It usually starts out innocently enough. Your spouse has to get an important project done and needs help from a co-worker. They have to spend a lot of time together. So, it seems only natural that they would talk about their personal lives, too. Or maybe your spouse’s college crush sends him/her a “friend” request on social media. They start to talk “for old time’s sake.” Your spouse claims that’s all it is, just talk. But you can’t stop that nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that something’s off. Your spouse swears nothing physical is going on. But is your spouse having an emotional affair?
What is an Affair?
The dictionary definition of an affair is:
“… a sexual relationship between two people, one or both of whom are married to someone else.”
By this definition an affair requires:
- At least two people, one or both of whom were married to someone else; and
Having feelings for someone other than your spouse, or being in love with someone other than your spouse, wasn’t technically considered to be “an affair” if you didn’t have sex with that person.
But that’s a very limited definition of what an affair really is.
In today’s world, we expect our spouse to not only be sexually exclusive with us but to be emotionally exclusive as well. Thus, the modern definition of “an affair” includes inappropriate emotional closeness as well as illicit sexual closeness.
In short, we’re no longer okay if our spouse is physically faithful, but emotionally in love with someone else.
Why the change?
Because we’ve all come to realize that any romantic connection with someone outside a marriage affects the level of intimacy, emotional distance, and the overall dynamic of that marriage. An affair of the heart can be just as devastating as an affair that involves any other body part.
Is an Emotional Affair Really Cheating?
- Sexual Tension; and
- Emotional Involvement
Interestingly, this definition of infidelity does not require two people to actually have sex. Having a secret emotional relationship constitutes infidelity just as much as “hooking up” with someone outside of your marriage.
What’s more, an emotional affair can be just as hurtful, sometimes even more hurtful, than a full-blown sexual affair. That’s because the secrecy of the emotional affair is what makes it so devastating.
Whether an affair is emotional, physical, sexual, or “all of the above,” it’s still a betrayal.
The fact that your spouse may not have had sex with his/her new “friend” isn’t nearly as hurtful as the fact that s/he lied to you about his/her relationship.
What’s more, just because two people aren’t having sex, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their relationship isn’t exploding with sexual tension. As Esther Perel so aptly puts it in her ground-breaking book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity,
“Clearly, affairs can be sexual without a penis entering a vagina, and in such cases it is more helpful to call a spade a spade.”
Sometimes, the lack of physical contact is exactly what makes a relationship erotic.
But We’re “Just Friends!”
Some relationships really do lack the sexual tension that characterizes a typical affair. People joke about having a “work wife” – someone who they spend a lot of time with but aren’t romantically interested in. Sometimes those relationships are truly platonic.
After all, just because you spend a lot of time working with someone doesn’t mean that you are having an affair with them.
What makes the difference between a working relationship and an affair is the lack of ANY of the three factors Esther Perel has identified as characterizing infidelity.
That means that the spouse in the working relationship isn’t hiding any part of that relationship from his/her spouse. S/he is not sending furtive texts to his/her “work buddy” in the middle of the night. S/he is not sharing personal secrets and long-held dreams with their co-worker instead of with their spouse.
A truly platonic relationship also lacks the sexual tension that characterizes an affair. Neither person in the relationship is flirting with the other. Neither is making inappropriate remarks or sexually-charged suggestions to the other.
Finally, in a truly platonic relationship, the emotional connection that the people in that relationship share is typically minimal. Sure, they care about each other. But they care like you about a parent or a sibling. They don’t care like lovers care.
Why Does Emotional Cheating Hurt so Much?
At its core, an affair – any kind of affair – is a betrayal of trust. When you discover that your spouse has been calling, texting, or spending time with someone else without your knowing about it, you feel violated. You feel like someone just hacked into your body with an ice pick and ripped your heart, and your guts, right out.
It feels that bad.
What makes that feeling even worse in emotional affairs is that the person having the affair might not even think they did anything wrong.
“I didn’t touch him/her! Why are you so mad? We’re just friends!”
Or, worse yet, your spouse might get mad at YOU for being “controlling,” “petty,” and “insecure!”
So, on top of dealing with your own emotional devastation, you also have to deal with your cheating spouse’s anger, denial, and defensiveness as well. That makes recovering from an emotional affair a hundred times harder.
After all, if your spouse can’t even acknowledge your pain, s/he certainly can’t help you work through it. What’s more, if your spouse cares more about staying connected with someone else than s/he does about staying connected with you, your marriage isn’t likely to last very long. (Sorry!)
8 Signs Your Spouse is Having an Emotional Affair
Because emotional affairs can so easily masquerade as “ friendships” it’s often harder to figure out when your spouse is involved in a relationship that may have crossed the line.
Even still, the warning signs of an emotional affair are strikingly similar to those of a sexual affair. Here are eight of the most common signs that can tip you off to the fact that your spouse’s “friendship” may really be much more.
#1 Your gut is screaming that something is wrong.
It’s easy to dismiss the queasy feeling you have in your gut that something in your marriage is not quite right. But often our bodies are better at knowing the truth than our minds. If you’re not a suspicious person by nature, yet you just can’t help feeling that something is going on with your spouse – pay attention!
#2 Your relationship with your spouse starts to get more distant.
While every relationship has its ups and downs, if you feel like your relationship with your spouse is starting to grow cold, it may be time to dig into what’s going on. If your spouse is suddenly “too busy” or “too tired” to spend time with you, that may be a sign that s/he’s getting his/her needs met elsewhere.
#3 Your spouse starts being secretive about his/her cell phone.
Any significant change in your spouse’s cell phone behavior can be a huge sign that your spouse is having an affair. Maybe your spouse suddenly starts locking his/her cell phone when s/he’s never done that before. Or you may notice that your spouse suddenly stops answering his/her cell phone when you’re around.
#4 Your spouse starts spending lots more time at work.
Even in today’s internet age, a significant number of affairs still happen in the workplace. While every change in your spouse’s working hours doesn’t necessarily mean that s/he is enjoying a little “bonus time” with a co-worker, it can be a sign that you have problems at home.
#5 Your spouse starts spending way more time on the computer.
With today’s technology, you can have an affair without ever leaving the house. If your spouse starts spending more time on the computer for no apparent reason, you may want to pay attention. That’s especially true if your spouse doesn’t want you “bothering him/her” while s/he’s on the computer.
#6 Your spouse is spending a lot of time with someone other than you.
If your spouse is spending more time with anyone other than you, that’s never a good sign. While your spouse may need to work closely with a co-worker or colleague, when s/he starts spending a significant amount of his/her free time either talking to or being with that co-worker or colleague, that’s a big red flag that their relationship may have gotten a little too close.
#7 Your spouse talks a lot about his/her “friend.”
If your spouse starts sharing a lot of stories about his/her “friend,” especially stories that are very personal, it may be time for you to go, “Hmmm.” One of the hallmarks of an emotional affair is sharing stories with your “friend” that you normally would share with your spouse. If you find that your spouse seems to know a whole lot about his/her friend, you can bet that your spouse has spent a significant amount of time talking to that friend.
#8 Your spouse suddenly stops talking about his/her “friend” altogether.
Sharing too much about “ a friend” isn’t the only signal that your spouse’s relationship with that “friend” has crossed a line. Your spouse’s radio silence about someone that s/he used to mention can also be just as telling.
5 Things to Do When You Think Your Spouse is Having an Emotional Affair
#1 Talk to Your Spouse About His/Her Relationship
Telling your spouse that you think s/he is a little too close to his/her “friend” seems like the obvious way to address your issues. The problem is, that conversation may not go the way you think.
Often, spouses who are involved in emotional affairs don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. Because they’ve never touched the other person, they don’t feel like they’ve cheated.
Rather than going ten rounds with your spouse about whether his/her new relationship is really “cheating,” focus on how their relationship is making you feel. Let your spouse know how deeply his/her behavior is hurting you. That alone should change the conversation from one of accusation and blame (“You’re cheating!”) into something more constructive (i.e. “I’m hurting. Let’s talk.”)
(NOTE: This may not happen in one conversation. It may take several conversations before your spouse realizes how much his/her relationship has hurt you. That having been said, if you’ve tried having this conversation many times, and you’re still getting nowhere, you might want to go to #2.)
#2 Get Professional Help
Sometimes the break in your relationship with your spouse runs so deep that you and your spouse just can’t get past it yourselves.
Maybe your spouse won’t acknowledge there’s a problem. Or maybe s/he thinks it’s YOUR problem. Either way, going to couples counseling can help.
A good marriage counselor can often work wonders, especially if both you and your spouse are willing to put in the work to save your marriage. (It also helps if you haven’t waited until your marriage is on life support before you start counseling!)
#3 Get Support
Regardless of whether you’re going to marriage counseling or not, getting support for yourself is just as important. That’s especially true if your spouse is denying that you have a problem.
When you feel like your marriage is being compromised, and your spouse is telling you that you’re over-reacting, it doesn’t take long before you start to doubt yourself. You start to second guess what you see and feel. Unfortunately, that only makes you feel worse.
Having someone you can talk to, someone who will listen to you and let you know whether you’re crazy or not, can be invaluable. In a perfect world, that someone would be a professional therapist. But a trusted friend, or a close family member, can also help.
(NOTE: At this point, it would probably be best to limit your support group to just one or two people. This is not the time to circle the wagons and tell everyone you know that your spouse is having an emotional affair.)
#4 Set Ground Rules
If your spouse is involved in a relationship that you’re not comfortable with, and s/he is not willing to change his/her behavior, you may think that your choices are to either accept your spouse’s behavior as it is or get a divorce. But you may have other options.
To explore those other options you need to decide what you are and are not willing to tolerate. Maybe you’re okay with having an open marriage. Maybe you’re willing to let your spouse have outside “friends” if you can, too. Or maybe you’re not okay with any of this, and you just want to have a traditional marriage. Whatever you decide is fine. The point is to consciously explore your options and make a decision about what you want.
If your spouse will have this conversation with you, great! If not, have the conversation with yourself. Identify your boundaries and let your spouse know what they are. Then (and this is the hard part!) you need to respect your boundaries and make sure your spouse does the same.
#5 Don’t Make Rash Decisions
When your marriage is crumbling, you are not in the most stable emotional place to start making big decisions. That’s especially true if you don’t know for sure whether your spouse’s relationship with his/her “friend” is actually more involved than your spouse will admit.
While it’s easy to rush to the conclusion that your spouse is cheating and your marriage is over, that might not be the right conclusion to draw.
If your spouse is willing to talk about the situation and go to counseling with you, that’s a good sign. If your spouse denies everything and tells you you’re crazy, that’s not a good sign. But, it’s also no reason to rush headlong into a divorce. Instead, get yourself into therapy. Take some time to clear your head and think. THEN decide on your next steps.
An Affair By Any Other Name is Still an Affair
Can two people of the opposite sex (or similar sexual persuasion) ever have a purely platonic relationship? If you agree with the movie When Harry Met Sally, you may argue that the answer is: No! But life is rarely as simple as it looks in movies.
The truth is that, when lines in relationships get crossed, people get hurt.
While some people think that a physical affair is the worst thing that could ever happen to their marriage, others disagree. They may not like the fact that their spouse is having a fling, but as long as there is no emotional connection, they’re willing to turn a blind eye.
What you’re willing to live with in your own marriage is intensely personal. You can draw the boundaries in your marriage wherever you and your spouse choose to do so. The key is to draw those boundaries consciously and intentionally.
If your spouse is involved with someone other than you, and you’re not okay with that, it’s time to have a conversation with your spouse. If your spouse won’t listen, won’t go to counseling, and won’t work on your marriage, then you may have a decision to make.
No matter what you do, remember that it takes two people to make a marriage – but three can be a crowd.