This article provides you with an overview of emotional affairs.
You will learn:
- The stages of an emotional affair (for both partners)
- How emotional affairs start
- What’s peculiar of emotional affairs (VS “only-sex affairs”)
- Cures and fixes
This article is based on research and data and, first and foremost, on the work of infidelity researcher Dr. Shirley Glass.
- What’s an Emotional Affair
- How Emotional Affairs Start
- Stages of Emotional Affairs
- Examples of Emotional Affair
- Cognitive Dissonance of Affairs
- The Stages of Revelations
- Stages for Cheated Partner
- Stages For Unfaithful Partner
- Gender Differences in Affairs
- Signs of Emotional Affairs
What’s an Emotional Affair
Let’s start with the definition of an emotional affair:
An emotional affair is a relationship characterized by intimacy and emotional involvement between a person and someone other than their official partner.
As a rule of thumb:
The higher the difference in intimacy between the new partner and the official partner, the more dangerous the affair is to the official relationship.
How Emotional Affairs Start
Before we jump to stages and cures, we must first understand how emotional affairs start.
Not all, but probably a majority of unfaithful partners set out on the emotional slippery slope without any awareness of how friendships morph into emotional and sexual affairs.
There might be some chemistry, or some liking, but it’s rarely love at first sight or “fatal attraction”.
Where do They Start?
They start in places where interactions happen often.
As Schaefer points out in The Like Switch familiarity is a major element of the like equation, and emotional affairs are likely to start in places that breed familiarity and continuity of interaction.
If you are guessing “at work”, you are right.
Of course the workplace, with its daily interactions and increased female participation, has been the main driver of the increase in infidelity in the last decades.
Indeed, 82% of all the unfaithful partner Glass treated in her career began as friends (Shirley Glass, 2004).
Stages of Emotional Affairs
Here are the steps that emotional affairs usually entail:
Stage 1: Platonic Friends / Secure Relationship
Most affairs start as friendships.
People who get involved in emotional affairs might be somewhat attracted to their affair partner in the beginning, but they don’t usually set out to make their friendships into affairs.
Stage 2: Intimate Friendship / Insecure Marriage
The boundaries shift slowly and it’s hard, if at all possible, to pinpoint a specific moment when the friendship starts becoming too intimate.
But here are a few signs that you are entering stage 2 and that relationship is morphing into an emotional affair:
- Are you sharing things you don’t tell your partner?
- Is your friend sharing details they don’t share with other friends?
- Are you looking forward to talking to your friend?
- Do you often think of your friend?
- Do you look forward to share events in your life?
- Are you hiding this friendship from your partner?
- Are you trying to avoid other friends/colleagues see you when meeting?
It’s at this point that the “friendship” starts becoming a wedge between the couple.
When you share things you don’t talk about with your wife, you start creating a bond that is stronger than the bond you have with your spouse.
This is one of the reasons why a strong friendship and intimate connection in the relationship is one of the best antidote to an affair.
As a woman in a strong relationship said:
How could I have an affair, my husband is the first person I share all significant events with. I’d immediately have to run and tell him!
Now that’s an emotional affair-proof bond.
Stage 3: Emotional Affairs / Emotionally Detached Marriage
At this point the new romance starts taking more and more real estate in our minds.
The affair is secret, emotionally intimate and now also abounding in sexual chemistry.
We feel great with our affair partner and we love the feeling that our partner feels the same with us.
Here are signs that you are in stage 3:
- You are sexually excited in the presence of your friend
- You feel better with your friend than with your spouse
- Meetings start happening in secrecy
- The emotional distance in your relationship increase
- You are annoyed and uncaring in your relationship
This stage is especially dangerous for unhealthy relationships engulfed by criticism, constant fighting and meanness.
Bad relationships indeed create a bad image of ourselves. When we contrast that with the way the affair partner makes us feel, it’s like experiencing a rebirth.
This is important because you can’t fully heal from emotional affairs unless you fix your relationship first.
Stage 4: Sexually Intimate Affair / Threatened Marriage
The affair might have been consumed or not by the step 3. If it’s not, then you reach the final step once it becomes sexual.
Notice that you’re already having an affair even without sex and some sources put emotional affair on the same level as emotional + sexual (but I disagree with that).
Interestingly enough, the later sex happens, the more likely it is the affairs will be deeply emotional.
It might be counterintuitive, but an emotional affair that is consumed later on will bond the affair partners much more strongly.
Examples of Emotional Affair
Here are a few examples of how emotional affairs come to happen:
#1. Emotional Affair at Work
The movie “The Good Girl” is a great example of how emotional affairs start at work. Notice first the major weakness in the relationship that precedes the affair.
That makes her susceptible, even unconsciously looking for, an emotional bond and a sexual release.
#2. Emotional Affairs For Emotionally Starved Partners
Some relationships are at high risk of emotional unfaithfulness for a simple reason:
They had little emotional bonds in them! When a relationship has little emotional intimacy between the partners, then it’s only normal that one partner will fall hard for a new partner that provides that emotional aspect that they are missing.
How do you know if your relationship is emotionally weak?
An emotionally weak relationship lacks the following:
- Knowledge of the partner (love maps in Gottman’s speak)
- Understanding and acceptance
- Shared meaning (ie.: a “couple’s culture”)
- A positive emotional bank account (ie: fondness, appreciation and liking for our partner)
Emotionally starved partners are highly susceptible to fall for the first person who will listen and understands.
See here a perfect example:
#3. Isolated and Lacking Human Connection
Emotional affairs can sometimes start when we need the most a human connection.
It’s not by chance that partners who are emotionally starved at home are more likely to fall for it.
Election (1999) is such an example
Cognitive Dissonance of Affairs
Not all, but most people have a sense of guilt when they engage in affairs.
They know it’s wrong at some level, but the emotional bond with the new partner keeps them stuck.
To avoid cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957) they lie to themselves or change their own stories.
Here are a few ways they deal with it:
- Hiding the truth
Unfaithful partners often suppress or gloss over any detail that are inconsistent with their values and wedding vows.
When asked “how could you do that” they have little answer because, well… They meticulously avoided anything that would help them answer that question.
- They tell themselves “everybody’s doing it”
Some people resolve the internal conflict by telling themselves “it’s not so bad, everyone’s doing it”.
And they focus on everybody else who is cheating while disregarding the faithful ones (also see myths and facts of cheating).
- Unconsciously want to get caught
As strange as it might sound at first, some get caught on purpose to release the internal pressure.
- Blaming the partner
This is the most pernicious and dangerous one for the relationship.
The unfaithful partner focuses on the faults of the relationship and the shortcoming of his partner.
He tells himself his partner “deserves it”, or he convinces himself that his relationship is dead. It often becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as he withdraws more and more from his relationship.
The Stages of Revelations
The revelation of the adulterous relationship usually isn’t a smooth process.
It starts with suspicion, and the first confrontations arrive when there’s a little bit of evidence.
At first, it’s adversarial. Then it moves towards information seeking by the cheated partner. And finally, it reaches the stage of looking for deeper meaning and possibly then fixing the relationship.
Let’s explore the stages of revelations:
Stage 1: Truth Seeking
The beginning of the confrontation is usually a difficult phase resembling a police interrogation.
Except with more rage from the betrayed partner.
Having a softer start up from the betrayed partner and coming clean quickly and honestly from the unfaithful partner is of huge help in healing the relationship as a couple.
Bad example of truth seeking:
Aggression and verbal abuse make it difficult for the unfaithful partner to be honest. It also starts a hostile dynamic that makes it difficult to move into a collaborative and healing phase.
Stage 1: Reactions
These are the most typical reaction to confrontations:
Most people deny at first.
When there’s lots of evidence, denial adds insult to injury. And when the truth finally surfaces the betrayed partner has two wounds: the sad reality and the false reassurances.
- Partial admissions
Whatever they admit to, is often just a tiny fraction of the reality.
Denying any emotional attachment or sexual involvement is another common reaction. Lying can be a sign that the affair partner is not yet ready to end the affair.
Gaslighting happens when the cheating partner tries to frame the betrayed partner as crazy. If your partner does it to you, you are probably better off breaking up.
Here is an example from the movie “Goodfellas”:
Sometimes the cheating partners can give in to endless inquisition, or he might come clean to end the relationship.
Stage 2: Information Seeking
This stage is a bit calmer and neutral.
More lies are usually unearthed and the full truth starts taking shape.
To make the process smoother, show your partner that you will not use any information against him. And don’t highlight his previous lies.
If it makes you feel better, some of those lies might have also been aimed at shielding you and rescuing the relationship.
Stage 3: Mutual Understanding
In this stage you explore the deeper meaning of what the affair meant and what are the weaknesses of your relationship.
It’s an important part of healing and it will strengthen the relationship by creating shared meaning.
Ideally, this phase also sets the stage for the improvement and strengthening of the relationship.
Stage 4: Fixing The Relationship
Not all couples make it to this stage.
But all couples should probably at least try.
It’s indeed possible that while working at it, the couple re-discovers deep feelings about each other and enjoy a new honeymoon time.
If you are interested in at least exploring the possibility of recovering together, I highly recommend this post:
Stages for Cheated Partner
Affair revelation and discoveries are traumatic events.
Partners who didn’t expect it can experience feelings of unreality, as if they were disconnecting from the world.
Some people can go numb and stay that way for a while without feeling much.
When they start feeling again the feeling won’t be positive, but it’s a step forward nonetheless.
Surprised to read this one?
Well, this is for specific cases.
If the partner long suspected an affair, the first moments of revelation can be a big relief.
Finally, they can confirm they didn’t imagine everything, they’re not crazy and that, in a twisted way, they won for being right.
But soon after the relief comes a whirlwind of less positive emotions, including rage, disbelief and a general feeling that someone pulled the rag under them.
Betrayed partners obsessively relive the scene of revelation over and over in their minds.
They add up evidences and suspicion, cross check dates, try to make sense of what happened.
And they picture with horror their spouse with someone else.
#4. Endless Questioning
Betrayed partners have an unquenchable need to know.
Some cannot constrain their deluge of questions, and the interrogation often leaves both exhausted.
Stages For Unfaithful Partner
Because society disapproves of affairs and cheating, the unfaithful partner can often be very lonely in his struggle.
Here are the steps they go through:
#1. Shifting Emotions
Sometimes the initial emotions solidify and strengthen in the weeks and months that go by. But some other times they shift.
Defensiveness can turn into openness -which is good- or into aggression. And ambivalence can turn into decision paralysis or full clarity.
Here is a good post to diagnose both relationships:
#2. Realizes How Much He Cares
Sometimes coming out of the closet is like a big truth moment for the unfaithful partner.
He might have been planning to break up and elope with the affair partner, but all of a sudden he realizes how much he cares about the relationship.
#3. Impatience: When Are We Going to Be Good Again?
If they want to work on the marriage, the unfaithful partner might expect to be welcomed back with open arms and is annoyed to find now an untrustful and hurt partner.
#4. Grief: Should I Abandon One?
The involved partner mourns the loss of the affair partner.
This can be very painful to witness for the betrayed partner, but it’s a good sign that the affair is over.
#5. Shame & Fear
The cheating partner is sometimes ashamed for his behavior and fearful that it might cost him both relationships (and a costly divorce).
Gender Differences in Affairs
There are important gender differences in both affairs and emotional affairs.
Women cheat less when they are in a happy relationship.
Men instead tend to end up in affairs independently of how they rate their relationship.
Many women in very happy relationships have blinders that screen out any potential affair partner. Even when a man makes a pass at her, she may discount it thinking it was just being friendly.
And that’s a great example of how interest creates opportunity: if you’re in a relationship with a player, he’ll be looking for opportunities everywhere.
When they emotionally detach
Women tend to detach from the relationship before the affair begin. Men tend to detach after the affair has begun.
The two sexes differ as to what they usually consider a sexual affair.
For women any kind of sexual intimacy, including kissing, counts as an entrance into sexual infidelity. For men the threshold is sexual intercourse.
Women Have More Emotional Affairs
Historically men have had sexual affairs with less emotions and women have had emotional affairs.
But men are now having increasingly emotional affairs as well. In Shirley Glass recorded clinical sample, 83% of women who had extramarital sexual affairs, also had strong or very strong emotional attachment VS 58% of men.
Some people begin an affair because of sexual attraction and jump right into sex.
At that point, emotions might or not might not develop.
If they do, they are usually less strong than if the affair had been consumed later on. So, theoretically, quick sex is better than delayed sex.
Needless to say, emotional plus sexual infidelity is the most damaging to the relationship.
Signs of Emotional Affairs
Here are some cues that can be telltale signs:
- They look for more privacy
- More time away from home
- Refusal or inability to share details about mysterious commitments
- Less family involvement
- Interests in new activities
- Going to the gym, taking care of themselves or buying new clothes / underwear
- More undercover expenditures
- Opposites pattern of behavior: sometimes too clingy, sometimes far away
- Avoids social gathering with spouse or excludes her
- Sex can happen more or less frequently and more passionately
- Emotional withdrawal and less affection
Emotional withdrawal will be stronger for people who have strong monogamous tendencies.
These partners can’t manage two relationships at the same time and the affair takes over (Reconstructing marriages after the trauma of infidelity). When people have strong monogamous tendencies, you will also notice:
- Sex rejection
- Less caring
- Sometimes high irritability
- No more saying “I Love you”
The signs are indicative and there is no sure fire way to tell that someone is having an affair. Some people are very, very good at lying and compartmentalizing lives.
The woman in the movie “Up In The Air” is such an example:
For more about the signs of infidelity, check out “signs your partner is being unfaithful“.
Emotional affairs often start as friendships with people we interact often with.
They start out as friendships where both partners admire and like each other.
Little by little, they spend more time together, talk more and share more and more about themselves.
The emotional bond deepens, and they become emotional affair.