Affairs don't always involve hotel rooms and sneaky sexual liaisons. Sometimes, emotional infidelity drives a wedge between committed partners. Here, two relationship experts talk about this often-ignored issue for married couples.
Do you have what I like to call an "office husband?" Do you find yourself taking extra time getting ready to impress a certain coworker? Are you texting excessively with someone who isn't your partner? If you've answered yes to any of the above, you might already be having an emotional affair.
Emotional infidelity is defined when one partner goes outside the primary relationship to get his or her emotional needs met — and it is more common and more damaging than you might imagine.
When my husband was in his first marriage, his wife would stay up late into the night talking to her best friend's boyfriend on the phone. He would wake up and hear his wife laughing and talking about things she'd never shared with him before. He longed to share this kind of connection with her, but it wasn't there... and it never would be, as long as she was confiding in another man. My husband told me that he was more hurt by his ex-wife's emotional infidelity than if she'd had sex with this other man.
We place an inordinate amount of importance on sex in a relationship, but it is really the emotional and not the physical connection that is so hard to build. In fact, Mother Nature has hard-wired us for sex, and it doesn't take much for us to give in to our impulses. A few drinks or a bad fight can cause us to become irrational and act out sexually. In the end, having sex is just sex. It won't lead to an emotional connection. What really matters is securing a deep emotional bond and sustaining that connection with your partner.
Are physical affairs bad? Of course they are. Anytime you break an agreement with your partner, you undermine the trust and safety in your relationship. As damaging as sexual infidelity can be, emotional fidelity is the hardest thing to build — and it takes the biggest toll on a relationship when it is betrayed. If you are going to have what I called a "Naked Relationship," you need to protect the emotional integrity of your partnership above and beyond the physical aspects. Any two people can have sex in the heat of the moment. But the thing that everyone longs for is to have a deeply passionate emotional connection that can be sustained for a lifetime.
We all know what can happen to us when a partner is sexually unfaithful. But do we really understand the consequences of emotional infidelity? Maybe stories of two Christian couples can shed some light.
Jamie was 26 when she discovered that her husband had been having sex with an agency intern during recent alcoholic binges. To make matters worse, she was mortified to discover that she'd contracted an STD from the only man she'd ever slept with. She was sure her marriage was over — after all, this was the worst kind of breach she could imagine. Jamie entered individual counseling to explore her options and process her emotional pain. Meanwhile, Todd joined a 12-step program and began a march towards consistent sobriety. The way he explained it, his sexual behavior was fueled by alcohol; not by any true desire for, or emotional attachment to, his brief sexual partner. For Jamie and Todd, the physical affair was a wake-up call to address individual problems and relationship challenges that they'd been ignoring. After a few months, they decided to reach out to one another, and begin the hard work to create the kind of faithful bond each desired.
While Jamie and Todd were walking hand-in-hand years after a physical affair, Mindi felt like she and Chris were oceans apart. She wanted to make her 15-year marriage work, but a big piece of Chris was committed to someone else. For several years he'd been cultivating a relationship with someone at work. They shared meals together, talked about his hopes and dreams, and took day trips together — all without sex. While Chris was living large with his coworker, Mindi was alone with the kids, feeling like a single mom whose emotional account was overdrawn. When both were home, they gravitated to different parts of the house. Mindi had little motivation to reach out to Chris while he was invested in his coworker, and Chris could not effectively reach out Mindi until he let go of his extra-marital emotional attachment. They were stuck in a no-man's land.
If these stories teach anything, I think they highlight the lure and power of emotional attachment — and the dangers of seeking that intimate emotional connection outside of a committed relationship. I think emotional infidelity is like a wolf in sheep's clothing: all soft, safe, and cuddly on the outside, but inside it can be deadly dangerous to a committed relationship.
Emotional infidelity doesn't have to mean the dissolution of a committed partnership, but you and your spouse should work on healing together, before it is too late. If you're dancing on the edge of inappropriate behavior, ask yourself this: is seeking an emotional connection outside my marriage truly the best thing for my long-term happiness?