The Emotional Affair

Our society seems contradictory in its attitudes toward sexuality. On the one hand, we’re publicly outraged with disgust at Janet Jackson’s exposed breast and Howard Stern’s crude ramblings. On the other hand, we privately reward TV producers who titillate us with soaps and sitcoms about passionate interludes and rampant infidelity. Perhaps our private excesses are compensating for the mundane nature of our actual love lives: many long-term relationships today are characterized by emotional distance and infrequent sexual relations. Studies show that less than 25 percent of us ever have a physical affair during marriage. So perhaps what we are seeing in TV habits is a longing for connection, aliveness and passion that can only be experienced vicariously through the tube.

Another way that longing expresses itself is in emotional affairs. Emotional affairs, while more subtle than physical infidelity, are far more common and often more damaging to a primary relationship. What are emotional affairs and how can we use the energy triggered by them to promote our own awakening?

An emotional affair occurs when one member of a relationship consistently turns to someone else for their core, primary emotional support in life. It often develops slowly, even innocently, as a friendship with a co-worker or friend. There may or may not be a romantic/sexual attraction initially accompanying this budding friendship. But when a person’s primary relationship is experiencing ongoing hostility, conflict and/or distance and one member of the relationship pulls away and consistently turns to a “friend” for companionship, support and sharing of deep personal material, an emotional affair has begun.

For many people, the emotional affair is a great source of relief and comfort during relationship difficulties. But this can also be playing with fire: there is a finite amount of intimate emotional energy to go around and when one begins to regularly invest significant amounts of their emotional energy in someone new, the primary relationship can be seriously compromised.

Frequently, an emotional affair will deepen through consistent contact through in-person discussion and/or numerous email and voice mail messages. There becomes an excitement and ease in hearing from the person. There is a profound feeling of emotional safety and companionship that really fuels the bond at the deepest level. Unfortunately, this companionship can doom the primary relationship. Once the door of emotional intimacy has been opened and the bond deepens, the person having the emotional affair cannot help but compare. “It’s so easy to talk to him/her and so hard to talk to my spouse” is the common refrain. “My spouse always complains and criticizes, but my friend is always there, always in a good mood and always understands and listens to me.” It is much easier to open up and feel safe in a superficial new friendship compared to a long-term committed relationship. Shirley Glass, PhD, discusses this in great detail in her book NOT "Just Friends".

How do you know if you are developing an emotional affair? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I feel like it’s easier to talk to my “friend” than my partner?
  • Does my “friend” seem to understand me in a deeper way than my partner?
  • Have I stopped confiding my deepest feelings and concerns with my partner and now turn to my “friend” for these needs?
  • Do I recoil with defensiveness when someone suggests that this is more than a friendship?

If you find yourself or your partner developing an emotional affair, it can be seen as a signal that you need to put more attention on your primary relationship. Understand that the intention behind the emotional affair is a healthy one: to feel connected, loved, alive, desired and understood. But also understand that the hopes and fantasies about the new relationship may merely be an illusion, that in the long run may evolve into the same type of relationship as your current one. Wherever you go, your relationship issues will follow. The effortless, blissful stage of romantic infatuation is merely a period of grace to infuse us with a vision of possibilities for this blossoming union. But it is the shortest stage and one fraught with the least doses of reality and as such is a poor predictor of future happiness.

So look at your primary relationship consciously. This is the crucial time when taking full responsibility for what you both have created is essential. Those who blame their partner’s shortcomings are merely avoiding the fact that they have co-created the present situation. None of us passively receive love. We actively create our relationships every day by the choices we make, actions we do, sentiments we share or withhold. So ask yourself honestly: where and how is this relationship not fulfilling my needs? What have I done to co-create a lack of passion and aliveness? What are I willing to do or learn to feel more connected, more understood and more passionate?

Ken Wilber discusses in A Theory of Everything that the desire for complete oneness and merging with the other is a basic transpersonal human need. But at the deepest level, this is a spiritual yearning for connection with a universal spirit that can never be fulfilled by a human relationship. So when the fulfillment of this desire goes awry and a new relationship seems promising, it can also be helpful to look at other areas of your life. Are you blaming your primary relationship for a lack of meaning, fulfillment and aliveness in other areas? Are you reaching out to a new love because it’s easier than doing your spiritual practices or discerning your life’s purpose? And the truth is often that the person who has been with you day after day, the person who knows you better than anyone else, may just be the best person in the world to help you figure those things out.

About the Authors

Joe Bavonese, PhD and Shirley Bavonese, ACSW are Co-Directors of The Relationship Institute.


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