The Truth About Emotional Affairs

Even if two people are not engaged in a physical relationship, the emotional attachment can threaten the very foundation and fabric of the marriage.
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A silhouette shot of a business colleagues having an affair in the office
A silhouette shot of a business colleagues having an affair in the office

"I don't know why you're so uptight. He and I are just friends." "We never discuss anything personal." "There's nothing wrong with my having friends of the opposite sex." "No matter what you think, our relationship is not sexual, so quit talking to me about it. I don't want to discuss it anymore." "What am I supposed to do, stop interacting with him? I work with him." "I can't fire her. She hasn't doesn't anything wrong." "Your suspicion is going to kill our relationship."

Does any of this sound familiar? Does your spouse have a relationship with someone that makes you feel uncomfortable? He or she may flatly deny any inappropriate interactions. You can't help but wonder whether the relationship is physical and your thoughts have been driving you crazy. You try to tell yourself that sex, touching or kissing isn't part of what they do together, but your instincts say something else.

More often than not, you feel anxious, depressed and angry. You feel incredibly deceived. You have started doing things you never dreamed of -- snooping, accessing private emails, phone records and credit card bills. You search your spouse's computer or phone for any telltale signs that something is amiss.

Then it happens. You discover personal emails. Too personal. Or a series of late night calls. Maybe the person's name appears on your spouse's buddy list. And although some of the exchanges are work-related, there's more than a tinge of familiarity. Your heart beats. You're concerned.

You start questioning your spouse. She or he swears that nothing physical is going on and after much convincing, you want to believe it. Yet you can't forget that there are the lunches, after-hour meetings and intimate conversations. You remember something you read about "emotional affairs" and you now feel certain that your spouse is right smack dab in the middle of one.

So you tell your spouse of your concern. You're extremely unhappy about that relationship. You don't like it one bit. "It might not be physical," you tell your spouse, but you find it extremely threatening. You don't want your spouse being intimate with another person in any way, shape or form. It hurts and you consider it betrayal.

Your spouse becomes defensive and insists that nothing inappropriate is going on. "I know my boundaries. I am not having an affair, so you're wrong and I want you to stop nagging me about this. You're overreacting."

But are you?

In the three decades that I have been specializing in couples' therapy, I have watched the destruction caused by emotional affairs. Even if two people are not engaged in a physical relationship, the emotional attachment can threaten the very foundation and fabric of the marriage. Here are a few reasons why:

Betrayal is in the eye of the beholder.
Often, people who have close extramarital relationships feel perfectly justified as long as it isn't sexual. Then there is no betrayal, no threat to the marriage. However, if their spouses think otherwise and feel hurt, threatened or emotionally abandoned, it becomes a marital problem. And as with any marital problem, partners need to protect each other's feelings. This means that the emotionally involved partner should honor the feelings of his or her spouse whether he or she agrees with or understands it completely. Mutual caretaking is what loving relationships are all about. It's essential to remember that betrayal is unquestionably in the eye of the beholder.

Having close "friends" can be a slippery slope.
Here's an example: A completely innocent meeting after work with co-workers may result in two people becoming excited about a mutual project. They end up spending a great deal of time together at work and the relationship becomes increasingly comfortable and familiar. Soon, they start having lunches together and when the work load increases, there are more demands on their time and efforts to complete the project. They stay later at work and go out to dinner.

Eventually, conversations shift from business to life outside work. Over time, these talks get more and more personal. Occasionally, people discover that they can talk about certain subjects with their co-worker that they cannot talk about with their spouses. An intimate bond begins to form.

Then, conversations become even more intimate. Frequently, they share their unhappiness with their own marriages. They commiserate and validate each others' feelings and become confidantes. Their communication defines their relationship as special and separate from their respective marriages.

The relationship may get physical at this point. But even if it doesn't, the real nature of the relationship is kept secret. Secrets place marriages at risk of divorce.

As you can see by this example, the relationship started out completely innocent. But the small daily choices they made led to a connection that wasn't so innocent.

An emotional affair takes time and energy away from marriage.
There is just so much time in a day, and people have finite energy in their lives. If the focus in one's life is the "other" person, time and energy are drained from the marriage. Plus, if a partner is getting emotional needs met outside the marriage, there is little need to connect at home. This leads to emotional distance and growing apart. Marriages are living things and they require attention.

Emotional affairs may be misconstrued.
Sometimes, one person is more emotionally involved in the relationship than the other. Perhaps he or she is hoping that the emotional relationship will flourish into something even more meaningful. That person might even be hoping that the other will eventually leave his or her marriage and become involved on a very deep level. This can happen without the other person's awareness. Their intentions might be pure -- to help out a person in distress, to be a loyal friend, or to simply have a fulfilling platonic, appropriate relationship. But one can never predict how the other person interprets interactions and exchanges. To avoid misunderstandings of any sort, it is essential to have boundaries in relationships outside marriage. This way, no one will be hurt or misled.

If your spouse is having an emotional affair, stop nagging, spying or haranguing. I wrote this post for you to give to your partner. It may or may not alter your spouse's behavior, but it least it will be food for thought.

And if you are someone whose spouse is complaining about a relationship you may be having, taking your spouse's feelings into account will make life much more pleasant for you and it just might save your marriage!

To learn more about Michele and her Divorce Busting practice, visit her on the web at or follow her on Facebook.

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