The 4 Stages Of Emotional Affairs — And Physical Ones, Too

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Heartbreak

Although each affair feels entirely unique and like it has special circumstances, there are actually four distinct stages of emotional affairs.

Social media and the changing face of technology offer new and unique opportunities for people to start affairs — whether they are based on emotional infidelity or physicality. 

Time and again, one spouse logs onto Facebook, sends a friend request to an old flame, they begin messaging and chatting, and suddenly they are saying to the other spouse "I love you but I'm not in love with you."

But it doesn't have to be that way. In the following list, we are going to share the stages emotional affairs (even ones that eventually become physical) so that anyone experiencing this can see themselves, identify the stage they are in, and work to figure out how to end their affair. 

Remember, these stages are not hard-and-fast rules.

Like any other guideline, they are a loose sketch of how affairs begin, but knowing these stages can help you see yourself (or your partner) and the reality of your situation so you can intervene before the affair comes to a painful end. 

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Here are the four most common stages of emotional affairs:

Affair stage 1: Vulnerability

In this stage, either the individual or the marriage is open to subtle temptations to stray.

Author Jason Krafsky mentions that as a young man he read the book "Hedges: Loving Your Marriage Enough to Protect It" and realized that he would have to create boundaries around himself and his marriage to protect against the areas where a temptation can slip in and take hold.

In this stage, the couple has been engaging in behaviors that put out the flame of their love or loosen their connection.

Resentment is often building in this first stage, but not being acknowledged or resolved. In addition, both spouses have stopped engaging in the actions that re-kindle the fire and fan the flames of love. They may still think "it could never happen to them" and they probably both still love their children and have plans for the future, but their marriage is vulnerable to another person meeting one of the spouses and beginning to meet some of their basic human needs.

A marriage in this stage could turn away a potential affair, or an emotional affair that has just started, by learning more about how to build a strong marriage, by learning about the common ways that the other person might lure in a vulnerable person and by learning how to restart their "flame" and build their own love into an inferno.

Stage 2: The Dirty Little Secret

The disloyal spouse has met the other person and feels a "spark". They often meet at work or on social media. Some may even go online looking for this type of attention.

Usually it starts harmlessly and they really may be "just friends" and that is why you'll frequently hear a disloyal spouse tell their loyal spouse: "You're crazy. We're just friends."

First the other person begins to meet some basic human needs and adds a few elements that build intimacy between them.

Soon, one will say to the other "I enjoy your company" and the feeling of being interesting and wanted is met — and to the disloyal spouse it feels great to think that someone finds them wonderful!

Contrast that harshly to the loyal spouse who, not knowing that anything is occurring, continues to engage in behaviors that create distance, continues to contribute to resentment, and spitefully withholds the exact types of affection and connection-building activities that the 'other person' is using to grow a connection with the disloyal spouse. 

The disloyal spouse feels the same serotonin pleasure rush as being high on drugs, which the sensation of falling in love (or limerence) has been compared to, even by science.

The other person and disloyal spouse may know that what they are doing is wrong, or it may be against company policy, so they become sneaky. The adrenalin of the forbidden rendevous, the secret cell phone, and the private love journal is intoxicating and the affair takes hold and grows stronger.

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Stage 3: Discovery

Either through intuition, snooping, or by accident, the loyal spouse uncovers the truth and the affair is no longer a secret.

The loyal spouse is devastated and can barely function, and then usually does things that can only be described as contrary to their character. The wife who might normally be the most peace-loving person will slap her husband; the husband who might normally avoid confrontation shows up at the other person's house for a fight.

This is part of this stage, and a very normal reaction.

At the same time the disloyal spouse is usually defensive, elusive, and upset that the secret is out. During this stage, the disloyal spouse often acts out of their attachment to the affair and will make decisions that seem to make no common sense or that seem to disregard the amazing amount of life-long damage they're doing.

This stage is the critical stage in deciding whether the marriage will recover, or if the couple will divorce.

Stage 4: Ending The Affair & Moving On 

All affairs end.

Some end with the spouses divorcing, fighting like cats and dogs, losing all their possessions, breeding hate and animosity in their families, and attempting to marry their affair-partners.

The statistics don't lie: less than ten percent of unfaithful spouses actually marry the affair partner, and most of these marriages (about seventy five percent) end in divorce. So marrying the other person is not only unlikely — it is almost always unsuccessful!

In her book, researcher Holly Hein explains that 80% of those who divorce during an affair regret the decision. So if the disloyal spouse chooses to leave the marriage, the affair does end, it usually crashes and burns as the fantasy is brought to light of day and it just can not stand up to reality.

When left to themselves, where the affair is never discovered or revealed, most affairs end in about two years. That's simply the natural progression, and a common way affairs end. 

The other way that the affair can end is if the loyal spouse follows the two steps to encourage the disloyal spouse to end all contact and stop the affair. Once the affair is stopped, the disloyal spouse will experience a withdrawal-like feeling, missing the positive serotonin/pleasure of the affair.

If the couple determines in their heart to work through it, they can get past that but they need to work together to build back their "spark", their intimacy, and their connection.

Yes, you need to fall in love with your spouse again. And, yes, it is possible. All those little sparks can come back. As they work with each other, they can learn how to stop being the cause of their spouse's pain and learn how to rebuild and renew the love in their marriage.

Hopefully this list and the insights we share about the stages of emotional affairs will help you identify the vulnerabilities in your relationship now, before an emotional (or physical) affair begins. 

Remember, you are in control of your own behaviors, and if you are still in the first stage of your affair, you can work together to become less vulnerable. 

Hang in there!

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David and Cindy Taylor are the co-authors of "Affaircare: Caring for Your Marriage After an Affair."