By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
The cornerstone of a successful intimate relationship is trust – and betrayal can capsize a couple’s sense of safety and security in no time. The media tends to portray betrayals as physical affairs; whereas an emotional affair can have the same damaging impact on a romantic relationship.
If you are questioning whether you are enmeshed in an emotional affair, it’s important to define what they are. First and foremost, an emotional affair is characterized by an intimate connection with someone who isn’t your partner but the person takes on many of the functions of your partner. For instance, you spend a lot of time with him or her, you find yourself confiding in him/her, and you look to them for solace and support.
It’s key to acknowledge that in order for a relationship to qualify as an emotional affair, it usually involves a deep connection that is more than a friendship. Most emotional affairs involve secrecy from your partner. For instance, you find yourself not being completely honest about how much time you spend with this person, and the closeness of your bond, you are probably entangled in an emotional affair.
Many people embroiled in emotional affairs attest to the obsessive quality about them. For instance, they might find themselves having frequent sexual fantasies about them or waking up in the morning thinking about the person. Another red flag of an emotional affair is frequent text messaging or sharing private details about your intimate life with your partner.
I used to believe that a breach of trust was something that couples could bounce back from quickly but I’ve gained insight about the ways this isn’t the case. For instance, most marriages don’t survive big betrayals or even a series of smaller ones. My current view is that finding healthy ways to be vulnerable, express your thoughts and feelings, and be honest with your partner, is the best way to build a trusting relationship. Vulnerability is the glue that holds a relationship together over the long run.
But is lying by omission or keeping a secret the same as lying? First, you want to consider how your partner would view your secret if he or she found out and you failed to tell them about it. Also, if you feel guilty or uneasy about not disclosing information to him or her, it’s a red flag you need to be honest or forthcoming about something you’ve kept a secret.
For instance, Caitlin neglected to inform her husband Tyler that she had a close relationship with Kyle, a male co-worker, and that they often ate lunch together. At times, she would confide in Kyle and fantasize about having sex with him daily. She explains: “I don’t really see a reason to tell Tyler because we just eat lunch and we’re not having sex. I just didn’t want him to leave because he is very jealous and possessive.”
When I attempted to explain to Caitlin the reasons why honesty is essential to a trusting relationship, she said: “I guess I never faced how my closeness with Kyle was driving me and Tyler further and further apart. I was keeping Kyle separate and yet getting all of my love and emotional connection from him.”
After I explored the reasons why an emotional affair is a form of betrayal we discussed I how mistrust erodes the quality of a marriage. Caitlin soon realized that keeping vital information secret from Tyler wasn’t a way to build trust and intimacy with him. Caitlin realized that keeping secrets was a way of self-sabotaging because she loves Tyler and wants to plan a future with him. Her emotional affair with Kyle was clearly driving a wedge between Caitlin and Tyler.
Like Caitlin, many of my clients engage in emotional affairs because they believe it’s okay to find love and intimacy with someone other than their partner as long as it’s not sexual. Or they’ve convinced themselves that their significant other simply can’t handle the truth and might abandon them. While it is true that some partners will feel angry, hurt, and betrayed when they learn their love interest has done something unacceptable to them, honestly confronting issues is the best way to foster trust and intimacy with a partner.
6 tips for rebuilding love with your partner after an emotional affair:
- You must put an end to your emotional affair. Stop spending time with the person who you’re having an emotional affair with. This may be a challenge if you work together or travel in the same circles put it’s a crucial step. In order to rebuild love with your partner you need to focus on restoring love, trust, and intimacy with them. This is impossible with you have one foot out the door.
- You must tell the person who you’re having an emotional affair with that it has to end. If you need do so in person that’s okay as long as you keep it short, don’t offer excuses, and don’t reassure them or give false hope about the possibility of you resuming your connection.
- You must tell your partner about this relationship and your intention to stop seeing the person who you’re having an emotional affair with. Now is not the time to be coy – it’s best to be completely vulnerable and tell the whole truth, including any reasons why you pursued the emotional affair such as loneliness or unmet emotional needs.
- Work on fulfilling any emotional needs that were being satisfied with the person you were having the emotional affair with. Take an inventory of all of the things you like about him or her so that you can work on filling these needs elsewhere – either with a close friend or your significant other. These qualities might include good listener, fun loving, or understanding.
- Foster admiration and friendship with your partner. There is recent evidence that happy, lasting relationships rely on a lot more than a marriage certificate and that the secret ingredient is friendship. Look for qualities you admire in your partner and remind yourself of these admirable qualities regularly.
- Adopt a mindset that great relationships are formed not found: This means they require a lot of effort and an intention to pay attention to your partners needs. John Gottman recommends that couples practice “turning towards” one another rather than away when they are having communication difficulties.
Spending time together daily with your partner and rebuilding your intimate connection with him or her will help you foster a deeper connection. At some point, your actual partner may seem dull or compare unfavorably to the other man or women and you run the risk of seeing your partner in a negative light, or becoming easily frustrated with them.
Your relationship with your partner needs to be a priority or you might find yourself slipping back into the same trap of seeking solace and intimacy with another person. Carve out time to spend with your partner on a daily basis. Try a variety of activities that can bring you both pleasure. Have fun courting your partner and practice flirting with him or her. Don’t forget to cuddle on the couch and surprise your partner with a kiss.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.
This blog appeared previously on HuffingtonPostDivorce.