The topic of infidelity is a frequent topic with couples experiencing problems. When most people hear the terms ‘infidelity’ or ‘affair’, they almost always think of a passionate, romantic, physical relationship. Certainly many people engage in physical affairs borne out of immaturity, acting out of hostility and even sexual addiction.
What is less understood however, and at times can be even more threatening to a long-term relationship than a physical affair, is an emotional affair. An emotional affair occurs when one member of a relationship consistently turns to someone else for their core, primary emotional support in life. It often develops slowly, even innocently, as a friendship with a co-worker or friend. There may or may not be a romantic/sexual attraction initially accompanying this budding friendship. But when the primary relationship is experiencing ongoing hostility, conflict and/or distance, and one member of the relationship pulls away from their partner and consistently turns to their ‘friend’ for companionship, support and sharing of deep personal material, an emotional affair has begun.
For many people, the emotional affair is a great source of relief and comfort during relationship difficulties. But the danger is that there is a finite amount of intimate emotional energy to go around, and when one begins to regularly invest significant amounts of their emotional energy in someone outside the primary committed relationship, the primary relationship can be seriously compromised.
Frequently, an emotional affair will deepen through consistent contact through in-person discussion and/or numerous email and voice mail messages. There becomes an excitement and ease in hearing from the person. And when this type of relationship does lead to physical intimacy, it’s often a little sex and a lot of talking. The sex may be intense and passionate, but it is the feeling of emotional safety and companionship that really fuels the bond at the deepest level.
This companionship can doom the primary relationship. Once the door of emotional intimacy has been opened and the bond deepens, the person having the emotional affair cannot help but compare. “It’s so easy to talk to her, and so hard to talk to my spouse” is the common refrain. “My husband always complains and criticizes, but my friend is always there, always in a good mood, and always understands and listens to me.” It is much easier to open up and feel safe in a superficial new friendship compared to a long-term committed relationship.
How do you know if you are developing an emotional affair? Ask yourself these questions:
- do I feel like it’s easier to talk to my friend than my partner?
- does my friend seem to understand me in a deeper way than my partner?
- have I stopped confiding in my partner and now sharing deeper feelings with my friend?
If you find yourself or your partner developing an emotional affair, you need to put your attention on your primary relationship as soon as possible. Get help to understand why you drifted to this other person in the first place. Begin the work of re-investing emotional energy in your primary relationship. Turning to someone else during a time of conflict or distance often is merely escaping and avoiding other issues which won’t go away. And don’t kid yourself: these same issues will resurface again should you develop a real relationship with your emotional affair partner. Your greatest challenge will be deciding what is real and what is fantasy. You may as well learn to deal with these issues now, before putting yourself and your partner through a terrible crisis. Many people are impacted by the decisions we can make. Not addressing them now only prolongs the pain for yourself and everyone involved.
Resolving issues such as these involve conflict resolution insight and skills. Whether we are seeking to sort out such challenges alone, or with another often requires added unbiased support. Individuals may find that confusion may cloud judgement and having the confidence in moving forward one way or the other has an impact on an individual in profound ways. No one can tell you what to do, but finding a safe place to process in provides clarity of thought and mind. If this issue is in place in your life today, give us a call – we can help.