From having worked with what seems like an ever growing number of couples affected by emotional affairs, I've come to know them quite well. I'd define it as:
any relationship that is kept largely secret from your partner, that hasn't crossed the physical touch boundary, but where communication has few (if any) boundaries in regards to amount, subject matter, openness, intimacy, and vulnerability.
Most of the emotional affairs I've dealt with started innocently enough: connecting with an old friend on Facebook, texting with a friend from work, making a passing compliment to someone on Instagram (notice the social media theme here?). However, these friendships soon turn into something more. They become captivating, even all consuming, relationships where those involved share parts of themselves they never thought they would.
How do you know if you've crossed the line?
4 Markers of Emotional Affairs
1 | Lots of communication
The sheer volume of communication is overwhelming. There are endless threads of texts, emails, Facebook messages, or Snapchats. The story is consistent across all the clients I've worked with: they communicate A LOT with the affair partner, generally at the expense of communicating with their primary partner.
2 | Secrecy
Plain and simple, secrecy is the main marker of any affair. If you have something to hide, you've most likely crossed some boundaries. Often, the affair partner is known to the primary partner, but only as a "friend." The secrecy in emotional affairs comes in the form of hiding the full nature of the relationship.
3 | Emotional closeness, vulnerability, and fantasy
Another theme is feeling you could be vulnerable with your affair partner and it felt easy and comfortable. Clients I've worked with were getting the responses, attention, and validation they wanted from this secondary relationship. This made it easier to open up and for boundaries to be crossed. Most commonly, this boundary involves talking about feelings of desire towards the affair partner, discussing sexual fantasies, and exploring what it would be like to have a physical encounter in real life. Now, this makes sense - it's easy to fall for someone who is meeting your emotional needs.
Those who have had a partner involved in an emotional affair often feel that if they didn't "catch them" it would have gotten physical. This isn't always the case. Many emotional affairs do not cross the physical boundary, even though sexual fantasies may be involved, because that is not their purpose. Their purpose is to fulfill emotional needs and the fantasy, rather than actual physical contact, is the focus.
4 | Feeling alive, excited, and new
Emotional affairs allow you to explore a side of yourself that you may feel has been lost or that you didn't know was there. I often hear clients use words like, "exhilarating," "liberating," "feeling alive," and "intoxicating" when they describe their affair. They talk about a feeling of "newness" that is energizing and captivating. These feelings are powerful and keep people engaged, and almost addicted, to the emotional affair. This almost always comes at a huge cost to the primary relationship.
The majority of people in emotional affairs want to stay in their primary relationship. They want to be able to get these feelings of emotional closeness and excitement back with their partner, but don't know how.
There are ways to reconnect with your primary partner and repair what's lacking in the relationship. We will be discussing that in more detail in the coming weeks, but if you're concerned you or your partner may be involved in an emotional affair - contact us for help.
Marina Voron, MA, LMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Co-Founder, and Clinical Director of Nassau Wellness. Marina believes all couples have the power to form a loving and lasting relationship given the right tools. Marina specializes in couples therapy, sex therapy, emotional affairs, anxiety, and communication issues. Read more...