It’s natural to want people in our lives who act as our emotional support system. But if you’re in a committed romantic relationship with someone, are they the only person you can — or should — turn to fulfil your emotional needs? This is where it can get tricky and can potentially veer into the territory of an emotional affair.
But what exactly is an emotional affair, anyway? Scary Mommy spoke with two experts to find more about the signs of an emotional affair, whether it counts as infidelity, and what you can do about it.
What is an emotional affair?
Emotional affairs are confusing for many couples, according to Dr. Alisa Ruby Bash, a licensed marriage and family therapist, in Malibu, California. “Because there are no concrete sexual betrayals, they can be easy to hide under the rug or justify,” she tells Scary Mommy. “The partner involved in the ‘affair’ will often get angry when accused, and the tension can aggravate the stress and resentment building within the marriage.”
Bash says that emotional affairs have the following components:
- When one partner begins to develop emotional intimacy with someone outside the relationship that takes precedence over his or her spouse/partner.
- When the person cheating is deeply connected to a new friend, who is often the first person that they will turn with all the issues taking place in their life.
- When the person reveals personal details and shares things that might upset their spouse with another person. There is cause for alarm with emotional affairs because over half of emotional affairs do turn into sexual affairs.
Why do people have emotional affairs?
Of course, every relationship and person is different, but there are several different reasons why someone might seek an emotional affair while in a relationship or marriage, Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author, The Self-Aware Parent, regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors (CBS) and co-star on Sex Box (WEtv) tells Scary Mommy.
“Some folks use emotional affairs as a mechanism for avoiding true intimacy with their partner/spouse,” she explains. “They withhold communication of their feelings and share them with an outsider to keep a wedge between them and their spouse. This maintains a disconnect or distance in the marital attachment. After all, talking is the glue that holds people together.”
In addition, Walfish notes, people who are attracted to married or committed folks usually feel unworthy and undeserving of a complete loving relationship that includes give and take — both emotionally and physically.
What are the signs you may be having an emotional affair?
According to Walfish, the signs that you may be having an emotional affair and/or are at-risk of turning your friendship with another person into an emotional affair include:
- The person completely fills your mind’s mental space, and you think about him/her constantly or obsessively.
- You find yourself modifying your routine/schedule to see the person more frequently.
- The quantity and frequency of contact with him/her increases.
- Your feelings for the other person deepen and intensify.
Along the same lines, emotional affairs are a process — often very subtle and seemingly innocent in the beginning. According to Bash, emotional affairs may involve these steps:
- You may notice that you are developing a close friendship with a coworker or peer. As the friendship builds, one of the first signs of trouble is feeling like the new friend is the first person you want to share the joys, sorrows, and intimate details of your life with. This person begins to fill in the void that is missing between your partner and yourself.
- The next phase is when the new partner begins to become your primary emotional support. Your alliances shift and there are definitely feelings that begin to develop.
- Finally, sexual attraction develops. Even if there is not a strong physical attraction, the emotional intimacy you have developed leads you to begin to imagine your new friend sexually and wonder about your chemistry.
“At this point, you are really in the danger zone,” Bash explains. “Since such a high number of marital affairs begin as an emotional affair, it’s really important to stay conscious and put the brakes on before further betrayal takes place.”
That is why it is important to take a step back and explore what is lacking in your primary relationship before the physical cheating begins. “Once it happens, it can never be undone and if your relationship survives, you will spend many agonizing years working through the pain and heartache,” Bash says.
What are the signs your partner may be having an emotional affair?
So what should you look for if you think your partner might be having an emotional affair? According to Dr. Abigail Brenner at Psychology Today, these are the signs to be on the lookout for:
- Something with them feels “off” or out of the ordinary.
- Your partner is being secretive, especially when it comes to their phone usage.
- There is a growing distance between you and your partner.
- Your partner is spending more time at work functions — especially if they’re with a particular colleague all the time.
- Your partner makes sudden changes in their appearance — like losing weight, changing their hair or makeup, and/or updating their wardrobe.
- Your partner becomes increasingly critical of you.
Are emotional affairs cheating?
According to Walfish, in her professional opinion, emotional affairs are a form of cheating. Though we tend to think of “cheating” as something more clear cut — like having a sexual relationship, it can take many forms. And while some emotional affairs turn physical, many do not.
“Emotional affairs are usually more powerful than solely sexual relationships,” Walfish explains. “However, when emotional affairs are coupled with sex their potency is maximized.” Often, one or both partners engaged in the emotional affair chooses to refrain from having sex, rationalizing to themselves that without sex it is not really an “affair.” “This is a form of denial, and lack of accountability and lack of willingness to own up to cheating/betrayal of their spouse,” Walfish says.
What you can do about it
Given that a breakdown in communication is likely a major cause of an emotional affair, Walfish says that the first step to rectifying the situation is to talk about it. “When folks stop talking about issues, especially resolving conflicts, sex stops and one may look outside the marriage for emotional and physical gratification,” she explains.
Walfish says that her top tip for how to stop having an emotional affair is to get professional help. “You need to declare your misgivings openly out loud — a sort of confession,” she says. “Hearing your own voice declare your behavior is your first step toward owning accountability for your behavior which is a prerequisite for change.”
Bash agrees, suggesting seeking professional help from a therapist if you feel that you or your partner are involved in an emotional affair. This way it may help you get to the bottom of the issues that have made you seek such a deep level of intimacy outside your relationship.
Talking to a professional is also a good place to start because Walfish says she thinks it’s a mistake to disclose your emotional affair to your partner. “It will only hurt your spouse and raise her/his suspicions and doubts about trusting you,” she says, noting that there is “no need to rock the boat at home.”
The bottom line is that emotional affairs are serious, hurtful and can be very bad for a relationship. The best way to prevent them, Walfish says, is to ensure that the lines of communication are always open with your partner, so you both feel heard, seen, and understood.