Guarding Against Emotional Affairs

An emotional affair happens when a person invests too much emotional energy with someone outside their marriage, and in turn receives too much emotional support and companionship from that relationship. How much is “too much?” There aren’t black and white rules for when a relationship moves from innocent friendship to an emotional affair … but there are patterns, and signs to watch for. In an emotional affair, people often feel closer to each other than their spouses, and often experience increasing sexual tension.

In fact, emotional affairs are often the gateway leading to full blown sexual infidelity. “About half of such emotional involvements do eventually turn into full-blown affairs, sex and all.” (Source: MSNBC) Viewed from another perspective, most sexual infidelity happens between people who were in relationships that were already in – or edging into – emotional affair territory. Infidelity researcher Shirley P. Glass reports that “82 percent of affairs happen with someone who was at first ‘just a friend.’”

In a marriage, time together and emotional energy is limited, and so if one spouse is sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with someone else, this time and emotional energy is not available to their spouse. People in emotional affairs often don’t feel guilt about what they are doing, because there is no sex involved. But their spouses don’t see it that way.

Many marriage experts view emotional affairs to be as damaging as sexual affairs. A common characteristic of emotional affairs is dishonesty with one’s partner about the relationship. People in emotional affairs often deny and deceive their partners about how much time is being spent with the “affair partner,” and/or how much emotional intimacy is being shared. Much of the pain and hurt from an emotional affair is due to this deception, and the consequent feelings of being betrayed.

Some guidelines*:

You’re in danger of crossing the line if you…
1. Touch your friend in “legal” ways, like picking lint off his blazer, or putting your hand on her shoulder as you walk through a door.
2. Pay extra attention to how you look before you see him / her.
3. Think crush-like thoughts like “She’d love this song!”
4. Tell him / her more details about your day than you do your partner.
5. No longer feel comfortable telling your mate about this person and begin to cover up your relationship.
6. Experience increasing sensual tension; you admit your attraction to him/her but also insist to yourself that you would never act on it.

It’s about to get physical when you…
1. Find yourself feeling vulnerable and turn to the other person for support rather than to your mate or a trusted relative or friend.
2. Accelerate the level of intimacy through sensual or suggestive talk over email or the phone.
3. Put yourself in a situation where the two of you could be alone.

You can avoid the potential affair if you…
1. Stay honest with your partner. Share with him / her all your hopes, triumphs, and failures — as well as your attractions and temptations, which will help keep you from acting on them.
2. Stay honest with some close recovery friends. Telling them about your attractions and temptations will also help keep you from acting on them.
3. Make sure you have “couple time” with your spouse on a regular basis — away from the kids, your friends, and family. Given today’s busy schedules, this often requires commitment and planning.
4. Surround yourself with happy couples who don’t believe in fooling around. Having positive, emotionally connected role models will help you stay on track.

Some quotes about emotional affairs:

“If there is ongoing interaction with someone [of the opposite sex] with whom you have been very honest in sharing your deepest thoughts and feelings, this can generate a feeling of closeness that stimulates even more sharing—and more closeness, and on and on. Eventually, this relationship can become extremely close and an emotional attachment develops, causing serious damage to the marriage—whether or not it ever becomes “sexual.” (Source: DearPeggy.com)

“The new infidelity is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing that they’ve crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love. Infidelity is any emotional or sexual intimacy that violates trust.”  (Source: Shirley Glass, author of “Not Just Friends: Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal“)

“Opening up emotionally to a co-worker of the opposite sex is like removing clothing one item at a time. At first it is very innocent. There is no need for alarm. Neither of you have done anything wrong. However, the more you open up to each other emotionally, the more vulnerable you become to having an emotional affair.” (Source: Nov. ‘07 Marriage Newsletter, www.marriage.com.au)

Can we take our fears too far? Isn’t there room for healthy relationships with members of the opposite sex?

Doing research for this article, I came across some advice from Christians which seemed extreme and reactive. It more or less came down to saying: “Don’t interact with members of the opposite sex! If you find yourself starting to get too friendly with someone, RUN!” If we’re not careful, we can overreact and cut ourselves off from healthy contact and friendship. I leave you with two key words to keep in mind here:

1. Boundaries. I love the quote from the Australian marriage newsletter. Opening up to a coworker of the opposite sex is like removing clothing one item at a time. It’s one thing to take off a coat or blazer, or removing our shoes. But social conventions about disrobing in front of other people … taking off much more than that would be inappropriate and provocative. Courtesy, friendliness, and even casual friendship is one thing, but getting too personal is, well, inappropriate and provocative.

2. Openness. Couples need to talk about their relationships with members of the opposite sex. One way of “keeping things clean” in relationships with acquaintances of the opposite sex, is to always be open and honest with your spouse about what you’re doing. If you find yourself being evasive or dishonest with your spouse about some friendship, you know there’s a problem.

* These lists come from Heather Johnson Durocher (but there are also some edits and additions from me). I am addicted to having the last word, after all!

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