“We’re just friends.” “We don’t talk about anything personal.” “What’s wrong with my wanting to have friends of the opposite sex?” “No matter what you think, it’s not sexual, so stop hassling me.” “What am I supposed to do? Stop talking to him? I work with him.” “I can’t fire her. She hasn’t doesn’t anything wrong.” “You’re too suspicious.”
Does any of this sound familiar? Are you thinking that your spouse or partner has a relationship with someone that makes you feel uncomfortable? Your spouse flatly denies any inappropriate interactions. Sometimes you wonder whether the relationship is physical and it drives you crazy. Other times you are not convinced that sex, touching or kissing is part of what they do together, but your instincts are telling you something is wrong.
In your dark moments, you feel anxious, depressed, and angry but most of all deceived. You may start doing things you never dreamed of- snooping, accessing private emails, phone records and credit card bills. You search your spouse’s computer or phone for any telltale signs that something is amiss.
Occasionally, you discover emails that are personal in nature. Or perhaps there are late night calls. Maybe the person’s name is one of the few names that appears on your spouse’s buddy list. And although some of the exchanges are work-related, there’s more than a tinge of familiarity that is concerning.
So, you begin grilling your spouse. She or he swears that nothing physical is going on and after much convincing, you start to believe this is true. Yet, what is also true is that there are lunches, after-hour meetings, conversations about the person’s marital unhappiness, and other topics you consider private and should occur only between you and your spouse. You remember something you read about “emotional affairs” and you now feel certain that your spouse is right smack dab in the middle of one.
So, you state your case. You are extremely unhappy about the nature of the relationship. You don’t like it one bit. “It might not be physical,” you tell your spouse, but it threatens you and your marriage. You don’t want your spouse being intimate with another person in any way, shape or form. It hurts and you consider it betrayal.
Hearing this, your spouse becomes defensive and insists that nothing inappropriate is going on. “I know my boundaries. I am not having an affair, so you’re wrong and I want you to stop nagging me about this. You’re over-reacting.”
But are you?
In the three decades I have been working with couples, I have watched the destruction caused by emotional affairs. Even if two people are not engaged in a physical relationship, the emotional attachment can threaten the very foundation and fabric of the marriage. Here are a few reasons why:
• Betrayal is in the eye of the beholder
Often, people who have close extramarital relationships feel perfectly justified as long as sex is not involved. They don’t consider their actions to be a betrayal of the marriage. However, if their spouses think otherwise and feel hurt, threatened or emotionally abandoned, it then becomes a marital problem. And as with any marital problem, partners need to protect each other’s feelings. This means that the emotionally involved partner should honor the feelings of his or her spouse whether he or she agrees with or understands it completely. That is irrelevant. Mutual caretaking is what loving relationships are all about. It’s essential to remember that, at bottom, betrayal is unquestionably in the eye of the beholder.
• Having close “friends” can be a slippery slope
Here’s an example:
A completely innocent meeting after work with co-workers may result in two people becoming excited about a project they will work on together. They end up spending a great deal of time together at work and the relationship becomes increasingly comfortable and familiar. Soon, they start having lunches together and when the work load increases, there are more demands on their time and efforts to complete the project. They stay later at work and go out to dinner.
Eventually, conversations shift from business to life outside work. Over time, these talks get more and more personal. Occasionally, people discover that they can talk about certain subjects with their co-worker that they cannot talk about with their spouses. An intimate bond begins to form.
It’s not long after that conversations become even more intimate. Frequently, dissatisfaction about one’s own marriage gets discussed. They commiserate and validate each others’ feelings and they become confidantes. Their communication defines their relationship as special and separate from each other’s marriage.
The relationship may get physical at this point. But even if it doesn’t, the real nature of the relationship is kept secret. Secrets place marriages at risk of divorce.
As you can see by this example, the relationship started out completely innocent. But the small daily choices people made, though on the surface might have also seemed benign, lead to a connection that threatens their marriages. Friends without benefits are not marriage-friendly.
• An emotional affair takes energy away from marriage
Let’s face it. There is just so much time in a day. And people have finite energy in their lives. If the focus in one’s life is the “the other person,” time and energy are being drained from the marriage. Plus, if a partner is getting emotional needs met outside the marriage, there is little need to connect at home. This leads to emotional distance and growing apart. Marriages are living things and they require attention and nurturance.
• Emotional affairs may be misconstrued
Sometimes one person is more emotionally involved in the relationship than the other. Perhaps he or she is hoping that the emotional relationship will flourish into something even more meaningful. That person might even be hoping that the other will eventually leave his or her marriage and become involved on a very deep level.
This can happen without the other person’s awareness. Their intentions might be pure- to help out a person in distress, to be a loyal friend, or to simply have a fulfilling platonic, appropriate relationship. But one can never predict how the other person interprets interactions and exchanges. To avoid misunderstandings of any sort, it is essential to have boundaries in relationships outside marriage. This way, no one will be hurt or misled.
If your spouse is having an emotional affair, stop nagging, spying or haranguing. I wrote this article for you to give to your partner. It may or may not alter your spouse’s behavior, but it least it will be food for thought.
And if you are someone whose spouse is complaining about a relationship you may be having, taking your spouse’s feelings into account will make life much more pleasant for you and it just might save your marriage!