Emotional Affairs: How to Detect, Deal As a Couple

By getting tips from various therapists about emotional affairsBrittany Wong, HuffPost, compiled “seven signs your partner may be on the verge of emotional infidelity”:

  1. There’s something off in their physical and online encounters with the other person…
  2. They seem physically distant from you…
  3. They become obsessive with their phone…
  4. They say they’re “just friends…”
  5. They start to talk about your relationship in less certain terms…

  6. They don’t want to talk about the other person…
  7. You find out that they’ve told the other person a lot about your relationship…

Special note about number four. The point is, people in general don’t refer to their actual “just friends” as “just friends”—they’re your “friends.”

Dr. Shirley P. Glass (1936-2003) emphasized this in her book NOT “Just Friends” about the gamut of unfaithful behaviors. Her website provides an 8-question quiz, Just Friends or Emotional Affair?, to determine if your or your partner’s friendship may have passed into the emotional affair zone.

Regarding an emotional affair’s fallout, social work professor Wendy Lustbader‘s post “Emotional Affairs: Why They Hurt So Much” (Psychology Today) has a pertinent subheading, One partner feels wounded; the other feels falsely accused. 

In the stories I have heard from those who feel thus betrayed, the worst aspect of making this kind of discovery is trying to talk about it with the partner. Any expression of hurt or jealousy is taken as a challenge to the partner’s right to have friends outside the marriage, to have personal freedom. It’s just a friendship. To complain about such a valuable addition to the partner’s life is to be accused of being controlling, petty, and insecure. Questions about the nature of this relationship are met with defensive justifications that leave the other feeling worse. Instead of hoped-for reassurance, there is deep hurt.

If you need to confront your partner about the possibility of him or her having an emotional affair, Wong provides some things to consider.

  • Try to use a a calm, neutral voice…
  • Express concern over how things have changed.
  • Be prepared to tell your partner what you’d like to them to do.
  • Come in strong with emotional support and emotional intimacy.

If you’re the partner engaging in the emotional affair, Lustbader advises the following:

(1)    The ‘friendship’ you have been claiming as a right is making your partner suffer. Decide whether you want to preserve your marriage. If so, it is crucial to stop asserting that this outside relationship is harmless.

(2)    Tell your partner that their insecurity is not a personal defect but rather a natural response to feeling shut out of this ‘friendship’ and feeling threatened by it.

(3)    Acknowledge to your partner that emotional straying can be just as painful as sexual betrayal, because the barriers that now separate you as a couple are the same – secrets are being kept and certain things can’t be talked about freely any more.

(4)    If you are finding something in this ‘friendship’ you are not finding with your partner, talk about it openly. Give your partner a chance to address these missing pieces so that your emotional depth and intimacy as a couple can be rejuvenated. Couples counseling may be necessary for you to express what has been lacking in the marriage and for you both to move into a phase of mutual and respectful growth.

(5)    Explain to your ‘friend’ that you need some distance so as to give your marriage a chance to resume its primacy in your emotional life, e.g. that it endangers your marriage to continue building such a compelling closeness with someone else.

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