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.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.