For some reason, the culture in the United States is one where we believe that touching someone outside our relationship is more dangerous than sharing our deepest secrets and feelings with someone outside our relationship.
But an emotional affair can be even more damaging to a relationship than a physical one. There’s only so much emotional bandwidth each of us has every day and if your partner is expending that precious energy outside your relationship, that’s going to negatively affect what’s happening inside your relationship.
If you’re not sure if you’re having an emotional affair or if you think your partner definitely is having an emotional affair, you’re in the right place! Today I’m going to cover:
- The difference between an emotional affair and an innocent friendship
- The 4 things you should absolutely avoid doing if you suspect your partner is having an emotional affair, and
- The 3 things you want to focus on to create the connection, trust and closeness you want to see in your relationship.
What’s the Difference Between an Emotional Affair and Friendship?
The majority of emotional affairs start as innocent friendships. But there are 3 main things that move a friendship to an emotional affair:
- In an emotional affair, your partner is feeling closer emotionally to their friend than to you; they’re sharing more of their inner life with this person than with you. This is who they start going to first when they’re experiencing something upsetting or it’s the first person they want to share their good news with. This person becomes their primary confidant and they feel that this is the only person who truly gets them. So, this friendship becomes an emotional affair when the investment and intimacy shift from the partner to the “friend.”
- The other big difference is that much of what’s said, and the amount of communication is kept secret from the partner in an emotional affair. Often this starts with lies by omission (not telling you about how often they talk, meet or text). They might be deleting messages from their phone or denying that they’ve had communication with this person – these are not things that happen with friendships. When I have a client who isn’t sure if they’re having an emotional affair, I always ask, “Would you be embarrassed or ashamed if your partner could hear an entire conversation between the two of you?”
But here’s the real difference: there’s often comparisons between the friend and your partner. You might even find yourself getting angry that your partner isn’t more like this friend. You get critical of your partner and see them as bad while this friend is good. In a regular friendship, you don’t do that – you don’t compare your partner to your friend because you’re not expecting the same things from them. The fact that you’re comparing, in any way, is proof of the affair.
In any relationship, there are hurts that can build up. This could be with your partner, mom, boss, best friend, or your brother. Even really good relationships have resentments, annoyances and wounds that accumulate over time. Do you need to work on forgiveness? Sign up for my Forgiveness Masterclass!
What’s Really Going on in an Emotional Affair?
Emotional affairs are fantasies at some level. Here’s a person who doesn’t bug me to take out the garbage or who never forgets to thank me for making dinner. Here’s a person I feel I can share my most vulnerable, intimate feelings with and not be judged. Likely there’s emotional sharing going on in the affair that’s not happening with the partner.
At its core, it’s a wish to be seen and appreciated. At its most superficial level it’s having something new (the brain loves novelty) and exciting – something to look forward to. There’s this feeling that you’ve finally found someone who really “gets” you and that they understand you better than anyone else, including your partner.
What constitutes cheating?
There’s no “one” action that defines cheating. For example, I’m fine with porn in my own relationship. I can watch it, he can watch it and we can watch it together. However, for some of you listening right now you’re thinking: I would NOT be OK with that. I’ve had clients that weren’t OK with their partner even fantasizing about or thinking sexually about other people. They considered that cheating. So, what’s correct? Where do you draw the line?
The answer is that you draw the line wherever you both agree to draw the line. Cheating can only be defined within each individual relationship. The problem is that I would bet anything that 99% of you listening to this have never laid out the groundwork with your partner about what constitutes cheating. You’ve never explicitly said what is and is not OK and herein lies the problem.
Most people assume that having sex with another person is a no-no. However, they never define what else is a yes or a no. It’s THESE things that often lead to cheating, however. It’s the slippery slope of things not said, behaviors not identified that lead people down a path where eventual sex can happen.
In the end, infidelity comes down to secrets and omissions that turn into events that break trust. Secrets are obvious, but it’s these omissions that are often the real poison. It’s the things you just don’t ask or say. They’re not secrets per se, but you aren’t saying them because you don’t want to hear the answer.
So, one of the things that needs to happen, whether there’s been cheating or not, is a very specific and frank discussion about what constitutes cheating to you. I mentioned the porn earlier but my partner and I had another thing come up early in our relationship. I’d gone to lunch with a male colleague. We discussed business and caught up. No big deal, right? Well, when my man asked me that evening how my day had been, I mentioned this lunch. He didn’t like it. He wasn’t furious or anything, he just didn’t like it. So, he made a request. He asked that, moving forward, I let him know anytime I was having lunch alone with a man.
This is not something I ever would have thought about for some reason. However, it made me think about how I would feel if he told me he was having lunch alone with some female colleague. I’m not a jealous person at all and trust him completely, but I realized it would make me hesitate for a moment.
You need to discuss every area. What about following people on Instagram with “sexy” photos? What about flirting as part of a job in sales? What about sharing troubles in your relationship with a trusted friend of the opposite sex? Speaking about these things with your partner is an awesome way to build connection, understanding and trust.
What Not To Do if Your Partner is Having an Emotional Affair:
- Avoid threats, complaining, yelling, or losing your shit
Threatening will make the affair go underground, which is the last thing you want. For example, let’s say you threaten, “If you don’t stop texting him, I’m going to leave.” But your partner thinks this is all innocent and they’re enjoying this relationship with their friend (obviously or they wouldn’t be doing it) so they justify to themselves that you’re being overly dramatic and controlling so they decide not to stop and to just get more secretive: so the emotional affair goes underground.
Now, let’s say you find out about it again a month later. Are you making good on your threat and packing your bags that day? My guess is you don’t. Now you’re left with nothing – you’ve already used your big gun and now what do you do?
It also puts your partner on an opposite side from you with their friend! If this emotional affair is going on, they’re not going to just lay it aside so immediately. Or, they might stop that day if they’re sufficiently scared, but they’ll likely pick it up again after things cool down with you.
- Don’t speak to 20 different people about the infidelity.
Pick one or two trusted folks (hopefully one is a therapist). Otherwise you’ll get 20 different responses and it’ll get VERY confusing to know what to do.
- Don’t cause more damage
“I just want to make him hurt as much as he hurt me.” “Well, she just gave me a free pass to have a special friend myself.” Your relationship is already hurting if this is going on, creating more hurt is NOT going to help you move forward. Fear never helps a relationship.
- Stay out of the nitty gritty
It’s focusing on the details that will cause you to put your energy into the wrong things. Also, the more you know, the more you can picture and create in your mind. Those pictures will never go away and become harder to move past.
What You Can Do if Your Partner is Having an Emotional Affair:
- Take Responsibility for Your Side of the Street
You cocreated this relationship. Where’s your part in what’s happening? I’m NOT “blaming the victim” here – I’m not saying this is your fault AT ALL. What I’m saying is that you and your partner each have a role in how your relationship functions.
This emotional affair had a space to enter your relationship. Ask yourself: “What’s going on in our relationship that this is happening?” How have you been feeling in the relationship? If this is a complete shock to you, ask yourself why. Your partner isn’t getting their needs met, are you truly getting yours met? Has your partner been asking for something you’ve been ignoring? Have you been asking your partner for something that they’ve been ignoring?
Although this sucks, it’s also an opportunity to work on your relationship and create something you’re both excited about.
- You’ve Got to Connect to Correct
I want you to be less curious about checking their email and more curious about how you’re connecting with your partner. If your partner is having an emotional affair, then the connection between the two of you has deteriorated. Work on that connection first and foremost.
All the time and energy you spend stalking them on Instagram, going through their phone or doing a drive by at the office is MUCH better spent working on the relationship itself.
All that focus on the negative will bring more negativity. All that focus on you distrusting them creates more distrust in the relationship. You can’t build a loving, intimate relationship from all that distrust and disconnection.
- Do You Want to Be Correct or Effective?
You want to be effective in your communication and conversations around this affair. You’re absolutely right that your partner’s actions are not OK but remember that your real goal is to create a more loving, connected relationship so you’ve got to focus on effective communication.
First and foremost, be curious! What are they getting from this friendship that they’re not getting from you? When did they stop confiding in you? Did they ever really confide in you? It’s time to ask some tough questions and really listen to your partner’s feedback. Don’t rebut or defend. Again, be curious.
Is your partner desiring a world where they don’t have to change lightbulbs, make dinners, worry about the mortgage, or be a parent? Your partner might want to feel like they did when they were single (or the best parts of being single). Feeling carefree, feeling appreciated, and feeling special or desired. They might be in an “is this all there is?” point in their life and the newness of this emotional affair holds excitement they haven’t felt in awhile. Again, I’m not saying it’s OK – I’m saying you’ve got to have a non-judgmental place for your partner to really speak about these things. Set aside your own feelings of rejection or abandonment (believe it or not – your partner has those same feelings about you – unfair as that may seem).
You want to open up a true dialogue between the two of you. Ask questions and be curious. How are the two of you here? What were the factors? If you’re going to move the relationship forward, it’s not just about your partner ceasing their relationship with this person, it’s about you and your partner building something together that you both want to be in.
Initial conversations might be more focused on your partner’s needs but know that, as your connection and trust deepens, there’ll be plenty of room for you to share your thoughts and needs too.
Asking thoughtful questions is your way to find out what’s really going on for your partner. I have a list of collaborative questions you can download that’ll help you if you’re feeling stuck on what questions to ask (enter your name and email below).
Setting an intention before any of these conversations and getting into the right energetic place is key for a successful dialogue. (Link to 18-second shift video).
Have an intention to get past your anger and hurt and to speak to them from a desire to be more connected. Speak to them from a place of love and openness. Set an intention to truly connect and feel close again.
Think about what you want in the relationship and set your intention from there.