What Is An Emotional Affair? How They Happen & How To Save Your Marriage
Infidelity, dishonesty, cheating, secrecy, affairs—these are all words that describe potential death blows to your relationship. While you may be clear that a sexual affair is a true threat to your marriage that needs to be addressed if you're going to save it, you may be less sure about the damage caused by an emotional affair or whether that's as big a violation as a sexual one.
The short answer is: Yes, it's an affair.
And no, it doesn't have to be the end of your relationship.
What is an emotional affair?
An emotional affair is typically defined as a relationship with someone with whom you have emotional intimacy, sexual attraction, and secrecy or dishonesty about it with your spouse. This type of affair doesn't involve sexual contact, but it can be devastating nonetheless. While it doesn't bring some of the pain that comes from a sexual interaction with a third person, it still brings the pain of dishonesty and lack of care for the feelings of the spouse.
Many people don't consider emotional affairs to be cheating since they aren't having sex. But it is the secrecy and betrayal of trust that creates the most damage. If you find there is intimacy, attraction, and secrecy, you are in an affair.
As hard as it is to recover from the effects of sexual infidelity, an emotional affair still confronts you with the harsh realities that one of you was willing to indulge their own desires at the expense of the other's trust and intimacy.
Why people have emotional affairs.
Emotional affairs can go through stages. They often start by accident, sliding down the slippery slope of friendship and attraction. What begins as a work dinner, a message from an old friend or flame, or a shared workout at the gym can be developed into a flirtation and an intimate affair.
Many people have these interactions without it turning into cheating. Others, especially those who aren't completely fulfilled in their own relationships, begin to indulge the feelings of validation, attraction, and excitement. They continue to pursue the communication when they know it is starting to have an intimate or sexual charge to it, and they know enough to keep it from their partner. What starts as moments of micro-cheating turns into full-blown emotional cheating.
Signs you're in an emotional affair.
If you're still not sure if your relationship with another person qualifies as an emotional affair, consider these questions:
- Are you keeping the relationship from your spouse? Or are you misleading them about how often or how much you talk to the other person?
- Are you sharing things with this other person that you don't tell your spouse? Do you rush to tell them things first? Do you tell them about your unhappiness with your partner?
- Do you seek out contact with them when you're feeling down or lonely?
- Are you attracted to them? Is there sexual tension or a charge to your interactions?
- Do you fantasize about being in a relationship together? Do you wonder if you should be with them instead?
What to do next.
If you or your spouse has cheated through an emotional affair, it does not have to mean the end of your relationship. A breach of trust like this always provides an opportunity to evaluate how you feel about your marriage, and it can be an opportunity to recognize an unhealthy pattern and decide to walk away. But if you want to work it out and use it to improve your relationship, there are steps you—the person who emotionally cheated—can take.
Recognize the fantasy.
Affairs are full of New Relationship Energy. They exist in the infatuation phase, where brain chemistry goes crazy and makes you believe you've found your soul mate. This type of feeling is intoxicating, and it's important for the cheating partner to realize that they've been making decisions based on the drug of that neurological reaction.
Emotional affair partners aren't real—in the sense that you are not dealing with real life, with the stresses and negative attributes that would show up later. You've been indulging in a dream. As appealing as it may have been, you can let it go more easily if you accept that it's been a mirage.
Many people get involved with someone new because they are looking for positive reflection and attention. When you are missing that in your primary relationship and don't know how to validate yourself, it can be especially easy to find it somewhere else. It's important to develop the ability to feel good about yourself without needing external validation.
It probably goes without saying, but it's also important to improve your relationship with your spouse so it's infused with positive attention and interaction. Consider where, how, or why you feel this lack, be open with your spouse about how you feel, and try to work toward a solution together that helps you feel secure and loved—without placing the full burden on your spouse to change.
Cut off ties with the other person.
This is the time to focus on your marriage and not risk the slippery slope anymore. In order to earn trust with your spouse, there should be no contact with the third person that isn't required (for work and such). Splitting your attention and continuing to siphon some of your energy to the other person just keeps the dynamic going.
Be clear that you are ending it (both with the third person and with your partner), and be willing to demonstrate that by being transparent with your communication mechanisms (social media, email, etc.). This is key to how to stop cheating any further.
Confront the deceit.
The worst part about affairs is the breach of trust, the willingness one spouse shows to disregard the feelings and experience of the other. The person who had the affair needs to wrestle with the fact that they were willing to lie to their spouse and hide what was happening.
Share exactly what happened and when, to the degree that your spouse wants to know. Examine the extent of the dishonesty and the prevalence of lying in your life in general. Commit to speaking the truth and being transparent from now on.
Recommit to making your relationship work.
Emotional affairs often sprout from the fertile ground of relationship dissatisfaction. Now is the time to figure out where the two of you have been struggling and how to recreate your relationship now so that both of you can get your needs met.
Consider going to couples therapy or taking a workshop together. Work through relationship self-help books to strengthen your foundation. Talk honestly about your wants, needs, and complaints. An affair can put your relationship on the brink; this is the time to lay it all out there and address all the problems.
Know that trust will take time.
You don't heal from an affair just because it ends and the offending partner apologizes. The person who had the affair has shown an ability to lie and hide things. It's normal to struggle with trust, and there may be strong emotions (including both sadness and anger) for quite a while.
What will move you through this is a combination of time and demonstrated change. The cheating partner needs to be trustworthy if they are going to earn trust. You both need to see that there is a new level of honesty, an ability to bring up and address unmet needs, and a recommitment to the marriage. Whatever laid the groundwork for the affair has to change, and that means both people have work to do to make sure the relationship is fulfilling to the other.
The bottom line.
Affairs, both of the emotional and sexual varieties, are painful. But they can also be the impetus to tackle long-standing problems and transform your relationship for the better. If what you see is a fatal flaw of dishonesty or lack of commitment, use the affair as a chance to find a better relationship. But if you believe that yours is worth saving, take this as an opportunity to make important growth as a person and as a partner.
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Jessa Zimmerman, M.A. is an AASECT-certified sex therapist, licensed couples’ counselor, author of Sex Without Stress, and the host of the Better Sex Podcast. She holds a bachelor's from Cornell University, a master’s in Psychology from Saybrook University, and has completed a certificate in Sex Therapy from the University of Michigan. She specializes in helping couples who have a good relationship but are avoiding sex because it’s become stressful, negative, disappointing, or pressured. She educates, coaches, and supports people as they go through her nine-phase experiential process which gives them real world practice in changing their relationship and sex life.