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What is an Emotional Affair?

Many people ask me about the term “emotional affair” and are curious as to what distinguishes it from innocent friendship. Healthy friendships do not exclude one’s wife or husband; emotional affairs to varying degrees do. In an emotional affair either the relationship itself or the intensity of the emotional bond and the duration of the relationship are often intentionally hidden from the spouse.

Although an emotional affair might begin as an innocent friendship, over time a close emotional bond can develop as the two increasingly turn to one another rather than to their spouse(s). Although many emotional affairs involve mutual interest and emotional attraction, in some cases one person may not actually be interested in the other and yet continues to encourage the others’ interest in them for the sake of boosting their own ego. Individuals involved in an emotional affair often rationalize to themselves and others…”but we’re just friends.” This rationalization may feel like an absolute truth, particularly to the unfaithful spouse who is “just” enjoying the attention and adoration of someone outside the marriage without reciprocal feelings.

An emotional affair is characterized by infidelity that occurs through the sharing of intimate and personal thoughts and emotions. With today’s technology emotional affairs can occur without face to face contact and are sometimes limited to phone conversations, text messages, and online chats. Because of the lack of contact, some people engaged in an emotional affair do not believe that they are being unfaithful or even that they are doing anything wrong. They rationalize that the relationship can’t be wrong if there is no physical intimacy.

Emotional affairs are a form of infidelity that often causes significant damage to the marriage or primary relationship. The wounds of emotional affairs run as deep and sometimes even deeper than the wounds from affairs involving physical intimacy. Although the faithful spouse may sense something is wrong, they often are unclear about or completely unaware of the unfolding dynamic. While minimizing the relationship to themselves and others, they often intensify their spouse’s pain with accusations that the faithful spouse is being controlling or feeling and acting jealous.

When a person in a committed relationship or marriage finds him or herself drawn to another person on an emotional level, it would be wise to consider that emotional affairs are a form of betrayal and can have similar consequences as physical affairs. If you are married or in a committed relationship and have heard yourself say, “but we are just friends” I invite you to step back and consider these seven dangers signs that your friendship may actually be an emotional affair.

Do you…

1. Find yourself reaching out to this person to share life’s ups and downs…often before you share them with your spouse?

2. Keep secrets, delete texts, talk when your spouse is not around or “forget” to mention contact with this person to your spouse?

3. Discuss problems in your marriage with this person?

4. Believe this person understands you better than anyone, including your spouse? Or that your interests are more compatible with this person than
with your spouse?

5. Fantasize that this person will always be there for you; that if all else fails you will have each other?

6. Lie or tell half truths to cover up contact with this person?

7. Fail to tell your spouse about the relationship or you minimize the closeness in the relationship?

If these danger signs resonate with you, it is likely your marriage may be suffering as a result. Although it can be difficult to let go of the support, adoration, and spoken or unspoken fantasies that you have come to enjoy, the relationship must end. Transparency and truthfulness are essential for a healthy marriage; neither of which can exist if one person is in an intimate emotional relationship with someone else. If you value your marriage end the emotional affair and begin the process of rebuilding trust and healing the wounds of betrayal.

If you are a faithful spouse and believe your husband or wife is involved in an emotional affair, confront them and let them know in no uncertain terms that it is not OK with you. Make it clear that the relationship must end. Consider making your feelings known to the “friend” as well. Shine a light on the secrecy of the inappropriate relationship even if your spouse continues to rationalize, “but we are just friends.”

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