriately intense (and close) emotional relationship with someone outside the marriage.
Often, the person accused of emotional infidelity denies these claims, downplaying what is occurring between him/her and the other person (“Why are you so insecure, we’re just friends”; “It’s innocent, I’m friendly with everyone”; “You’re making something out of nothing.”)
Unlike a sexual affair, emotional infidelity isn’t always easy to identify
Despite accusations of inappropriate behavior (inappropriate in this context means the violation of commitment and exclusivity), nothing untoward may be happening. In some cases is it possible that the identified emotional “cheater” is actually a reflection of our own insecurities that are skewing our perception?
It’s important to question our insecurities as we reflect upon the behaviors of our partner that are concerning us. One good place to start is to examine the role of jealousy in your relationship history. Is there a past pattern of feeling jealous over your partners? Has your jealousy been a factor in previous relationships ending?
The truth is, sometimes our insecurities can get the best of us, and if they’re not kept in check, our mistrust and jealousy can become the central problem requiring attention.
But another truth is just as important: Emotional affairs do happen, and the person engaging in this emotional betrayal often denies any wrongdoing. They may point the finger at our insecurities as the source of the problem or lovingly reassure us that there is nothing to worry about. In these instances, is our partner/spouse intentionally deceiving us or do they truly believe nothing wrong is happening?
In some cases, the person entering into an emotional affair may be denying what is occurring not only to his/her spouse, but also to him/herself. Self-denial lessens guilt, thereby allowing the emotional affair to continue unencumbered by a person’s moral compass. Denial can continue for quite some time despite increasing evidence that points to emotional unfaithfulness.
Emotional infidelity is not…
Whenever we try to understand something that isn’t easily defined, it can be helpful to offer an opinion about its opposite, or what it is not. Emotional infidelity isn’t a given just because the following is occurring:
- You feel emotionally close to someone;
- You offer or receive emotional support from someone outside the marriage;
- You share personal information about yourself with another person;
- You are attracted to a close friend.
By its very nature, friendship implies emotional intimacy. And this is where identifying emotional cheating becomes tricky. Emotional intimacy is a defining feature of both friendships and emotional infidelity.
Yet despite the similarities, many of the clients I work with describe “knowing” (or “sensing”) that something wasn’t right about their spouse’s/partner’s “friendship” with a particular person. In some cases, there was a blatant discovery that unveiled the inappropriate nature of the relationship: dozens or hundreds of text messages; the sharing of intimate information about the marriage/relationship with this person; evidence of erotic-flirtatious communications even if no sex had occurred.
But for a significant number of the clients who come to see me, it is the vague feeling that something was not quite right that signaled wrongdoing.
The slippery slope of an emotional affair
Let’s turn our attention to some warning signs that both the person entering into an emotional affair and his/her spouse should be aware of. These are potential indicators that trouble might be brewing; so these should be used as information to raise awareness of a potential slippery slope rather than hard evidence that an emotional affair is underway.
Hopefully this list starts a dialogue between the two of you that can help affair-proof your marriage/relationship.
Potential warning signs of an emotional affair:
1) While with this person you say things that you wouldn’t if your spouse/partner was with you;
2) You behave uncharacteristically while with this friend (for example, typically you are emotionally reserved but when you’re in the presence of this person you are emotionally expressive and open) — and, more tellingly, your spouse rarely gets to see this side of you;
3) You make an effort to show this person the “best” you possible (you become more funny, empathic, caring, sympathetic, curious, playful, charming, witty, insightful…);
4) You begin to increasingly confide in this person (s/he becomes your “go to” confidant, even more so than your spouse/partner);
5) The relationship takes on a secretive quality — you omit things about the relationship to your husband/wife; you may begin to overtly lie about what is transpiring between you and this person (for instance, when asked, you deny that you saw him/her);
6) You eagerly anticipate seeing/spending time with this person;
7) When with this person you feel excited, emotionally uplifted or alive in ways you don’t with your spouse/partner;
8) You may start to feel guilty about the relationship;
9) You intentionally don’t talk about your spouse with this person or if you do, you highlight how misunderstood or neglected you feel in your marriage. In short, the topic of your marriage places you in a sympathetic role and pulls for caring from this person;
10) You start to pull away from your partner/spouse as the affair-relationship deepens. This pulling away can be surprisingly subtle (you might not even be conscious of it, though your partner might feel it); or quite overt.
With that said, it’s important to note that an emotional affair isn’t defined by just one of the above. Many of us get excited when anticipating seeing a friend. And truth be told, some of us may wish that our partner/spouse had a personality trait or two of someone we admire or feel close to. In and of themselves, those aren’t problematic! So don’t panic if you see yourself or your partner in one or two of the above (especially if you and your mate aren’t being secretive with each other or hiding salient details about your respective friends).
Emotional infidelity is a process.
An emotional affair occurs and builds over time, and the warning signs typically multiply as the relationship deepens.
And it’s also crucial to keep in mind that emotional affairs (and affairs in general) don’t only happen to couples that aren’t getting along. While distressed couples may be more vulnerable to getting their emotional and sexual needs met outside the marriage, being content in your marriage doesn’t make you immune to entering into an emotional affair.
Because of this, we all need to be mindful of our individual vulnerabilities as well as any problem areas that may exist in our marriage/relationship that need addressing.
Wishing you and your relationship all the best,
Richard Nicastro, PhD
(Featured image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici from FreeDigitalPhotos.net)