I generally don’t talk about work much when I get home. But last week, I happened to tell my guy that I was working with a couple who was recovering from an emotional affair. He said, “Wait, what? That’s a thing?”
Yes, that’s a thing. I often forget what non-therapists know, so I figure, “hmm, if he doesn’t know, then I guess a lot of people don’t know.” You might not know the term “emotional affair,” but I can almost guarantee that if you found out your partner was having one you would be pretty clear about how you felt about it
So, what is an emotional affair?
Emotional affairs are difficult to define. They are close intimate relationships with someone other than your partner. They are different than friendships because they usually have some sexual charge to them, maybe flirty texts, innuendos, or even some fantasizing.
And while the definition is a bit fuzzy, I can give you one super simple, easy to understand rule. If you wouldn’t want your partner to see it, you probably should be doing it. Live by that rule, and, unless you are throwing your partner a surprise party, you should be good.
- You get excited to hear from that person.
- You might have flirty exchanges.
- You might fantasize about them.
- You talk about emotionally intimate topics.
- You wouldn’t want your partner to know about some or all of your exchanges.
- You complain about your partner.
- You have inside jokes.
- You share things that you haven’t shared with your partner.
- You secretly compare them to your partner.
- You feel like they “get” you in ways that your partner doesn’t.
Why it’s bad.
Usually emotional affairs start out innocently enough. Maybe it is someone you work with or someone you met socially, with whom you just “click.” It seems harmless. But it’s not and here’s why.
It drains energy from the relationship. It’s hard to put your whole self into your primary relationship when you are spending mental and emotional capital on this other person, creating witty texts, wondering when you will get to see them again.
It creates distant in the primary relationship, while nurturing a closeness in the affair partner. Sharing things with this other person that you are not sharing with your primary partner is like tending your neighbor’s garden while expecting yours to bloom beautifully. And then being irritated that your garden is not as spectacular as your neighbor’s.
It is based in fantasy. It’s fantasy because, you can’t know this other person in the same way that you know someone you live with. You don’t see her taking off her makeup at night or squeezing a zit in the mirror or sniffing his socks to see if he can wear them again. In this way, your primary partner will always fall short. You are only seeing a part of the affair person, not the day in day out, have the flu, forget to take out the trash, belch really loudly, parts.
And, just as you could only know parts the affair person, they only know parts of you. They don’t necessarily see your unsavory parts. But they are there and your partner sees them. The part of you that gets sullen or agitated or even snarky and mean. It’s difficult to hide those parts from your partner. It’s easy to be the best version of yourself with the affair partner. Your primary partner sees the good, the bad and the ugly.
What to do.
First and foremost, cut it off. Your garden will not flourish while you are tending elsewhere. There are many words you can use to do this. You can even google them. But basically, you just say, “look, I feel like this is not healthy for my primary relationship (or my marriage, whatever). I think my partner would not be comfortable with our interchanges and I want to put my energy into my partner.” Done. And if this is someone you cannot avoid, make it clear that you intend to connect only as required by the situation eg work information only.
Then, start putting more energy into your primary relationship. Start doing those things that were easy with the affair partner that you long forgot about doing with your primary partner. Send that flirty text, wear the shirt you know they think looks good on you, put down your phone when you are talking to them.
Put more energy into yourself. Just because your unsavory parts seemed invisible to the affair partner, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Start addressing them. Start working to become that best version of yourself.
Have the difficult conversations with your primary partner. Maybe you talked about things you couldn’t talk about with your partner. If that is the case, then it’s time to talk about those things. Talk about the things that bother you, your hopes and fears for the future, things you want to change in your relationship, even talk about the little things that bug you, that you didn’t want to make “a big deal” over. These are the things that will rebuild the foundation of your relationship and will cement it for years to come.
There is so much more I could say on this topic, but right now, I will leave you with two take home messages-
- It is your responsibility to be your authentic in your primary relationship. The things you “can’t talk to your partner” about are exactly the things you should be talking to your partner about.
- And, again, #2. It’s easy. It’s simple and it’s important. If you wouldn’t want your partner to see it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.