It might begin with a seemingly harmless exchange over the Internet, part of a seemingly innocent friendship in the workplace. Maybe it starts as an uncomplicated thought, some comparison between the wife at home with the kids and the young woman on the way up at the company who really seems to understand. But these moments mark the conception of romances called emotional affairs.
These romances may seem harmless — perhaps even “safe” alternatives to cheating on a spouse. The truth is, emotional affairs venture into a kind of quicksand; they may not initially lead to physical involvement, but they can devastate marriages.
Emotional affairs happen when someone fantasizes about being with someone else they know and have those fantasies mutually returned. Sometimes the fantasies are played out through kissing and touching, but without actual intercourse. It’s sometimes seen has harmless romantic longing, but an emotional affair can damage a marriage.
Infidelity and deception are becoming more prevalent, maybe even in a person who might not have thought of being unfaithful before. This is according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
Statistics show that 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men have had sexual affairs, and an additional 20 percent of married couples have been impacted by emotional infidelity. About 35 percent of wives and 45 percent of husbands report having emotional affairs, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Up to 60% of all marriages will deal with at least one form of infidelity over the lifetime of their marriage.
Online communication sets up opportunities to develop electronic romantic entanglements. Traditionally, the workplace has provided the most potential for extramarital affairs. “The Internet is a dangerous place,” said Dr. Jim Vigorito, a licensed psychologist. “People can begin [a relationship] at an innocuous level, and then it can progress to something more.”
The friendly banter that seems like an emotional outlet can easily move down a slippery slope. The Internet obscures it users; so one may be more prone to share personal issues with others — issues that he or she wouldn’t normally talk about in person. With barriers down, a deep level of emotional intimacy can blossom between two people quickly.
Most emotional affairs begin as an innocent connection between two people, but a newly developing connection can quickly become entangled. Time together — either face-to-face, through the computer or by phone – provides oxygen to the emotional affair that can drains a marriage even though it never becomes physical.
The damage begins with sharing information, thoughts or feelings that should have been kept between spouses. This is an emotional betrayal that cuts into the heart of a marriage. The damage increases when the cheater distances himself or herself emotionally and physically from the spouse in lieu of time with the new friend. Eventually, the friendship crosses the line when it introduces elements that should never be part of a marriage — secrets and lies. This deception destroys the foundation of marital security, and once it begins, it’s difficult to stop. Because an emotional affair remains nonsexual, it is easy to rationalize, and the relationship continues because the unfaithful spouse rationalizes away guilt. “We’re just friends.”
As prevalent as these affairs are becoming, they are not always easily identified or even seen as harmful. One reason lies in the absence of guilt and shame that often accompany extramarital sexual encounters.
The emotionally entangled spouse justifies it as innocent fun due to the lack of physical contact. In Dr. Vigorito’s opinion, to women the betrayal of emotional infidelity can be as debilitating as that of physical infidelity. Even though physical boundaries have not been crossed, “you’re taking your best communication outside of your marriage, and then there’s not much left to bring to your spouse.” Emotional affairs can devastate woman because for a vast majority of women, emotional infidelity is even worse. It means their spouse has checked out of the marriage.
A number of factors contribute to an emotional affair. Certainly, communication can lure a spouse to look for companionship elsewhere. Extramarital relationships can also attract those wanting to escape stressful situations and the pressure and responsibility associated with family. In emotional affairs, the pursuit of fantasy undermines the presence of reality.
Sharing personal thoughts or stories with a new friend of the opposite sex, feeling a greater emotional intimacy with him or her than with a spouse, comparing the friend to the spouse (and listing why the spouse doesn’t add up), longing for the next contact or conversation, changing normal routines or duties to spend more time with him or her, fantasizing about spending time with him or her and keeping conversations a secret from the spouse – all are channel markers that mark the passage of friendship to an emotional affair.