What is an emotional affair?
To boil it down to its essence, an emotional affair is a set of feelings for another person of the opposite sex that ends up blurring boundaries and supporting behaviors (based on those feelings) that are destructive to a marriage.
These things put together can spell the beginning of the end for some couples, all the while the participants may not even know or understand what is happening. The betrayed spouse in this situation often knows something is certainly off, but exactly what is off might be difficult to identify.
Seth Meyers, PsyD, defines this phenomenon as such: “Emotional infidelity refers to behavior that one partner engages in that fosters emotional intimacy in the here-and-now with someone else, and sometimes promotes the possibility of sexual intimacy in the future. Many people maintain secret or semi-secret friendships when there is a clear mutual interest or attraction, while others may not be interested but encourage others’ interest in them for the sake of boosting their own ego or distracting themselves from a sense of boredom with their partner.”
That’s a fairly inclusive definition since most people get an ego boost when they know someone of the opposite sex thinks highly of them or even acts in a flirtatious manner towards them. If you would like a different and personal account of the emotional affair signs that were evident with Doug, Linda wrote a wonderful post about it all here: https://www.emotionalaffair.org/emotional-affair-signs/
So, we’re going to discuss different suspicions you might have about the possibility that an emotional affair is occurring in your marriage, some signs and red flags that you might see, and symptoms of an emotional affair as viewed through the lens of what it does to a marriage.
Perhaps recently you have felt that something is off in your marriage, yet there is nothing specifically that you can identify as the cause. Regardless of the evidence, that funny feeling in your gut won’t go away, so we invite you to figure out what is causing it.
The first step you need is to do a mental inventory of everything – both good and bad – that is happening in your life and in your spouse’s life. Even though this is a mental exercise, it is very helpful to write it down. Consider everything that is going on with you, with your spouse, with in-laws, with work, with money, and all the other life stressors.
The reason you need to write everything down is because affairs can be deceiving. Some affairs show no signs, or at least the kind of signs you might have heard of according to conventional wisdom. So, when you have suspicions, you need to dig deep and write down everything about your life, even if it seems unrelated.
The thing is when your gut is telling you something is wrong, trust that something is wrong – but it may not be an affair. For example, your husband (or wife) might withdraw from you, seem irritable during small talk, lose interest in sex, and rarely answer his/her phone at work, but that doesn’t mean an affair is going on – just that something is wrong. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), such signs could point towards major depression – especially in men. There are two things that the NIMH specifically notes as signs of depression in men:
- Feeling hopeless, irritable, anxious, or angry
- Loss of interest in work, family, or once-pleasurable activities, including sex.
Conventional wisdom tells us that when a man loses interest in sex, there is probably another woman. It’s true that a man could very well lose interest in sex due to either an emotional affair or a physical affair. But, it could also indicate major depression or even low testosterone levels.
Just as his sudden anger and irritability toward his wife could be a sign of an affair, it could just as easily be that he has developed major depression and refuses to tell anyone. Many men keep silent and try to hide their depression and might act as if they are keeping a secret. They are indeed keeping a secret, just not the one you might suspect. Some of the reasons men often hide depression include feelings of failure, a profound sense of shame, or even fear.
Signs of an Emotional Affair
Let’s talk about signs that you will see that could indicate your spouse is having an emotional affair. First, we wanted to discuss friendship between men and women and what is normal and what isn’t. Any of the behaviors that are not part of a normal friendship serve as signs that a spouse’s relationship has crossed into the territory of an emotional affair. (We have our own views on whether or not married men and women should be friends in the first place, but that isn’t within the scope of this article.)
For several years, women have been working outside the home just as much as men. Depending on what field, the ratios of men to women could be larger or smaller. For instance, in the information technology world, it is a very male-dominated environment, especially in Silicon Valley. In the healthcare field, it is a female-dominated environment.
Still, in any workplace where there are both men and women, a possibility for friendship between the genders develops. Many men and women work together on a day-to-day basis within small teams or within a large office environment. Men and women could be spending long hours working on the same projects together, and because of this, a type of camaraderie will develop.
There was an interesting study published in PubMed where scientists performed an experiment to test if faces, whether attractive or distinct, become more attractive as familiarity increases. Their findings state, “Several studies have shown that facial attractiveness is positively correlated with both familiarity and typicality. We showed that attractiveness ratings were positively correlated with familiarity ratings. In our second experiment, we demonstrated that increasing exposure to faces increases their attractiveness, although there was no differential effect of exposure on typical and distinctive faces. Our results suggest that episodic familiarity affects attractiveness ratings independently of general or structural familiarity.”
At least in the study, familiarity does not breed contempt – it breeds attraction. In fact, this might even explain why many affair partners, if working with the spouse of another, cannot even hold a candle to the wife or husband in any area, whether it is physical attractiveness, intelligence, or accomplishment, etc. (Of course, just because familiarity of a face increases one’s perception of attractiveness does not mean that this attraction will or should be acted on.)
In a word, having men and women in the workplace together can be bad news within the context of potential for attraction between the sexes. So while working with the opposite gender could be a problem, it does not have to be a problem. It takes two to tango and if either party refuses to dance, no tango is going to happen.
The thing is, we don’t believe that most people wake up in the morning and believe they would be the type to have an affair. Most would think affairs are for others, but not for them. So what gives? We could say that affairs develop as a result of the familiarity and false sense of intimacy that can occur at work.
Research on this is sketchy, but we have seen figures as high as 86% of affairs beginning at work. When people work in close quarters, friendship can genuinely happen. When two people share the same experiences day in and day out, they tend to bond because they have something in common.
In fact, shared work stress tends to magnify attraction. It could stop there and go no further, but some people start to irrationally believe that their coworker knows them better than their spouse. Some start to irrationally assume that their coworker could be a better partner and that their own marriage might have been a mistake. If both coworkers feel this way, then an emotional affair can begin if someone doesn’t choose to put a stop to it.
So, how can you as a spouse (betrayed spouse or offending spouse) differentiate between a normal working relationship and an emotional affair? The following infographic spells that out…
Now how does all this effect your marriage?
Just like the flu virus, your marriage will be unhealthy and there will be symptoms that will become evident as a result. Your spouse might withdraw from you, start to verbally compare you to another man (or woman), attempt to pick fights with you, and drastically change his/her attitude or routine.
Your mate may suddenly like music and TV shows he/she used to despise, take up a hobby he/she always hated, or even purchase you presents at random times or presents that your mate is aware you don’t like. Your spouse may daydream more often, seem caught in his/her own world while smiling or sighing when it has nothing to do with his/her surroundings, or they may just seem “off”.
Now, take a moment and refer back to the mental inventory that we had you create earlier and compare it to the chart above. See if there is anything going on in the chart that might be backed up by items you identified in the inventory.
Finally, search your heart and listen to your gut to see what it might be telling you. After you have done this, you might want to talk to a trusted and discerning friend who feels neutrally about your spouse and who is generally supportive of your marriage. Finally, it is best to wait, watch, and observe until you can identify more patterns.
A couple of years ago researchers from the University of Michigan found that for the most part, any way you cut it, emotional affairs can potentially be more damaging to the betrayed female spouse than a sexual affair. (Whereas sexual affairs tend to be more damaging to the betrayed men). The reason is because it hits at the heart of what is important to women: the tight emotional bond that they share with their husbands and their desired to be loved more than anyone else. However, we can certainly argue – based on the experiences of the men who frequent this site – that an emotional affair had by a man’s wife can damage him just as much or more than if his wife had a sexual affair.
If you see some of the warning signs, you might be able to work out your relationship with the help of a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist before the emotional affair gains more ground.
Finally, if you need more information on emotional affairs, please browse our site as it has hundreds of articles on just about every aspect of this topic (as well as infidelity in general).
As always, we wish you well on your journey. And no matter what, never lose site of the fact that you are perfect just as you are and that you deserve wholeness in your marriage.
Please add your experiences and/or comments below!