Emotional affairs are the unattainable romances that fuel movies like Spanglish and Lost in Translation. The longing for the unattainable object of your desire induces an endless buildup of fantasy, desire, and dopamine. Imagine if your dream guy could text, email, and call you only after midnight when the moon is full and your spouse is away on business? The danger, the excitement, the illicitness of it makes it all so much more appealing.
An emotional affair is an affair of the heart. It means you've developed deep feelings for someone besides your spouse—but you haven't crossed the sexual line. Wikipedia wags its finger, stating, "the role of an affair is to create emotional distance in the marriage." But is the role of the emotional affair to create distance? Or are erotic attractions part of our full sexual expression as healthy human beings? And more precisely, can we find creative ways to deal with these attractions to other people that could possibly bring us closer to our mates?
Recently, I had an experience that made me rethink my perspective on emotional affairs. I met Sam at a reading for my memoir, Wide Open. I appreciated the questions he asked during the Q&A and his enthusiasm about my ideas and writing. We exchanged emails, and soon we were writing each other several times a day.
We were embroiled in what Americans frequently refer to as an emotional affair. In my case—since my marriage is sometimes open and sometimes closed—I immediately told my husband what was happening, to gauge how the door was hanging on its hinges at the moment—fully open, currently closed, or somewhere in the middle. We discussed and made agreements about the parameters of my contact with Sam. Then my husband gave me his blessing.
It's been a few months since our first meeting. Sam and I exchange emails, texts, phone calls—and occasionally we meet for a beautiful glass of Chianti at my favorite café.
I once listened to a podcast during which the writer Cheryl Strayed gave relationship advice. A woman had gotten back in touch with her high school sweetheart—they were emailing, texting, and calling every day. This woman wrote Strayed that she was experiencing an exquisite midlife limerence that proved an overall awakening for her. She described her marriage as fairly dead, but the connection to her former high school sweetheart gave her a vitality and joy she had not felt in years. What should she do?
Strayed advised her to cut off all contact with her high school sweetheart and try to revitalize her marriage. Now, I respect Strayed as a writer and thinker, but I completely disagree with her advice. If I were advising this woman, I would tell her to go talk to her husband, discuss the love they share, and be honest about the lost vitality. At some point, she should reveal the contact with her former high school sweetheart—and begin to explore potential ways to allow this new wellspring of life to exist and maybe even inspire new life in their marriage.
In our puritanical culture, we are quick to shut the door on eroticism. In my world of open marriage, it is common practice to make space for eroticism, even if the source is outside the marriage. Let's go back to the woman who queried Strayed. From the stance of someone who practices ethical nonmonogamy, I might ask if there was a possibility that this woman's high school sweetheart could fly in and spend a few days with her and her husband? Could they all talk and perhaps make agreements together?
Am I living on Mars? Am I insane? Should Cheryl Strayed lecture me and send me to bed with no dinner? I don't believe so. I've seen people create these kinds of out-of-the-box relationship scenarios—they do work for some. The thing to remember is this: If what you are doing to make things work in your relationship is not working, it's time to try another way.
We live in a culture that routinely rejects the tenets of sex-positivity. That doesn't necessarily mean permissiveness or getting to have and do whatever you want regardless of whether it hurts your spouse. A sex-positive mindset accepts that sexual and erotic energy is normal and healthy. Excitement outside of our marriages can oxygenate our lives' dynamics with our spouses and be helpful in the long run.
There are, however, situations that aren't healthy. For instance, I recently got an email from an associate who found my book online, "devoured it," and was eager to become friends and talk about his latent wish to have an extramarital romance. But when he described the situation with his wife, it had more red flags than an aircraft ground marshal signaling a jumbo jet with failed engines.
He wanted me to be his confidante. He made references to feeling "lonely" and needing "a change in his marriage." But when I inquired what his wife thought of his plans, he gave me somewhat evasive answers. Although I was flattered by his attention and found him intelligent and charming, his situation smacked of potential for a damaging betrayal since he had no clear intentions of being transparent with his wife or making a plan to grow together. So I ended the brief email exchange.
If done with awareness and care, allowing new people into our lives can be generative to all our relationships—including our marriage. One of the main killers of excitement and gratitude in long-term relationships is a sense of redundancy and the overriding assumption that I already know you—I already know what you're going to say, I already know what you think, I already know what you're going to do.
When we lose our curiosity about someone, we lose the mystery and eroticism in our relationship. Thus the allure of the emotional affair—someone is thrilled and hanging on your every word once again. Someone is curious and nonjudgmental. So the question is two-pronged: How do we maintain a vibrant connection with our spouse? And can we welcome new connections with others who may invigorate all parts of our lives?
Here are some do's and don’ts when embarking on a deep emotional connection with someone new:
1. Tend to your current relationship with as much care and attention as ever.
How are things going in your marriage? Do you have needs that are unmet? Are you using this new person as a distraction? Are there bigger issues brewing that you need to deal with separately? Relationships with other people need to be initiated with awareness—not as a Band-Aid.
2. Make and have clear expectations.
What are the parameters of this new relationship? What is your spouse comfortable with? Stop and discuss your ideal scenario, outcome, and what your limits and boundaries are. Allow your partner to express all of his or her feelings and concerns and fully participate in how you structure this erotic romance.
3. Always be kind.
Make sure you are not treating anyone as a disposable object that you can get rid of if you or your spouse decides= it's necessary to end the affair. Make transparent and conscious agreements among all people, and be respectful.
4. Connect daily.
In ethical nonmonogamy, we have a phrase—new relationship energy—which describes how the onset of new romance can be heady and intoxicating. In this space, it's crucial to ensure that you are still connecting with the old (tried and true) relationship energy of your spouse or partner. Set aside 15 minutes daily to sit and listen to each other. The intention is to be curious and hear about their feelings and reality. Ask questions, repeat words, mirror each other—all with a very open heart and a desire to understand. Do this exercise to learn new information about each other.
You could be in a marriage of decades and still not see and understand parts of each other. Erotic attraction is renewed when we see each other with fresh eyes and learn new things about each other—a worthy focus in all our relationships.