You like each other, you feel good when you’re together, you like talking to him and exchanging intimate, funny or even sexy e-mails. He gets you. You joke, you flirt, you dress nicer when you meet him for lunch or drinks, you write long e-mails or tap out furtive text messages. The problem? He’s not your husband, and your husband doesn’t know about this guy—whether he’s your ex-boyfriend from college, your Facebook friend or your coworker. Is this the start of a beautiful (and innocent) friendship, or the beginning of the end of your marriage? And if there’s no sex, can you really call it infidelity? Yes—emotional infidelity. Here are some answers to common questions about nonsexual affairs.
What is the definition of emotional infidelity?
It’s an emotional connection with someone of the opposite sex that you keep a secret from your spouse, says Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Recovering from Affairs. Basically, emotional affairs occur when one partner is channeling physical or emotional energy, time and attention into someone other than the person they are in a committed relationship with to the point that their partner feels neglected.
What makes it such a big deal, if there’s no sex?
The marriage-damaging factor of affairs, it turns out, is far less about sex than it is about the total package of deception. “Most people, I’ve found, can recover from sexual infidelity more readily than from the fact that they were lied to,” says Vaughan. Finding out your partner’s been emotionally canoodling with someone else makes you think, “What can I believe about our life together? The big red flag is the secrecy. Emotional cheating is about breaking trust with your spouse, not having sex with someone else,” she adds.
How can I tell if the “friendship” I have is veering into emotional-affair territory?
Ask yourself: Am I doing things or talking about things with this person that I don’t do or talk about with my spouse? Am I going to complicated lengths to arrange time with this person? Am I either downplaying the relationship to friends or family members, or keeping it a secret altogether?
Is it more common these days?
Oh yes. Not only do we have the option to connect with someone at work, online “affairs” are rife, says Jessica LeRoy, founder and clinical director of the Center for the Psychology of Women. “Now, if you’re thinking about your old boyfriend, you can probably find him on Facebook.” Plus, online communication makes connection both easier and more intense, more quickly.
Why do people in emotional affairs deny they’re doing anything wrong?
Quite simply? Because there’s no sex. Many people have a hard time seeing what’s so wrong about this type of friendship. Culturally, we tend to believe that cheating is having sex with someone other than your spouse, period. But Vaughan says, “emotional affairs tend to escalate in increments,” from e-mails to lunch to drinks. Even as it gets more serious, it’s still easy to think of it as innocent because it’s “only” lunch. And before you know it, you’ve got a stack of secrets you’re keeping, and an emotional entanglement with someone else.
Does it mean the end of your marriage?
No, but it can be devastating if your spouse finds out, says Vaughan. “The person may suddenly feel as though she doesn’t know her partner.” If you’ve made a strong emotional connection with someone else, with or without sex, it can be very painful for your spouse. Also, “emotional affairs can lead to physical infidelity,” which only makes the deception worse and the disentanglement harder.
What should you do?
Back way off, says LeRoy. “Don’t respond to calls and e-mails as often while you disengage from this person.” Should you fess up? Probably not. The bigger deal you make of it, the harder it’ll be on your spouse. But you do have to nip the relationship in the bud. If you think you can shift the extramarital relationship back to something more innocent, you’re probably wrong, says Vaughan. This is a time when cold turkey is best, she recommends.