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How to Recognize and Cope with an Emotional Affair
Did you know that an emotional affair can be just as dangerous to a marriage as a physical affair, and sometimes more so? And that spouses who never had any intention of cheating can unwittingly become enmeshed in an emotional affair?
Many spouses will shrug off questions about an emotional affair with the reply that "It's harmless" or "We're just friends." They fail to see the damage that the emotional closeness with someone outside of the marriage is doing to the primary relationship.
Individuals who are the most vulnerable to becoming involved in an emotional affair are those in a marriage where emotional intimacy is lacking. Their marriage may be going through a period of hostility, emotional distance, and conflict. The "friends" are sucked into the emotional affair by the seductive lure and pull of an intense emotional connection to each other that feels easy, safe, and comforting.
Under the surface there's a strong sexual chemistry that's covered up by the "friendship." And, of course, there's the excitement that's heightened by the secrecy that surrounds the new-found intimacy. Even though the "friendship" may begin innocently enough, as it progresses the bond between the two individuals deepens and drains energy away from the marital relationship.
The two individuals involved in the emotional affair may have been casual friends or co-workers to start with. Or they may have met online in a chat room. At some point, they started confiding feelings and personal details about themselves, their partners, and their relationships that their spouses would have seen as a violation of trust. And that was the first danger signal that indicated trouble ahead.
The second danger indicator was when they started sharing more with the "friend" than with their spouse and depending on the "friend" for their primary emotional support. At some point, they began to feel that the "friend" understood them better than their own spouse did and was easier to communicate with. They felt a sense of companionship with the "friend" that was lacking with their spouse.
The third red flag indicating danger ahead was when they began keeping their conversations and the frequency of contact secret from their spouses. This is a definite danger sign. Both individuals knew that their spouses would be upset if they knew the extent of the contact, the depth of the emotional connection, and the intimate subjects being routinely discussed.
Finding out that your spouse is involved in an emotional affair can feel like the ultimate betrayal, and many spouses view it that way. They view what has happened as deception and they feel betrayed.
The partner involved in the emotional affair usually attempts to downplay and minimize what has happened. She (or he) may rationalize that nothing physical has happened, so there's nothing for the spouse to be upset about. She may accuse the spouse of being jealous and controlling to get him to back off.
But an emotional affair can hasten the demise of a marriage. It drains the attention and focus that could have been put into tackling problems in the marriage and improving the quality of the relationship. Instead, it siphons off the energy that's needed to put new life into a tired, ailing marriage. The spouse ends up forming a close, intimate connection with a "friend" outside the marriage while the marriage suffers from emotional neglect and decreased commitment.
The sad thing is that if the "friends" end up divorcing their respective spouses and getting married, the same patterns that were present in their former marriages will show up once again down the road in the new marriage.
When challenging problems develop again, they will be inclined to repeat their pattern of escaping and avoiding them by bonding with another "friend" for support. Issues that haven't been dealt with in one relationship always resurface again in subsequent relationships. It's only a matter of time until they pop up again.
So what can you do if you or your spouse is involved in an emotional affair? Here are some tips to follow if you are serious about wanting to keep your marriage:
1. Immediately, make your marriage your top priority. Direct your time, energy, focus, and attention on understanding what has happened and coming up with an action plan to improve the emotional intimacy in your marriage.
Cut back on elective activities and carve out time to spend with your spouse. Everything else is secondary if you truly want your marriage to make it.
2. Marriage counseling is a must in order to have a safe place to discuss the emotionally-charged issues surrounding an emotional affair. It helps considerably to have an objective professional who can help guide you and your spouse through the landmines.
You want to get the real issues and accompanying feelings out in the open where they can be addressed. If you try to cover things up and limp along without really looking closely at why the emotional betrayal happened, nothing has been remedied. That's a set-up for having a repeat experience.
3. Both spouses need to make a commitment to ending any secrecy about who they are talking to, how often, what about, etc. There can't be anything hidden if trust is going to be regained and the marital relationship healed.
The same dynamics that are present in a physical affair will be present in an emotional affair, also. The spouse with the "friend" may not have overtly lied to the partner about the emotional dependency but rather just didn't ever mention it, an act of omission. The impact on the relationship is the same.
4. Obviously, contact with the "friend" cannot continue in the same way. Seeing that person and having some interaction may be necessary if both parties work together, and there will certainly be a period of transition involved.
Anything involving a work situation can be awkward and delicate, and co-workers are bound to notice the change in interactions between the person ending the affair and the "friend." There's nothing easy about ending an emotional affair. The painful period just has to be endured. It the situation is unworkable, one or the other may need to change jobs.
5. Consider your counseling options. If your spouse is involved in an emotional affair and won't acknowledge the seriousness of it, make any changes, or agree to go to counseling to discuss it, then you need to begin individual counseling sessions to help you deal with the situation and decide what to do.
Sometimes you have to tread lightly when a partner is caught up in an emotional affair and give things some time and space. In some cases, the current "friend" will eventually pull away and get closer to a new "friend" on the scene. If that happens, your spouse may be more likely to look back at the marriage with more interest.
If not, the moment will probably eventually come when you won't be able to tolerate the situation any longer and may need to consider a separation. Sometimes, this serves as the catalyst to make a spouse reconsider what he or she is doing.
There are many options on the continuum of what to do next, and that's where a counselor can be of valuable assistance.
Nancy J. Wasson, Ph.D., is co-author of Keep Your Marriage: What to Do When Your Spouse Says "I don't love you anymore!" This is available at http://www.KeepYourMarriage.com, where you can also sign up for the free weekly Keep Your Marriage Internet Magazine to get ideas and support for improving your marriage.
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