Infidelity 101: What Is An Emotional Affair?

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Love, Heartbreak

Gwen Fellows, 53, was already struggling in her marriage when her college friend, Tom, re-entered her life.

After reconnecting over e-mail, Gwen—who lived in New Jersey—soon began confiding in Tom (who lived in Florida, with a girlfriend) about her troubles, including her husband's alcoholism. A recovering alcoholic himself, Tom lent a sympathetic ear, and threw out some flirty comments.

Rather than get offended, Gwen flirted back, thinking the dalliance would help her lighten up, and take the stress out of trying to work things out with her husband. 

"It was a nice, little romantic flirtation," she recalls. "I thought maybe it could help my marriage recover." 

But the secret e-mails and phone chats grew more intense, and Tom began telling Gwen to leave her husband so that he could be with her. She moved out the following summer, having never admitted the emotional affair to her husband, whom she later divorced

Tom kept telling Gwen he cared about her, and even visited her for Thanksgiving, though the two weren't physically intimate. Gwen says she was scared of how she'd be in bed, since she hadn't slept with anyone since her ex-husband. She was also afraid of getting too attached to Tom after sex

Still, it came as a shock when Tom returned to Florida and married his girlfriend. He claimed that he still wanted a relationship with Gwen, but said that, since losing his job, he the health insurance this other woman could provide. "I was flabbergasted," Gwen says. "I felt like someone had died. This so permeated every part of my life... He knew what buttons to push."

About 35 percent of wives and 45 percent of husbands report having emotional affairs, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, a statistic higher than those for physical affairs, which are committed by 15 percent of wives and 25 percent of husbands.  Another statistic on American sexual behavior by the National Opinion Research Center cites that 22 percent of men and 13 percent of women have cheated in their lifetimes. Though infidelity statistics are notoriously unreliable, since people are reluctant to admit any kind of affair, it seems safe to say that emotional cheating is more common than a physical affair.

What Is An Emotional Affair?
Part of the problem with emotional infidelity is that it's hard to pin down. The line between harmless flirtation with a member of the opposite sex and actual infidelity is blurry, especially for women, who are typically more open with their emotions. 

An emotional affair differs from a flirtation in that the latter typically involves behavior—such as smiling, eyelash-batting and flattery—that carries no actual meaning. You veer into dangerous territory when you begin sharing serious issues in your life with someone who is not your partner, says Dr. Ron Potter-Efron who, with his wife Pat, wrote the book The Emotional Affair: How to Recognize Emotional Infidelity and What to Do About It. There is usually an "explicit understanding that this is stuff we're going to talk about that I'm not going to share with my partner," he says. The info-sharing may start out innocently enough. But many people who wind up in emotional affairs also simultaneously start distancing themselves from their significant others while fueling intimacy with this new person. That's what leads to trouble. 

An emotional affair can be as detrimental as a physical one, because it strips the intimacy from your primary partnership. When most emotional needs are being met by someone other than your partner, the foundation of the relationship starts to crack, says Dr. Potter-Efron.

Anyone can get sucked into an emotional affair. Some people are vulnerable because they're going through a hard time and feel they can't turn to their partner. Others connect with someone who is struggling with a similar problem. Dr. Potter-Efron recalls a client who cheated with someone who also had a special needs child. Needy people may tend toward emotional infidelity because they're not receiving enough attention from one person.

As in Gwen's case, technology can play a big role in an emotional affair. Dr. Potter-Efron says that pouring your heart out in an e-mail is often easier than doing so in person, and can plant the initial seeds of disloyalty. 

But it can also backfire, adds Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona.

"Prior to email, texting and other communication technologies, inappropriate 'friendships' were more likely to go undiscovered or denied for lack of 'evidence,'" he says.

Emotional vs Physical
Dr. Potter-Efron does not believe that there is always a sexual component to emotional affairs. He does, however, think that an emotional infidelity can easily cross the line to a "total affair." He views physical affairs as not only being worse for the partners being cheated on, but also worse for the people doing the actual cheating.

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"Your body isn't pulling you back as much as in a sexual affair. I don't see the agony of a sexual affair [in an emotional affair]," he says.

Men would agree with him on this—research conducted by Pennsylvania State University shows that men usually get more disturbed when their partner cheats sexually. Women are the opposite, and find emotional infidelity more hurtful, because they view it as a sign that their partner has "fallen in love" with someone else.

This same study also noted that a person's "attachment style" may indicate how severely they'll react to infidelity. Men tend to have more "dismissive" attachment styles that value independence above relationships, researchers found. Such men have a perspective on cheating that comes from a more evolutionary, competitive basis—they are concerned that if a woman cheated, their kids aren't really their own.

Women, who typically have "secure" attachment styles—where they appreciate and accept relationships with others—display the reverse. They prize the intellectual and emotional connection with their spouses and are less scathed by sexual straying. Of course, like all things in the realm of love, these distinctions aren't automatically gendered: women can have a dismissive attachment style, and vice versa, so don't assume that your partner's gender will determine their reaction to a specific type of infidelity.

Couples Can Recover
Couples can survive an emotional affair if both are willing to address the issues that led to it, Dr. Potter-Efron says. As for the other party in the affair, it may be possible to return to a normal level of friendship if you can stop the oversharing. As the person who cheated begins confiding in her partner again, the person she cheated with becomes less enticing, because her emotional needs are once again being met at home. As for Gwen, she quickly ended contact with Tom after learning that he had married his girlfriend. She still struggles with how their relationship played out more than a year later.

"I'm still not even ready to date," she admits.

3 Signs You're Having An Emotional Affair
You or your significant other may be having an emotional affair if there is:

  1. Idealization: "They're talking about somebody as if they're the best thing since sliced bread," Dr. Potter-Efron says.
  2. Loss of time: "Your partner is spending more time on the computer. He has to have a talk with his 'friend' before he leaves the office," Dr. Potter-Efron says.
  3. Secrecy: "A telltale sign of questionable behavior is hiding things, leaving out certain pieces of information, distorting the truth, or outright lying to your partner about your interactions with someone," Dr. Cilona says. 

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