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Do You Think Emotional Affairs Really Happen?

Is an emotional affair just the first stop on the way to full-blown affair land?

woman taking photo of a man

In general, if you ask someone what an emotional affair is, they’ll probably rattle off a list that includes at least three or four of these characteristics:

  • You are physically, mentally, and emotionally attracted to a “friend”
  • You find you’re thinking about your “friend” more than you think about your partner
  • You share important life changes, events, or great news with this person before sharing with your partner
  • You start suggesting changes your partner can make, and those changes would make your partner a lot more like your friend
  • You share secrets with this friend that you would never share with your partner
  • You talk about areas of your married life that have previously been off-limits with anyone else (your sex life, etc.)
  • This friend has entered into your fantasy life, and/or you realize you love talking to this person more than talking to anyone else (like, you know, the person you’re married to)
  • You rush home to send an email to this friend, or you blow off others to spend the night texting
  • Your partner has never even met this person

Here’s the thing about emotional affairs, though: I’m not sure I believe in them. Instead, I think of what we’ve classified as an “emotional” affair is actually just a full-blown affair waiting to happen, and I think we’ve tacked on “emotional” in front of the word “affair” to soften the blow. You know why? Because if my husband had a “friend” in his life and that person was on the receiving end of the list above, I’d consider him to be having a (possibly as-yet-unconsummated) affair.

This doesn’t mean that I’m right, though. When the topic came up over the APW team Slack, varying opinions were launched around the imagined conference room. For some of us, emotional affairs are real:

For me, emotional cheating has three components: intimacy with another person, decline/withdrawal of intimacy with my spouse, and hiding the level of intimacy with the new person from the spouse. Everyone should have the freedom to have close friends outside of their marriage, but it shouldn’t supersede or replace the intimacy with your partner. That coupled with secrecy makes it emotional cheating and out of bounds for me.

For others… not so much:

I reluctantly think they could be real, if my partner withheld extensively from me (to the point of it causing possible relationship issues) and I found out they’d been confiding in someone else (that they’d actually be attracted to IRL). In that sense they are breaking trust and creating distance, which is what the core of cheating is. But generally having super intimate friendships isn’t a problem; it’s rad.

And:

I think you’re having an affair (that maybe you haven’t consummated yet), or you have a good friend. I think our society treats marriage as some sort of emotional prison, where your partner is supposed to be your everything, and I think that’s wildly unhealthy—aka if you’re doing something you know is wrong, you’re just having an affair. But my partner can have all the close friends they want, and talk to them about whatever they want. As long as they are not, you know, sexting… which in our book is a no-go.

Another member of the chat brought up the concept of windows and doors—that is, that there are windows into your marriage, and there are doors. Maybe you’re okay with letting a close friend see through the windows, but you’re not about to let them walk through the door. So maybe you have a coworker that you feel a strong friendship for, but that friendship doesn’t bleed over into your relationship with your spouse… or maybe it does, and you’re pretending that it’s no big deal. Or maybe your reality is something else entirely, and you’re about to lay it on us.

what do you guys think—are emotional affairs real? why or why not? have you had an emotional affair? how would you react if your partner admitted to one?

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