Emotional infidelity

The media loves to point out infidelity in celebrities, but what about when it hits closer to home?

February 12, 2010 17:46
4 minute read.
What is a close intimate relationship?

heart relationships 311. (photo credit: AP [illustrative])


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The media loves to point out infidelity in celebrities, but what about when it hits closer to home? Affairs can be very tough on a marriage because one has to rebuild trust that has been lost and this in itself is both painful and challenging. If the affair was a one-night event, there may be more room for forgiveness, as sex without love or an ongoing relationship, while still painful, may be easier to handle.

What happens though if there is no sexual relationship but the extramarital couple are instead “simply” emotionally intimate? They may see themselves as “just” very good friends. As such, they may not see that they are doing anything wrong, as after all, it isn’t as if they are sleeping together.

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While this relationship may seem harmless, if you are the offended party it sure doesn’t feel that way. It feels incredibly painful because, after all, in many ways you’ve lost your partner to someone else. They may not even be aware that you feel that those lengthy gazes, that special smile and the easy conversation are supposed to be reserved for you alone. You may find yourself grieving and wanting the very relationship with your partner that he or she has with someone else. Emotional infidelity, or emotional adultery, can take place in person or on the Internet.

Why do people engage in relationships with someone other than their partner?

Most people don’t start off looking for an affair. It just happens. You get into a conversation with someone and you feel heard – perhaps for the first time in years. As the conversation goes on, you are being understood and finally someone approves of you and appreciates you for who you are. You may even feel needed and it all just feels so good and so exciting. So you go back for more. Whether it is another conversation with someone on an Internet chat, at the gym or at lunch with a coworker of the opposite sex, it feels incredibly comfortable, and what’s so wrong with that? After all, you are “just talking.”

If the relationship is really all right, are you upfront about it with your partner, or is the very air of secrecy part of what makes the relationship so special or shameful? After all, if you tell your spouse about this other person or about the relationship, it ruins some of your fantasy about what “could be.” If you are involved in an emotional relationship that might be a bit questionable, do you also find yourself deleting SMS messages, creating new e-mail addresses or hiding “evidence”?

Be honest with yourself for a minute, if you are the person involved in the extramarital relationship: If your partner did to you what you are doing to him or her, how would you feel? Would you mind it at all? When something good or bad happens in your life, who do you want to share the news with – your partner or this other person? Where are the strongest emotional bonds? And how about the energy this other relationship consumes?

Do you find yourself daydreaming about what “is” and what “could be”? Do you feel short-tempered or lack patience with your spouse? Is there a cost, so that the time and commitment that go toward maintaining a relationship with someone else is inversely proportional to the investment you can make in sustaining your marriage?

A good marriage cannot be taken for granted but requires work – an investment of time and energy on a daily basis to not just sustain it, but to grow as a couple and ultimately as a family. If you are attached in one relationship, you’re likely to be less connected in another, and before you know it, you might be feeling quite overloaded, depleted of energy and off balance. All of this on top of being part of a family that is most likely already stressed in the first place.

So with a “real” affair, therapy can deal with issues of guilt and remorse and even “meaningless sex,” but with emotional infidelity, there is no sex and it is hard to feel guilty because in your mind you may simply feel that you have only had a nice conversation with someone and not an affair. And therein lies part of the problem. While there may not be anything overtly sexual going on, the potential is there and this in itself is problematic.

How does one even define what is adulterous and what is the behavior that is so unfaithful? If we have difficulty defining it, how do we help someone change? Does it mean one less call a day or week, staying away from the computer or bringing your own lunch to work and making an excuse why you can’t dine together?

Good communication is critical for a marriage. As long as one person in the relationship “perceives” a problem, feels cheated on, betrayed, pushed away or “done to” by a potentially unfaithful partner, the relationship and the communication the couple have will suffer and be second-rate. Feeling abandoned, threatened or jealous within a marriage sows the seeds for ongoing and future problems.

This must be addressed openly and honestly for a relationship to grow. Treatment is aimed at enhancing the couple’s ability to share an emotional connectedness, while weakening the bond between the extramarital couple. At the end of the day the sad truth is that you can’t have both.

The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana. ludman@netvision.net.il

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