How To Navigate Crushes When You're Married
Sometimes, it can be as overpowering as an earthquake, as unrelenting as an obsession. Virtually nothing surpasses the heady, all-consuming rush of a crush. And if you're currently married or in any other type of serious monogamous relationship, chances are those thrilling feelings of attraction and curiosity likely also come with pangs of guilt and maybe even fear.
Don't worry. The next time you experience one—since the odds are, you will—follow these tips from couples' therapists, dating gurus, and clinical psychologists on navigating having a crush without compromising your primary relationship.
Crushes are completely normal.
First off, it's important to understand that crushes are incredibly common, regardless of the nature of your current relationship. "You're married, not dead," jokes Rachel Wright, M.A., LMFT, co-founder of the Wright Wellness Center. "One study out of the University of Vermont revealed that 98 percent of men and 80 percent of women have fantasized about someone other than their current partner in the past two months," says sexologist Jess O'Reilly, Ph.D.
Crushes are particularly a dime a dozen in the workplace. In a recent study conducted by SimplyHired, 74 percent of full-time employees in committed relationships revealed they were attracted to an office colleague.
As to why such attachments are so intoxicating, there's a solid scientific reason. "Intense chemicals are at play when you first experience attraction: serotonin, adrenaline, and dopamine," O’Reilly explains. "This cascade of hormones can result in feeling a degree of obsession and idealization of a new partner."
Crushes can help you improve your relationship—if you're careful.
If you feel yourself falling for someone, take a step back—it'll help you protect your committed relationship and evaluate the crush in a logical way.
First of all, know that "feeling excited by or attracted to someone else doesn't mean there is something missing in your relationship," O'Reilly says. "One partner cannot possibly fulfill every single one of your needs—the practical to the sexual—so it's common to look for other sources of excitement and fulfillment."
That said, your attraction could reveal potential weaknesses in your current relationship—and it's your job to prioritize and protect that relationship. For instance, does your crush give you much-needed attention or romance, whereas you feel your partner does not? Do you have deep conversations with your crush but more surface interactions with your significant other? If so, consider how you can infuse your current relationship with these absent elements. For instance, brainstorm ways your partner can provide you with more validating attention, O'Reilly suggests.
"Our fantasies show us what we're attracted to," says Gal A. Szekely, a licensed marriage and family therapist and co-founder of a San Francisco–based counseling group called The Couples Center. "They're about wanting to have a certain experience more than they are about the real other person. What you fantasize about is a compass leading you to what's important to you… So, you should ask yourself: In my fantasy, how do I feel about myself? What experience does it provide for me? Then, see if there are other ways you can invite that experience into your life, especially with your current partner."
Sorting fantasy from reality.
Of course, it's also possible that your crush doesn't mean anything and is completely harmless. Instead, it might merely reveal what you find titillating—and "using unrealistic images, themes, and settings is part of what makes sexual fantasy so powerful," says O'Reilly.
Philadelphia-based psychotherapist Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW, admits that "policing fantasy is nearly impossible." In her opinion, "fantasizing about a crush is more in line with viewing pornography than actual infidelity or cheating." In that case, consider your crush a fun diversion—as long as you are content to leave it in the realm of fantasy—not reality.
However, if you are fantasizing a lot about one person, "it is critical that you examine what you are avoiding," advises Lesli Doares, North Carolina–based relationship coach and author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage. "Avoidance is rarely a good long-term plan because the truth will eventually come out and usually in an uncontrolled way."
If you feel the urge to actualize the relationship with your crush, remind yourself that your conception of him or her is usually a fantasy. There is no way your real-life partner, whom you know so well (warts and all) and have likely been with for some time, can compete with this idealized persona. That's because the initial newness and excitement of any relationship fade over time.
To gain clarity, O'Reilly recommends accepting that your feelings are a result of "the chemicals associated with novelty and the unknown—not the result of having found 'the one.'" She also suggests exercising or masturbating to calm your nerves and compiling a list of "all the things you love about your crush and all the things you don't know about them. You'll find that the latter is much longer than the former."
To flirt or not to flirt?
It's all about what you do with those emotions—and experts agree that setting clear boundaries with your crush is of the utmost importance. For instance, you might want to avoid texting a desired work colleague after-hours.
On the other hand, relationship gurus differ regarding flirting. While some feel that playful banter can be acceptable, most warn that it is highly risky. Newman takes a balanced view. "Flirting can be an innovative way to build sexual tension or energy that you can take home to your committed relationship to bolster the connection," she says. "However, flirting that leads someone else on could be unfair to them, especially if they are eschewing pursuing their other romantic prospects holding out hope for this connection."
Carla Marie Manly, California-based clinical psychologist and author of the upcoming book Joy From Fear, disagrees, considering both fantasizing and flirting "forms of emotional betrayal… Even the most casual flirtations open the door to feelings and actions that could create problems down the road," she cautions. Similarly, Wyatt Fisher, a psychologist, marriage counselor, and couples retreat leader, views both endeavors as "playing with fire."
Ideally, your decision on flirting should be one you make with your partner. If your loved one considers flirting to be tantamount to cheating, respect their wishes.
Telling your partner.
No matter how difficult, many experts suggest being open with your partner about your crush. By sharing what you're experiencing, you're building transparency and allowing your partner to be an ally as you navigate your crush—instead of a cop you're trying to avoid or, worse, an obstacle or villain. By tackling this situation together, you can use the experience and what you're learning from it to improve your existing relationship.
Wright especially suggests telling your partner if you're feeling guilty about harboring the secret or if they directly ask you about the person in question. Lying will only exacerbate the entire situation and can make something minor and fleeting into something more threatening and divisive.
O'Reilly also points out that being open with your partner might help defuse your feelings. After all, the forbidden or taboo aspect of crushes often adds to their allure. For a similar reason, she sometimes recommends introducing partners to crushes. "You may be crushing on this person as a form of escape from your predictable life, so bridge those two worlds of fantasy and reality to help put things in perspective, so that you can think more realistically," she says.
To avoid making your partner feel inadequate or nervous, use a light and humorous tone when having the conversation, Doares advises. If your partner is insulted nonetheless, Szekely says to help them focus less on the other person and more on what it is this crush makes you feel about yourself. "If they can be open to that perspective, they will take it less personally," Szekely says.
Crush with care.
In spite of the intensity of the emotions, try to slow down and work through your attraction logically. If you feel yourself falling for someone, view it as an opportunity—to enrich your primary relationship and learn about yourself.
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