Q: I’m twenty-eight years old and getting married next year to a wonderful, reliable, and sexy man who I’ve been with for four years. But like most men, he was raised in a culture of toxic masculinity and has no idea how to talk about emotions or comfort me when I need support. I’ve been gradually trying to teach him how to be more honest about his own emotional needs, as well as how to talk to me about mine, because I know it’s not only essential for our relationship to flourish, but also essential for his own mental health. He’s been putting a lot of effort into it, but bad habits don’t disappear overnight, and he sometimes feels resentful that I’m asking him to change his worldview in such a major way.
Enter my best friend. He’s a straight cis dude, but also he’s been a feminist since high school, and he has successfully un-learned all that toxic bullshit. He views himself as an emotional creature, and our social circle knows we can rely on him for emotional support whenever we need it. He’s been my best friend for ten years now (longer than I’ve known my fiancé), and I honestly don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s patient, caring, and understanding; he knows when you just need a shoulder to cry on and when you need actual advice, and any woman would be lucky to have him. (Did I mention that he’s also single?) When I need support, I’ll frequently turn to him before I turn to my fiancé, at least partly so I won’t explode if my fiancé finds himself lost and unable to help. My fiancé has repeatedly stated that he’s cool with this arrangement.
But then someone suggested that I might be having an affair. I laughed it off, because my BFF and I are wholly sexually incompatible. “Not like that,” she said, “an emotional affair.” Well at twenty-eight years old, I was completely unfamiliar with this concept, so I did a little research. I’m getting mixed messages on what constitutes an emotional affair exactly, but I seem to check off most of the boxes. At first I was worried, because I have no desire to be an unfaithful wife. Then I was scared, because if my husband is the only rock I can cling to in this married life, then I should probably call off the wedding right now. I have no desire to foster co-dependence in myself or my fiancé.
Then I was angry.
Like, really angry. If my best friend were a girl, my other friend would not have said this. He’s my best damn friend. It shouldn’t matter what he’s packing between his legs. I have no desire to sleep with him. So why should it matter that I rely on him for support? I should also mention that I am bisexual. So if I actually were to rely on a girl, would it still be considered an emotional affair?
Ever since this concept was brought to my attention, I’ve been jumping at metaphorical shadows. Oh, my fiancé saw me lying on the couch next to my best friend. Is he jealous? That twitch in his eye probably means he’s jealous. It’s probably just paranoia, but I can’t seem to shake it.
So my question is this: What is an emotional affair, exactly? Am I having one? If so, how do I stop?
—Needy in Nebraska
A: Dear NIN,
Probably not. Loads of people have close friends of all sorts. It’s not fair or realistic to expect your spouse to fill every need, to be your everything. Diversification is good; having a community of support is good; these are all good things!
You know there’s a “but” coming, right? But. When you’re so wholly relying on one person for emotional support, and that person is not married to you, you’re setting yourself up for some trouble.
And while we’re at it, you could be setting your friend up for some trouble.
The first kind of trouble—the trouble for you—is that you’re leaving yourself vulnerable. What happens if he gets a girlfriend? Moves away? Has kids? Is suddenly unavailable to you for countless possible reasons? When he’s inevitably snatched up (who wouldn’t want to date this guy you’re describing?), will you be jealous? When that girlfriend isn’t cool with some married lady lying on the couch with her boyfriend, what happens? When he doesn’t have time for you, where will you fill this need? Marriage is a lifelong commitment, which isn’t something you get from “just friends.”
The second kind of trouble—the trouble for your friend—is that you can’t say for certain that you know how he feels. Everything is just platonic to you, cool cool. Your partner is alright with your friendship, awesome. But how can you know, for sure for sure, that this guy is on the same page? It’s sometimes hard to honestly measure our own investment, let alone gauge someone else’s. Do we really know he’s not secretly hoping that one day you’ll realize he’s your one true love, rom-com style?
All of that is honestly beside the point for me. What you’ve got going on with this guy, whether it will last, how he feels for you, none of that matters as much as are you getting what you need from your partner? You’re probably not in an emotional affair. But you are using this guy as a sort of emotional placeholder. Your partner shouldn’t be your everything, but he should be something. Something more than “reliable.” The fact that he’s resentful of whatever emotional conversations you try to have may mean he’s emotionally stunted, or it may mean you’re trying too hard to make him someone he’s not, or it may mean you’re just communicating about emotional stuff on different wavelengths.
Ask yourself: Are you really getting what you need from your partner? If not, is this a good way to go about it? Fair to yourself? Fair to your friend? Is your reliable golden retriever of a husband going to be enough? Or will you one day wish you had a partner you could emotionally connect to?