An emotional affair (EA) is more than a state of being “Just friends.” While it can be an elusive and subjective experience, emotional affairs are a common presenting problem that we often work on in an intensive couples retreat. Research has helped therapists to understand the arc of how emotional affairs begin, and how they gain traction and momentum.
Emotional affairs are friendships that willingly harness the strong headwinds of sexual attraction, eventually sweeping away appropriate relational boundaries and transparency. Research has helped clinicians to understand the arc of how emotional affairs begin, and how they gain traction and momentum.
Your EA partner may begin to complain about her husband. You listen gallantly and sympathetically. She compliments you on what a “good listener” you are. She continues to lavish you with kindness and praise, and you listen even more sympathetically to her tale of woe. Eventually, perhaps out of a sense of self-consciousness, the need for reciprocity kicks in. she calls attention to the imbalance of the relationship.
“And what about you?” she asks.
Gradually, you find yourself complaining about your wife. Your co-worker shows increasing levels of kindness and understanding. This pattern of self-disclosure and mutual support continues and deepens over time. Eventually your significant other becomes.. well, less significant.
Then you begin to notice an emotional shift. You start to look forward to seeing your EA partner at work. They eventually inhabit your heart and monopolize your attention. You compare and contrast. You fantasize. You show increased impatience and annoyance to your wife. The riptide of an emotional affair is now well underway, pulling you away from your partner with great emotional force.
Research from the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) reveals the extent of the problem. About 45% of men and 35% of women have reported being drawn into an emotional affair at some point. Unless it is admitted, the vast majority of emotional affairs are never disclosed. Men, in particular, are quick to hide behind the “I did not have sex with that woman” defense. Emotional cheating does not register as cheating with men because of the lack of consummation.
Paradoxically, in a recent survey, 88% of women reported that they were far more concerned about their husband being emotionally unfaithful than just having sex outside the marriage. That’s twice as high as men who were asked the same question. So it’s not just defensiveness on the part of men. This is a clear gender difference. Women care twice as much about their partners falling into emotional affairs than men do.
Where is ground zero for emotional affairs? That’s easy…the workplace.
More than 60% of emotional affairs begin at work. Most emotional affairs begin with someone you already know from work, or at work. Men are particularly vulnerable because they do not recognize the warning signs of boundary violations, and they also tend to be more comfortable wandering alone in the garden of their own private thoughts and fantasies. Men are often unprepared for emotional affairs. They do not understand the risks. A recent study shows that 68% of men never thought they would be swept up into an emotional affair, and almost all men who become emotionally entangled with a co-worker wish that they hadn’t.
It’s a popular and inaccurate notion, (especially among poorly trained all-purpose-therapists), that an emotional affair is clear and compelling evidence of a serious underlying deficit in your relationship. Research shows that while this notion might feel obvious, the truth, (as are many truths in research-driven couples therapy), is far more complex and counter-intuitive.
I am not convinced that the relationship health is exclusively the culprit. Or even a reliable determining factor.
While 48% of men report emotional dissatisfaction as the main reason they were swept into an emotional affair, the majority of them (52%) had no pressing emotional complaints against their partner. A recent survey reports that 66% of men feel guilty about their emotional affair. And another recent study reports that 56% of men surveyed were happy in their marriage when they began an emotional affair. But as Esther Perel points out, there is a difference between feeling guilt for how your partner has been impacted by learning about your emotional affair, versus your guilt for having the affair itself. And a surprisingly low 12% of men reported that their EA partner was more physically attractive than their spouse. And only 8% of men say that their primary motivation for pursuing an emotional affair was sexual dissatisfaction.
Recent research is clear on this point. While marital dissatisfaction clearly can play a role, there is a lot more going on here than just an “unhappy” marriage. Defensiveness is an issue for infidelity research. It’s all too easy to construct a study which encourages a perception of relationship satisfaction as the most important variable. The idea that an otherwise happy marriage could be decimated by a workplace emotional affair is profoundly uncomfortable. It is a natural reaction for both researcher and subject to unconsciously defend against the idea. We need to think more deeply about emotional affairs.
New thinkers such as Esther Perel are helping to expand our paradigms. I think people not only have feelings for their affair partner…they also fall in love with the person they believe they are becoming with their affair partner. They feel more alive. They feel more attractive. These feelings become addictive… and the problem is that they can be experienced at work every day.
Research shows that couples under the age of 30 are at the greatest risk of falling into an emotional affair. Research has also shown an economic correlation to emotional affairs.
Regardless of gender, the more money a partner brings home in relation to their spouse, the more likely they are to engage in an emotional affair. The reverse, paradoxically, is also true for men. The more they lag behind, or outstrip their wives income, the greater the chance on infidelity. But when their incomes are roughly equal, the likelihood of infidelity declines.
Clinicians see this as evidence of a possible work/life imbalance. Perhaps, in some cases, complicated by an abiding sense of narcissistic entitlement. Research also tells us that your personal intimacy report card is also an important risk factor.
People who already have a divorce behind them are twice as likely to pursue an emotional affair.
Do you fear that you might be slipping into an emotional affair? Read my earlier post and take our quiz here.
Is an emotional affair threatening your marriage?
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Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.