The Affair You Don't Know You're Having
An e-mail here, a smile there. Maybe that "innocent" friendship with your guy friend isn't so innocent after all .
By Heather Johnson Durocher
I'll call him John.
The first time we met, he actually struck me as a bit arrogant. He irritated me enough that I mentioned him to my husband in a "Can you believe this guy?" kind of way. But I interacted with John only occasionally, always through work and mostly over e-mail, so it wasn't a huge deal. He's just one of those people who gets under my skin, I told myself.
But a little over a year into our working relationship, something changed. One day, John let down his guard with me and I responded, I suppose in part because I couldn't help but be curious about his mostly hidden soft side. Our conversations turned to easy banter and later - I have a hard time admitting this even now - flirtation. Our e-mails, which could number several in one day, never included outright expressions of affection toward each other. Instead, our notes were mostly business peppered with friendly sparring. We shared a similar sense of humor. I felt that he got me.
I told myself I wasn't doing anything wrong. I had to talk with this guy for work, after all. And couldn't I have a friend who happened to be male? I also told my husband about him, even sharing when we'd meet for coffee or lunch (always scheduled with the intention of discussing business). My husband, busy with a demanding job, trusted me completely.
In the midst of working part-time and caring for a preschooler, a toddler, and, later, a new baby, e-mailing and talking with John felt like an innocent escape. I never would have said at the time that I was in a bad marriage - my husband and I got along well; we just didn't have a lot of quality alone time together - and I had no intention of crossing any physical line. But I increasingly found myself sharing more and more of my hopes and dreams with John instead of just with my husband. I anticipated my regular interactions with John in a way that was all too consuming. And it was John - not my husband - who was beginning to fill a key emotional need in my life. I was, in fact, unknowingly cheating on my husband; I was having an emotional affair.
More Than Just Friends
The signs of an emotional affair may be more subtle than those of a sexual affair, but they're just as unmistakable. "An emotional affair happens when you put the bulk of your emotions into the hands of somebody outside of your marriage," explains psychotherapist M. Gary Neuman, author of Emotional Infidelity.
It's not so much that you're not talking with your husband - there's always stuff to discuss, thanks to kids and mortgages - but you're not sharing with him. Your innermost thoughts, funny jokes, and interesting personal experiences are saved up and spilled to the other guy instead of your spouse. And even if you never so much as touch him, this emotional attachment has just as much potential as a sexual fling to damage your marriage. "We only have so much emotional energy; the more of it we spend outside of our marriage, the less we have inside our marriage," says Neuman. "And after a while, we simply do not have enough emotions and love and caring and time for both."
While emotional affairs are not a totally new phenomenon - the late Shirley P. Glass, Ph.D., wrote about them in her groundbreaking 2003 book, NOT "Just Friends" - experts agree that they're on the rise. "Emotional affairs are happening more often because so many of us feel emotionally isolated," says relationship expert Steven Stosny, Ph.D., coauthor of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.
Whether it's because of our demanding jobs and packed schedules or the hours we spend on the Internet instead of with our families, friends, and communities, we've become increasingly distanced both physically and emotionally from other people, including our spouses. And when we're not regularly sharing our lives and feelings with those close to us, we ultimately begin to feel that they've stopped caring. "This feeling of emotional detachment plants the seeds for an emotional affair," says Stosny, "because when you feel emotionally detached from your husband, you are faced with a choice - either to improve the bond you share with him or to look elsewhere to get your needs met." And working to improve your marriage is just that: work - work that's a lot less alluring than a little special attention from someone new.
That's where the affair partner comes in. Having another guy turn his focus onto you, even if only in friendship, can be dangerously seductive. I can attest to that firsthand: When I started my relationship with John, I wasn't even aware of the resentment I felt toward my husband over the long hours he spent away from me and our kids at his job. To complicate matters, I was grappling with my sense of self. I second-guessed my new roles as a wife and mother: Was I being the best parent I could be by only working part-time from home? Should I work more so I could help our family's finances? Or scrap the job thing altogether and more fully embrace this precious time with my children? What about my hobbies and interests? What was it again that I liked to do anyway?
Enter John: a guy who understood what I did for a living and made me laugh wholeheartedly. When I spoke with him, I felt smart and beautiful, sexy even, because he respected what I had to say and engaged me in intense and stimulating conversation. It wasn't that my husband wasn't able to do these things; he'd provided all that and more, especially during our early years together. But as time wore on, we were simply so mired in caring for our kids and making sure the bills were paid that our emotional connection waned. John didn't know me as a wife or mother, but simply as a woman. He was someone who reminded me of the person I used to be - and perhaps hoped to find again.
An emotional affair also offers the thrill of the forbidden without crossing any physical lines. "You know it's wrong, that it's taboo," says Stosny. "That's what makes it provocative and rousing." When Rebecca Smith,* a 39-year-old mother of two from Annapolis, MD, began regularly e-mailing with her friend Lyle, her youngest child had just started kindergarten and her husband was working longer hours. Exchanging e-mails with Lyle was a welcome diversion, not only because it filled her downtime but because their often silly, sometimes sexually charged notes were a far cry from her conversations with her husband. "My husband can be kind of negative, and Lyle has a more optimistic outlook on life. We often had these sparring conversations. It was intellectually stimulating for me," she says. "And the more we e-mailed, the more I found myself magnetized to him and fantasizing about what my life would be like if we were together."
Too Close for Comfort
Once you're drawn into an emotional affair, it can feel so good that you don't want to stop. In fact, not having sex may make the connection seem all the more powerful. It feels genuine, romantic even, and isn't easy to let go of because it's so "safe" - or so it appears. But inevitably, you start unfairly comparing your husband to this other man, says Neuman, which compounds the damage. "You don't have the stresses of everyday life together, so the new guy can be very humorous, very cute, and very giving," he says. "You go back to your spouse and you're comparing him to this guy in pieces: He'll never be as handsome as this guy or as funny as this guy or as giving as this guy." While emotional affairs rarely break up couples, they can leave a marriage torn and tattered. "The affair saps so much emotional energy and core values away from your relationship," says Stosny, "that you'll undoubtedly feel guilty and irritable and blame your husband for these bad feelings."
Another sure sign your "innocent" friendship has gotten out of control: You would be embarrassed for your husband to witness your interactions or to know what you are thinking about when you're with this other guy. And once you start keeping secrets, even "innocent" ones, your intimacy with your main man suffers even more. Toni Richards, 40, a mother of four from Wiley, TX, who had an emotional affair with a former coworker, says that as she grew closer to Bobby, she began to flat-out avoid her husband. "I wasn't even sleeping in the same bed as my husband. In a sense, I didn't want to be next to him because I worried he would know that something was going on, that I would say something in my sleep," she says. "I started pulling away from him and I didn't talk to him as much."
And of course, with every emotionally engaging or sexually charged conversation or e-mail, phone call, or meeting, taking your affair to the physical level becomes the obvious (though by no means inevitable) next step. "The longer you continue an emotional affair, the greater the chance it will become physical," says Stosny. The first time Bobby asked Toni to meet him for dinner, which meant she had to lie to her husband about where she was going after work, she agreed. "We didn't kiss, but we held hands and sat next to each other - closer than friends should be sitting," she says. In a matter of weeks, she knew that Bobby was ready to get physical. After wrestling internally with the idea of being with him - and realizing that she didn't want things to go down that path - she decided to break off the connection with Bobby entirely. "It was a hard choice, but I still loved my husband and didn't want to ruin my marriage any more than I already had," she says.
Even after you've recognized your emotional affair and the damage it's causing your marriage, slamming on the brakes is easier said than done. Says Stosny, "Many emotional affairs turn almost obsessive simply because you never had sex to consummate your fantasies." It took months for Rebecca to tear herself away from Lyle, even after her husband came across an e-mail from Lyle and called her out on their too friendly exchange. He demanded that she show him all of her e-mails with Lyle, which she did, and asked her to stop talking with him. She agreed, but secretly maintained contact. As time went on, though, she says, "I became riddled with guilt and grew increasingly aware of how my time and energy spent on Lyle was taking away from my family, from myself. But I couldn't help myself." In fact, she still hasn't completely cut ties with Lyle. "We still e-mail now and again," she says. "I'm just more guarded with him."
As tough as it is, quitting the relationship cold turkey is the best way to move past an emotional affair for real and for good. "Setting boundaries for continued contact will only raise the taboo level and, along with it, the excitement, the obsessions, and the motivation," says Stosny.
The aftermath of an emotional affair can have an upside: "Failing your own values can make you more committed to them in the future," says Stosny. So consider the experience a wake-up call to what is missing not only in your relationship but also within yourself. "I realized that if I can't talk to my husband the way I talk to Bobby, then there's a big problem that I need to fix first in my marriage," says Toni. And while Stosny and Neuman say it's not imperative that you admit your affair to your husband - in fact, you may even hurt him needlessly by doing so - some women don't feel like they can fully move on unless they come clean. After she cut things off with Bobby, Toni opted to tell her husband about the situation. "He was hurt that I'd been sharing personal thoughts with another man," she says, "but he was mostly relieved that nothing physical had happened." The couple is in the midst of trying to find a marital counselor, and Toni is hopeful she can rebuild her marriage.
Severing your connection to the other man - whether or not you ever tell your husband about him - is only step one. You also need to funnel all the energy you were putting into your affair back into your marriage. And while setting aside more time to spend with each other - away from kids and other couples - is important for patching things up and maintaining intimacy in your marriage, it's just as crucial to adopt a new attitude toward your guy. "Emotional connection is a mental state," says Stosny. "You choose to feel connected to your husband. You decide to be loving and compassionate toward him. You will feel emotionally bonded and sexually stimulated with your husband because you've committed yourself and all your positive energies to him - and he'll definitely pick up on the vibes you're giving off."
Nurturing your relationship is the emergency care it needs to heal. But for long-term marital health, you also need to nurture yourself. Trying out a new hobby, getting involved in your community, or tapping into your spiritual side can help you recover from - and prevent you from having - an emotional affair. "When you have more interests in your life, you have less of a desire to find something exciting and taboo to intrigue you," says Stosny. "Plus, you'll lead a richer, fuller life with less emotionally needy gaps." After cooling things down with Lyle, Rebecca decided to refocus those energies on her guy and the other people close to her. "I can't expect that my husband is going to meet every emotional need in my life, so I'm reaching out to my girlfriends and spending more time with my family." She also recently signed up for a handwriting-analysis class, something she's always been interested in learning about, "just for fun and to get my mind on something else," she says.
For me, my emotional involvement with John ebbed and flowed for nearly two years. It reached a tipping point when I could no longer ignore the fact that my husband and I were fighting more often, no doubt in part because of my refusal to focus on my marriage and on how my own actions were adding to our growing friction. Like Toni, I eventually decided to share my struggle with my husband, who handled it with incredible grace. The conversation wasn't only about me turning to someone else; we also spoke, perhaps for the first time, about what we really expected and needed from each other. It's a discussion that continues to evolve between us. I still think about John sometimes - and how my relationship with him could have destroyed everything I hold dear. Each day, I make a conscious decision to nurture my bond with my husband first and foremost. And as our relationship grows stronger, I realize I'm getting as good as I give.
Did you know?: 82% of affairs happen with someone who was at first "just a friend," according to noted infidelity researcher Shirley P. Glass.
Are You in an Emotional Affair?
YOU'VE PROBABLY CROSSED THE LINE IF YOU...
* Touch your male friend in "legal" ways, like picking lint off his blazer.
* Pay extra attention to how you look before you see him.
* Think crush-like thoughts like, He'd love this song!
* Tell him more details about your day than you do your partner.
* No longer feel comfortable telling your husband about this person and begin to cover up your relationship.
* Experience increasing sexual tension; you admit your attraction to him but also insist to yourself that you would never act on it.
IT'S ABOUT TO GET PHYSICAL WHEN YOU...
* Find yourself feeling vulnerable and turn to the other man for support rather than to your husband or a trusted relative or girlfriend.
* Accelerate the level of intimacy through sexual or suggestive talk over e-mail or the phone.
* Put yourself in a situation where the two of you could be alone.
TO FORTIFY YOUR MARRIAGE...
* Stay honest with your husband. Share with him all your hopes, triumphs, and failures - as well as your attractions and temptations, which will help keep you from acting on them.
* Make time for just the two of you on a regular basis - away from the kids, your friends, and family.
* Surround yourself with happily married friends who don't believe in fooling around. Having positive, emotionally connected role models will help you stay on track
"READERS REVEAL I KNEW I'D GONE TOO FAR WHEN. . ."
"The guy who I was flirting with regularly over e-mail attended the same event as me and my fiancé. When I introduced them, my face flushed as red as a tomato - I felt embarrassed and guilty about my fiancé meeting this guy, so I knew what I was doing was wrong." -Carolyn, 31, Westfield, NJ
"One drunken night, my best guy friend and I confessed we had always liked each other. He was a perfect gentleman and left my place before we crossed the physical line. The next day I was completely embarrassed and knew that I didn't want to jeopardize the relationship with my boyfriend so I ended the friendship. And now the boyfriend is my husband, so I'm glad I did." -Allie, 29, Yonkers, NY
"The cute tech guy who I'd been flirting with at my office said to me, 'You're not going to invite me in?' after I accepted a ride home from him. I liked the attention of him buying me vending machine snacks and complimenting me, but my husband would've had a holy heart attack if he knew." -Amy, 38, Chicago
"My best guy friend and I were snuggled on his couch underneath a blanket when I realized that neither his girlfriend nor my boyfriend would be happy if they saw us - and that our platonic relationship wasn't as platonic as we thought." -Kim, 35, New Orleans
*Names have been changed.
YOU TELL US: Have you ever had an "innocent" friendship that wasn't so innocent after all?
- Response by rafiki910
, A Mr. Nice Guy, Male, Who Cares?, Boston, Body Work