Everyone has an unspoken standard regarding fidelity. Regardless of whether couples discuss their beliefs and expectations before tying the knot, they have them. For most couples, the thought of getting over sexual infidelity is unbearable. But surviving emotional infidelity in marriage can be just as painful, sometimes even more so.
What is it about an emotional affair that is so hard to wrap our heads around? And why does surviving emotional infidelity in a marriage feel as gut-wrenching as surviving sexual infidelity?
What is emotional infidelity?
Understanding emotional infidelity starts with understanding intimacy. Underlying intimacy is a mutual vulnerability, the willingness to share what might otherwise feel uncomfortable or risky to share. Intimates feel safe with their vulnerability — and they make vulnerability safe for the other person.
Emotional infidelity refers to the behavior that one partner engages in, which fosters emotional intimacy in the here-and-now with someone else and sometimes promotes the possibility of sexual intimacy in the future.
The biggest challenge to recognizing and preventing emotional infidelity is that it can be so insidious in its onset and progress. Because it doesn’t involve sex, the developing intimacy may fly under the radar of detection in a marriage.
There is no put-your-finger-on-this “aha” moment of proof to make it clear that you are dealing with an affair. Heck, even the involved parties may not recognize the slow boil taking place. They may be co-workers, neighbors, or old high school flames reconnecting through social media. No harm, no foul, right?
But suddenly, there is the onset of those old, familiar feelings — the same ones that once made you long for the constant company of your spouse-to-be. You can’t wait to share your experiences, emotions, and perspectives. You seek out this other person’s opinions, thoughts, advice, laughter.
You subordinate your spouse’s significance and make this other person your first choice for connection. In a split second, you choose — often without realizing you are making a choice — and you “innocently” reach for someone else. You can disguise it as coffee, work-over-lunch, or simply “checking in.” But deep inside, you know the needle on your moral compass is pulling to the wrong side.
When you and your spouse dated, you didn’t think in terms of “affair” because you were “building a relationship.” You were willingly and happily doing the vulnerability dance — you reveal a little, and then your partner does too, and deeper into love you fall.
You weren’t thinking ahead to the possibility of surviving emotional infidelity. In marriage, sharing emotions and being vulnerable build and maintain trust. So finding someone who wanted to know your deepest thoughts was a prelude to forever, the formation of a special bond.
But once you have committed to forever, the rules of engagement change when it comes to people outside the marriage. They have to — because intimacy is built in the same way, regardless of who’s building it.
Your marital commitment is to nourish, deepen, and preserve intimacy with your spouse and protect it against possible trespass from the outside. And therein lies the difficulty in detection, especially after years of marriage and the onset of boredom and frustration.
How to survive emotional infidelity
If you are involved in a marriage suffering from an emotional affair, there are things you need to know about surviving emotional infidelity in marriage.
When someone feels threatened by a friendship between his/her spouse and someone else, the response of the spouse is critical. If s/he dismisses the suspicion as an infringement on a personal right “to have friends,” the hurt spouse can end up suffering alone.
Surviving emotional infidelity in marriage starts with a mutual commitment to the good of the marriage. That means that, if one spouse feels threatened, the other spouse takes that discomfort seriously.
Emotional affairs rely on secrecy as much as sexual affairs do. The person engaged in the relationship keeps it as a personal entitlement and denies access to his spouse. And therein lies the threat to essential trust in a marriage.
Examine your “friendship” for signs of emotional infidelity
If you are the spouse having an emotional affair, it’s essential to examine the friendship and be honest about what it is providing. Are there things missing in your marriage that you are seeking elsewhere? Has your communication with your spouse lost its intimacy? Have you and your spouse become complacent in your marriage?
Your willingness to do a fearless self-examination is essential for surviving emotional infidelity in marriage. After all, you hold the key to a relationship that your spouse can’t “prove” yet decisively feels like a threat.
Seeking emotional intimacy outside of marriage is a red flag in and of itself. But, if you can resist the allure into deeper, soulful exploration with this person, you can open the door to greater intimacy in your marriage.
The temptation to keep an emotionally intimate friendship alive can be overwhelming, especially if you have convinced yourself that “no sex equals no harm.”
But acknowledging the potential for harm is the first step to surviving emotional infidelity in marriage.
Getting help with examining the meaning of your friendship and drawing you back into emotional intimacy with your spouse is the next step. The most effective way to heal is through couples therapy or an intensive marriage counseling retreat that helps you to focus on your marriage.
Emotional affairs are confirmation that intimacy and fulfillment aren’t limited to the bedroom. They can stir up sexual feelings and even lead to sexual infidelity, but they are powerful in and of themselves.
For some, an emotional affair is more heart-breaking than sexual infidelity. An emotional affair reminds us of our yearning for love and deep connection with another unshared with anyone else. Emotional infidelity constitutes a betrayal; a spouse is connecting with another person in a way reserved for his/her spouse in breach of the implicit understanding undergirding the marriage.
Of course, the best advice for surviving emotional infidelity in marriage is not allowing it to happen in the first place. And that means having open, fearless discussions with your spouse about what constitutes infidelity. When you operate from the same playbook, you are more likely to recognize potential threats before they do damage. And you are more pro-active and vigilant about nourishing emotional closeness in your marriage.