Do emotional affairs and texting go hand in hand? Texting has become a pervasive tool for all sorts of communication. It is the immediate utility of texting that is the source of its popularity.
Texting offers a way of conversing that is as instantaneous as it is effortless. We text for an infinite variety of reasons, with co-workers, family, and friends.
In addition to that, our texting also compartmentalizes relationships with attractive others into sexualized silos.
It’s a cheap and easy scold to point out the obvious; texting is often a gateway to emotional infidelity.
We live in an age in which instant human connection is commonplace (Hertlein & Piercy, 2012), and as a result, the facilitation of emotional affairs by texting is rampant (Williams, 2017).
I discussed this issue with my supervisor, Kyle Killian. One of the first things Kyle invited me to consider is that we have been accustomed to present different personas in different situations, and social media provides an always available platform for “unstated, denied, and unfulfilled expectations” seeking expression.
Texting is an addictive activity. A text message isn’t merely a bid for communication. Once we send a text to an attractive other, it becomes a circuit that is incomplete until we hear the “ding” of a virtual response from them. Them we get a hit of dopamine in our brain as our reward circuitry is activated.
Emotional affairs and texting soon become Pavlovian. Repeated hits of dopamine fuel a compartmentalized fantasy life into a feeling of pleasure and a felt sense of emotional connection.
Texting offers a comforting sense of security because of the notable distance between the texters. After all, it’s only characters on a screen.
Safe and comfortable topics can slide into the mutual pursuit of uncovering similarities and exchanging confidences… because that is what strangers engaging with attractive others typically tend to do.
Texting recruits not only the overt power of language, but it also employs an increasingly complex vocabulary of emojis and codes.
Texting with attractive others also unpacks a progressive pattern of innuendo which often careens into an emotional and sexual affair.
Banal topics can easily slide into emotional transactions, even from minor disclosures. Mutual support becomes indistinguishable from more inappropriate disclosures, and sudden bids for even more sharing can become suddenly sexualized.
Texting about feelings are no less potent as building blocks of intimacy. Riding a dopamine cascade, safely tucked away in a silo of fantasy, emotional affairs, and texting provide an enticing opportunity for a “close friendship.”
The texting duo transforms into “close friends” who mutually explore parallel aspects of themselves that lie beneath their workaday realities.
Texting offers a private, compartmentalized venue for self-disclosure, and this self-disclosure typically seeps out of the degree and quality of marital intimacy.
The immediacy of chatting and messaging has an accelerating effect on the brain. While dates in the real world are constrained by time and space, texting with attractive others revs up this felt sense of emotional connection because of the dopamine cascade in the brain.
Many cases of emotional affairs and texting begin innocently enough, perhaps around a common interest, such as a shared project at work.
But flirtatious texting often quickly accelerates into assuming new personas that become increasingly compelling. This reinforcement is constrained only by how willing the participants are to continue to text one another (Lieblum & Dooring, 2002).
Emotional cheating on your partner essentially denies them the fullest degree of your capacity for emotional attachment. They are unaware that you spend time sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with an unknown other.
The degree to which you pay attention to your texting, you’re stealing time away from your spouse. Signs of emotional distance inevitably become evident to your now hurt and baffled partner. When she discovers that her husband has been texting a female friend often, sooner or later she starts asking questions.
The problem of emotional affairs and texting is that it not only tempts ambivalent spouses, it fundamentally disrupts secure marriages as well.
The act of finding solace and support from an attractive other doesn’t require physical cheating to initiate a profound crisis for married couples.
Research tells us that wives are more threatened by their husbands straying into emotional infidelity than a sexual relationship. Physical affairs don’t always threaten wives, but emotional affairs reliably do.
First let me define, for the sake of clarity what I mean by an “attractive other.”
The simple and obvious definition for attractive is “appealing to look at, captivating, or fascinating.” However, if we focus too narrowly on sexual attraction, we might miss a more useful definition of an “attractive other.”
The definition I prefer for an “attractive other” is someone with a particular set of qualities or features that may induce someone in an otherwise committed relationship to accept whatever is being offered.
Hertlein, K. M., & Piercy, F. P. (2012). Essential elements of internet infidelity treatment. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38(S1), 257-270. doi:10.1111/j.1752-0606.2011.00275.x
Williams, K. (November/December, 2017). Emotional affairs in the digital age. Family Therapy Magazine, 13-17.
Wysocki, D. K., Childers, C. D. (2011). Let my fingers do the talking: Sexting and infidelity in cyberspace. Sexuality & Culture, 15, 217-239.
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Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.