5 Strategies For Overcoming An Emotional Affair

Say the word “affair,” and no doubt you will conjure up a flurry of images and feelings. Not all affairs, however, are the stuff of movies. In real life, they cover the spectrum of type, intensity, duration, and outcome. They don’t have dramatic music queued in the background, and they certainly aren’t resolved in two hours. They also aren’t all about sex. Overcoming an emotional affair, for example, can be as difficult (sometimes more so) than overcoming a physical/sexual affair. And the effects of an emotional affair can cut just as (if not more) deeply.

The common thread running through almost all infidelity (excepting cases like sex addiction and serial infidelity) involves unmet/uncommunicated/miscommunicated needs. Sometimes those are physical, sometimes they’re emotional, and sometimes they’re a tangled mess of both.

The most defining quality of a marriage or other exclusive romantic relationship in comparison to even a very close friendship is intimacy.

And intimacy isn’t only physical or sexual in nature. It’s also emotional.

In short, intimacy implies the presence of guardrails around what a couple shares in its relationship.

Some things – topics, secrets, vulnerabilities – belong to the sanctity of the marriage or committed relationship.

Once they escape the bounds of that relationship, infidelity waits with predatory instincts.

Emotional affairs are no less likely or damaging than sexual affairs. They do, however, tend to hide behind the non-culpability of the “just friends” justification, making them trickier (and often more difficult) to recognize…and escape.

They are also a gateway to sexual affairs.

If you have been involved in an emotional affair, even without realization, what do you do now? What are the keys to surviving emotional infidelity and stopping it before it goes further and you risk the loss of your marriage?

Here are 5 strategies for overcoming an emotional affair.

  1. Examine your “friendship” for signs of emotional infidelity.

    You may not be ready to all-out profess your “close friendship” as an emotional affair. But you’ll “know” something is more than it should be…and could become more than it is.

    The cruelty of emotional infidelity is that it is so insidious.

    It also comes from a place of yearning for genuine connection. And isn’t that what makes you recognize a “friend” in the first place?

    Yes. And that’s why emotional affairs are so tricky.

    The desire to express your thoughts and feelings in a cocoon of safety and validation is only natural. We all want that. It’s the longing to be heard on a heart level, to be seen and heard with love and acceptance and without judgment.

    But that yearning, and its accompanying vulnerability and trust are also the exclusive promises upon which you built your marriage.

    There was one person with whom you wanted to share everything. One person with whom you knew you could wrestle with and heal the past. One person who would hold your secrets, flaws, and fears as sacred.

    If you start opting out of communication with your spouse and rushing to share with someone else, that’s a red flag.

    If you start sharing with someone outside your marriage the secrets and problems from inside your marriage, that’s a red flag.

    If you feel the same infatuating, chemical tug toward this other person that you felt toward your spouse when you were dating, that’s a red flag.Everything about the scenario may feel natural and innocent. After all, you had that same ease with your spouse when you first met. That’s how you knew you were a good fit.And therein lies the rub.The difference now is that you have already followed through on that “good fit.” And you were free to do so because you were building an exclusive relationship, not heading toward infidelity.

  2. Examine your marriage for areas of weakness, neglect, hurt, and unmet needs.

    If you are fantasizing about someone else’s company, chances are there is something missing in the company you already keep.

    Why are you not sharing your feelings, thoughts, fears, and longings with your spouse?

    Do you not feel heard?

    Do you not know how to ask for what you need?

    Are you hiding from issues you are afraid to confront?

    Do you not have good communication skills for talking about sensitive topics?

    Are you afraid of your spouse’s reactions or even indifference?

    Have you and your spouse become lazy in your marriage?

    Are you bored?

    Do you and your spouse not share physical intimacy anymore?

  3. Make sure you and your spouse have knowledge of and access to all relationships outside your marriage.

    When it comes to hiding a relationship from your spouse, emotional affairs are no different than physical affairs.

    What starts off as “this guy I work with” can sneak into “working late with Joe” and eventually into no mention of Joe at all.

    Being married doesn’t mean you can’t have friends of the opposite sex. But it does mean you need to have boundaries around how you engage with them.

    Your life is not “open to the possibilities.” You will always have thoughts that are always “just yours.” But friends should not be secrets you keep.

  4. Eliminate all private contact with your emotional affair partner.

    If you are now in the position of overcoming an emotional affair, you will need to make a choice. And the emotional nature of the affair can make that choice painfully difficult.

    Suddenly cutting off all contact with the partner of an emotional affair is rarely as simple as, “Hey, it was fun. Bye-bye.”However, if you want to save your marriage and stop the outside relationship from going further, you will have to make some non-negotiable changes.

    That means no casual meet-ups, no “work” lunches alone, no social media access, no texting, no smoke signals….Reality is that there is another person involved in the emotional affair. And you may actually feel love for this person (and vice versa).If you are emotionally connected, hurting one another will seem like a non-option – or a painful one at best.Surely you can see the irony and the predicament.

  5. Get professional help.

    Overcoming an emotional affair is a complex process of examining it in the context of an existing marriage.

    It’s also a process of examining the existing marriage, both to understand its vulnerability to outside relationships and to strengthen it against them.

    So often emotional affairs germinate in a petri dish of unintentional neglect. Couples focus on work, children, finances, and “just making it until tomorrow.” Their marriages go onto the back burner, but their deep-seated longings don’t.

    A marriage-intensive weekend retreat is a powerful way to direct focus back onto your marriage. It can also give you and your spouse the skills to make your marriage thrive going forward.

Overcoming an emotional affair is every bit as difficult as overcoming a sexual affair.

The fact that there is no physical or sexual infidelity that can be unequivocally pointed to doesn’t make the healing any easier. In fact, it can make it more perplexing and difficult.

By being on alert for signs of potential emotional infidelity and taking action sooner than later, you can prevent a lot of heartache.

And recognizing the attention your marriage has been crying out for by immersing yourselves in a weekend of positive growth can accelerate the healing.

The transformation will help you realize that what you were feeling drawn to with someone else was always there with the person you married.

Mary Ellen Goggin offers relationship coaching for individuals and collaborates with her partner Dr. Jerry Duberstein to offer private couples retreats. To learn more about working with Mary Ellen, contact her here.

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Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats