If your relationship is impacted by an Emotional Affair there are things you need to know
Lately, we’re hearing the term emotional affair more than ever. Perhaps the internet has made it easier to reach out to other people. Yet, an emotional affair can begin in the workplace or in any setting in which people interact, such as charity work and sports activities.
By definition, an emotional affair is a relationship outside of the marriage or primary relationship in which a person finds comfort, an emotional connection and often some sexual chemistry with this outside individual. Often, there is not any physical or sexual contact, but many times there is a strong feeling of connection. Many emotional affairs are only conducted online.
The problem lies in the fact that an emotional affair is “an affair of the heart.” Attention is focused on someone outside the primary relationship, the contact can be frequent (sometimes multiple times daily), and is often hidden from the spouse or primary partner. There may be sharing with the emotional affair partner about the primary marriage or relationship and its shortcomings.
There is a “pull” felt within the emotional affair. Starting as a friendship, the connection strengthens, boundaries may become less rigid, one or both may find their thoughts turn to sexual fantasies. The amount of contact escalates. In emotional affairs, both people typically feel compelled to be in touch, to share important thoughts and feelings and to look forward to hearing from the other — often with increasing frequency.
Discovery of an Emotional Affair Brings Many Strong Emotions
When the spouse or primary partner learns of the emotional affair, it may not matter whether there was a sexual aspect or overtones. The hurt is real, yet often not understood by the person engaging in the outside relationship.
“I don’t know what the big deal is. It’s not like we had sex. We’ve never actually even met in person.” Denial of the intent or extent of the emotional affair is a frequent first reaction.
However, the spouse or primary partner feels a deep wound. “Why did you need this other person?” “What was he or she giving you that I don’t?” “If it’s not a big deal, why have you hidden this from me?”
Arguments can escalate easily. Here’s why: The emotional affair is a threat to the emotional bond of your primary relationship. That bond is a powerful force that formed when the couple first met and romantic love developed. Because humans are hard-wired for close, loving relationships, any interference with the couple’s connection that had been formed between them feels like an emotional threat to the primary partner.
The anger and upset expressed after an emotional affair is discovered may mask the deep hurt that lies beneath. It’s important to understand that the hidden, secretive way in which emotional affairs take place add to the sting of betrayal and the new insecurity of the hurt partner.
Misunderstandings Abound About Emotional Affairs
A range of emotions typically surface when the couple attempts to resolve the hurtful feelings. These can include:
- The person who engaged in the emotional affair feels overly accused and may minimize the spouse or primary partner’s feelings of hurt and distrust because there was no physical intimacy. Of course, the primary partner feels not heard or understood.
- For the spouse, there can be a fear that, if not discovered, the emotional affair would have moved further — and into a sexual relationship.
- The hurt partner can wonder why there was so much contact with this other person if the relationship “truly didn’t matter.” I’ve often heard partners complain that the other person gets more responses via text, email, or phone than they do. This hurts.
Despite the lack of real in-person or sexual contact, emotional affairs are a threat to the marriage because some needs were apparently being met in the emotional affair that were not fulfilled in the primary relationship.
An Emotional Affair Story
Carmen and Jim met at an art class. Carmen’s husband Michael was busy with work, plus he had minimal interest in Julie’s “crafty” pursuits. She’d go alone to craft fairs and art galleries or with girlfriends. Both had said this was okay, but Carmen really wished Sam would take more of an interest or that they would do more activities together.
She enjoyed Jim’s passion for painting as they talked in class. They began to have text conversations. Carmen found she could not wait to hear from him. She even felt anxious when there was a delay. She began to look forward to painting class even more. Carmen admits to herself there was a certain thrill in this new friendship — though she respected the boundaries of her marriage. After all, she truly loved Michael. It started as having a friend with a common interest, and even though there were warning signs, Carmen tried hard not to think that she was playing with fire.
Then Michael discovered the extensive texts on her phone, and he was devastated. So many of the texts were late at night — and some appeared to be a bit flirty. Michael’s hurt often surfaced as anger. The couple found they argued frequently over the emotional affair. This was the first major problem in their marriage, yet Michael could not recover. He felt his trust for Carmen was slipping away, and the more Carmen reassured him that she wasn’t having an affair, the more Michael felt misunderstood and protective of the relationship. Carmen began to feel suffocated by Michael’s reactivity about the issue. Michael started to feel like Carmen didn’t want to help him feel more secure in the relationship.
An Opportunity for Reconnection
After months of arguing, the couple sought help. They learned in counseling why the emotional affair was so deeply hurtful to Michael. Carmen began to understand the depth of his pain.
But more than only resolving the emotional affair, they were able to explore what was missing in their marriage. The strong attachment bond that brought them together initially had become more strained. Michael’s devotion to his career meant long hours away from home. Carmen did not know how to openly express her needs to Michael for greater closeness and more time together. Michael couldn’t understand why his career driven mindset didn’t illustrate how important Carmen actually was to him – he was doing this for them and their future, but he couldn’t nurture their emotional connection.
Unfortunately, the missing pieces in the marriage got filled with the emotional affair.
Carmen and Michael were able to revisit what kept them connected in the past. They had enjoyed hiking and attending local theater — and now needed to to re-prioritize their time together. They once had a daily ritual of having time together on the patio every evening to share their day and other thoughts. They needed to bring back the ritual that kept them in touch and close in the past.
Staying Close in the Digital Age
Carmen and Michael were able to recover, fortunately. As with many couples today, there are tons of challenges to making the relationship a priority.
Longer work hours, especially when you are building your career, are very common. Working remotely or on weekends makes unplugging more difficult, mentally and physically.
Additionally, meeting the needs of children can become the priority more than the couple’s relationship. Parents want to be supportive of kids’ sports and other activities, but less and less time seems to be available for the couple to be alone together.
Recovering from an Emotional Affair
- Do not to underestimate the damage that an emotional affair can have. They can be as destructive as a physical affair, especially for partners who highly value an emotional connection in their relationship. Recovering from an affair is very similar to dealing with an emotional affair.
- Understand that to heal, you must feel. That means that if your partner is upset, you need to get it. Truly work to understand and feel their pain in ways that you can show that you are touched by the impact this has had. The worst thing you can do is tell your partner that the emotional affair wasn’t anything to worry about.
- Try to get underneath your anger or efforts to “fix” and communicate your needs clearly. Instead of accusing your partner of hurting you in anger, share your fears and hurts. Anxiety after an affair is common, and there are ways to address it.
- This is tough, but you have to stop the emotional affair. It’s best not to have any more contact with the person, but if that’s not possible because you work with them, put some boundaries in place. Your relationship won’t heal if you are continuing to poke holes in it.
- Seeking help is smart! Even for an emotional affair. If your partner doesn’t think that you need counseling just for an emotional affair, well that may be the first therapeutic issue we tackle. Reach out to a couples therapist, especially one who practices Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy. Here in Denver, we are happy to chat with you about your couples therapy needs and see if we can be helpful at no charge.