The Emotional Affair

By Tiffany Atkins

When we think of someone ‘having an affair’ there are certain assumptions in that statement: First that person is already in a committed relationship with someone else. Second there is a sense of betrayal. Third, there is sexual activity with the other person and more often than not, this has happened more than once with that person.

The dictionary definition of an affair is: “a sexual relationship between two people, one or both of whom are married to or in a long-term relationship with someone else.”

In addition to this there may be attraction, friendship, emotional intimacy and the couple may claim that there is love. But none of these things are required for this to constitute an affair.

So when those additional  things occur in a relationship outside of your primary relationship, without the sexual component, it’s easy to think that there is nothing wrong if you’re not having sex. But welcome to the world of emotional affairs which can be just as damaging to your committed relationship as a sexual one.

Just like the sexual version, an emotional affair exists between two people where one or both are already in a committed relationship. Unlike a sexual affair, there is no physical intimacy although there may be the underlying sense that this could happen.

Often the emotional affair will begin as a friendship, maybe at work or some context away from your partner. At some point the friendship crosses the relational boundary from something healthy to something unhealthy. It can be hard to admit that you’ve crossed that line from ‘just a friend’ to something more, but crossing it puts your primary relationship in danger so let’s identify what’s on the wrong side of that boundary:

It started off as innocent friendship

It started off as an innocent friendship. Ian worked alongside Anna and they’d always got on well. Anna made Ian laugh and he found her easy to work with. She just seemed to get him.  He started to look forward to the meetings he knew Anna would be a part of. He would make sure he was paired up with her for particular roles. He sought her out during lunch. But it was okay because there were always other people around and he didn’t fancy her like that. 

At home Ian’s wife Jess was always busy with juggling her work and running the home. Their conversations seemed to revolve around domestic management and misunderstanding tiredness as lack of interest in each other. It had been a while since Jess had made him laugh. Did she even know what made him laugh any more?

At work, his conversations with Anna became more meaningful. They joked about their work colleagues who they found annoying, their favourite TV programmes (they both liked the same things) And they talked about real stuff. Anna was having problems with her boyfriend and shared a lot about this with Ian. It seemed only natural for Ian to share some of his own frustrations about Jess with Anna.

On Ian’s commute to work, something funny happened. He messaged Anna to tell her although it would have amused Jess equally. But Ian messaged Anna a lot more than he messaged Jess. Often he would delete the messages. What if Jess was to see them? He didn’t want her getting the wrong end of the stick about his innocent friendship with Anna. A response from Anna gave him a nice surge of endorphins. Jess’s messages just made him feel guilty about something he had forgotten to do. 

He felt validated and understood

When he thought of Jess, Ian felt bad or guilty. When he thought of Anna, he felt validated and understood. Surely he was entitled to those feelings which his wife didn’t elicit in him. The more he thought about this (and he thought about his friendship with Anna a lot) the more disillusioned he felt about his homelife. Ian had also helped Anna see how her boyfriend was not worth her and she had ended their relationship. Ian had felt a sense of purpose in helping Anna.

When Jess asked him about work, Ian never mentioned Anna. There was no point, she might jump to the wrong conclusion about their friendship. Even when he was regularly late getting home, he didn’t tell Jess about his after-work cuppa and chat with Anna. There was nothing to tell, and there were no secrets to keep – it wasn’t like he was sleeping with her. And yet there was this unspoken need for secrecy.

Jess had noticed her husband’s growing distance and disinterest. She’d also noticed how his face lit up when his phone ‘pinged’ with certain messages. She tried to explain away his need to ‘just take this important work call’ in the evenings. When she’d listened at the door, it hadn’t sounded like a work conversation. And yet she had no reason to suspect anything, had she? She confronted him anyway, asking who Anna was. Ian convinced himself his answer was honest: “She’s just a friend from work.”

And she was a friend. A friend he thought about most of the time, a friend he shared his breaking news with first, a friend who validated him and made him feel special. She was a friend he depended on to meet his emotional needs because she understood him best. She was the kind of friend that his wife should be. 

Ian was committing emotional adultery.

So how does a relationship recover from this?

  • Acknowledge and admit that this constitutes an affair. At this point it’s very easy to place all the blame on the other faithful partner who has not met the needs the other person has been meeting. In your head you can justify turning to someone else for those needs to be met. But you need to take responsibility for your actions and end the affair.
  • Remember your commitment to your partner. There was a time he or she met these needs and you met their needs. Reflect on why you made these commitments originally and what it was about your partner that you loved and valued.
  • Identify and work towards meeting each other’s needs. Why did this affair start in the first place? What did you gain from it? Identify these needs and resolve to meeting them in each other. Your partner may now have extra needs to help rebuild the broken trust.
  • Communicate with your partner. So many problems can be avoided with good communication! There will be a lot to process and you want to make sure you are communicating on a real level in a way that doesn’t lay blame or push the other person away. For more help on good communication habits click here.
  • Forgive each other. This is key to resolving any problem in a relationship. Forgiveness is costly because you have to let go of hurts. We can hold onto grievances like an outstanding debt, ready to pull out as a ‘you owe me’ card when we ourselves are in the wrong. But forgiveness is like a tide of cleansing water which rids us of the burden of hurt and resentment and releases the other person from that debt. If you would like to know more about what it means to be truly forgiven and to truly forgive, please do get in touch.
  • Resolve to move forward together.  Any relationship can become dulled and burdened by unspoken hurts. As you communicate more, commit to looking forward together. Maybe take on a new project or activity together. Intentionally invest in your relationship (e.g. attend A Day Together or take part in a Together group).
  • Seek Help. The repercussions of an affair, particularly for the offended partner, can be hard to get over. There is no shame in seeking professional help for your relationship. A third party can offer the structure and direction you might need to rebuild your relationship. Click here for more information.
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