It’s not unusual for monogamous couples to enter rough waters when one spouse develops an intense “friendship” outside of the marriage. This can lead to fights about the definition of cheating. Does it have to involve physical contact? No one ever wins during these circular debates: the hurt partner stays hurt, while the other partner feels judged, defensive, and misunderstood.
What to do? The first step is to define an emotional affair:
- It’s a one-on-one personal relationship with somebody who could become a romantic partner. Even if you tell yourself you would never “do” anything, it is in the realm of possibility for you, or that person, to develop strong feelings.
- If you’re being honest, there is some kind of sexual chemistry to the relationship. Even though it may not be a primarily sexual relationship, you’re attracted and enjoy that attraction.
- You aren’t telling your spouse about what’s going on in the other relationship. You don’t go home and talk about what you and the other person shared, or you edit yourself carefully.
If you’re reading this saying “Uh oh,” and coming to realize that a friendship is probably going down a path that could hurt your marriage, now is the time to cool things down. It doesn’t have to be a drama; life gets in the way of plenty of adult friendships, leading the connection to peter out. Unless you and your spouse have an open marriage, it’s likely time to put on the brakes.
If you are the one feeling wronged, and your spouse is acting defensive and saying you’re overreacting, it could be worthwhile to seek marriage counseling. There could be something bigger going on beyond the possible emotional affair, some kind of issue around trust and reliability. You are feeling vulnerable and unsafe, and your spouse is feeling defensive and treated like an untrustworthy teenager. If your conflict about the other person endures, EFT Couples Therapy can help.
Similarly, if you are the one suspected of an emotional affair and you’re convinced it’s not so (maybe your spouse has been jealous of your other relationships before), it’s in your best interest to help your spouse feel safer with you, and this may require a therapist’s help. Your spouse may be vulnerable for reasons that need to be explored in therapy, and you may be doing other things that contribute to trust issues between the two of you.
Either way, couples therapy can help prevent more damage in the future. It’s not enough to just say “trust me—there’s no issue,” when your spouse is struggling.
And if one of you is uncertain about staying in the marriage, working with a Discernment Counselor may be your next best step.