In today’s blog post, a husband married for fifteen years discusses the dynamics of his emotional affair. It can be helpful to hear directly from someone who was emotionally unfaithful when you’re looking to affair-proof your own relationship.
At the end of each of his comments, I share some thoughts [in brackets] to help give you a takeaway for your own relationship. It’s important to note that for many couples, emotional infidelity is just as—if not more—devastating than a sexual affair.
Therefore, the potential for emotional infidelity should not be taken lightly.
Now let’s hear from Jonas.
“I had an emotional affair that lasted about six months. I almost lost my wife because of it. We’ve been in counseling for about three months now to understand why it happened and to hopefully fix the pain I caused my wife.
“Even though the exact reasons for my emotional cheating aren’t totally clear to me at this point, what has become clearer with counseling is the different emotional affair signs that were occurring. Signs I guess I ignored, maybe partly through cluelessness, and maybe because I didn’t want to see them. I’d like to share what I’ve learned the hard way in the hopes that this information can help other couples.”
It’s easy to deny emotional cheating
“My wife Ava confronted me with her suspicions pretty early on during my emotional affair. I’m ashamed to say that the affair was with one of her friends (needless to say, they are no longer friends) who had recently divorced her husband. Ava said it was ‘woman’s intuition’ telling her that something was wrong. At first she couldn’t put her finger on it, but she’d say that something was different about the way I would interact with her friend. At that time, I honestly didn’t think anything was wrong or unusual.
“What I kept telling Ava (and telling myself) was that I was just being ‘nice.’ At other times I claimed that I was just being ‘playful’ or that I felt ‘bad’ for her friend because she was recently divorced and probably lonely.”
[It is usually the other spouse or partner who voices the concern that something is different about the partner entering an affair zone. They may be able to clearly identify that it feels like their partner is crossing a commitment boundary, but at this early stage this level of clarity may be difficult. It is more of a vague sense that something doesn’t feel right and that what’s occurring is experienced as threatening to the marriage. At this point the concerned spouse/partner may not express his/her concerns because of this lack of clarity.]
The emotional affair picks up steam
“Looking back I can see that my kindness and support didn’t level off like it should have. It kept growing in intensity. It felt great to ‘be there’ for this woman. I didn’t focus on how it made me feel at the time, but in hindsight I can see that very early on I was getting something out it; it wasn’t just altruistic giving on my part. I felt more like a man; I felt more important, more essential in my own skin. While it was subtle at first, it started to have an addictive quality.”
[I see this pattern in many of the husbands and wives I work with who have had an emotional affair. At first the relationship dynamic is rationalized as innocent, and this prevents the spouse/partner entering into the affair from seeing the powerful ways in which s/he is being emotionally fed.
If we’re truthful, we know that our ability to emotionally give of ourselves has limits. It’s draining at some point, even for people we care deeply about. Just think about the friend who always seems to be in crisis. It can take a toll to be emotionally available to him/her. But Jonas seemed to have boundless empathy and compassion, and in part this was because he was the one being emotionally fed under the guise of giving to his affair partner.]
Your giving is reciprocated at some point
“She would often tell me that I was giving and kind, something I hadn’t remembered Ava saying for a while. She’d say Ava was so lucky to have such a great guy, and she even said, ‘I’ve given up finding someone like you, Jonas.’ Her gratitude was intoxicating.
“But what was even more powerful was when she started asking me how I was doing. At this point I should have just told her I was fine (which in all honesty was the truth). But I told her I’d been feeling emotionally lost for a long time. On the outside I appeared to have it all together, but the pressures in my life were getting to me. I then said that she was the only person I’d ever admitted this to.”
[Mutual sharing is common among friends, especially intimate, long-term friendships. But when we choose to get support from another person rather than our spouse/partner, we elevate that person and that relationship above our marriage.
What also occurred in this dynamic is that Jonas manipulated that relationship by informing his affair partner that he too was in pain. In doing so, he indirectly suggested that he was in need of caring/support. In essence he communicated, “You and I are kindred spirits; we’re two misunderstood people who don’t have anyone else to really lean on.” At some level he must have known that the truth (that his life was in fact pretty darn good) would have created distance between him and this woman by implying that he didn’t need her emotionally.]
Something is siphoned from your marriage
“The more I started to open up to this woman, the more I started to close myself off to Ava. At first it was hardly noticeable, but I couldn’t keep both emotional channels completely open. Something had to give, and it was my marriage that started to suffer. I begin to withdraw from my wife. I’m ashamed to say that Ava’s questions about what was wrong started to irritate me. We began arguing pretty regularly. In my mind, this pushed me further toward the other woman.”
[A certain percentage of affairs occur in marriages and relationships that were not in trouble to begin with. This was the case for Jonas and Ava. But at some point, Jonas couldn’t deny to himself any longer that he was crossing an important marital line. So like many people in his shoes, the increased marital conflict that resulted from his emotional infidelity became the excuse for his emotional cheating. As tensions mounted between Jonas and his wife, he increasingly justified pulling away from her.
This dynamic does two things: It justifies turning away from your spouse/partner while also justifying turning toward the affair partner. And in this case the justification is an excuse for entering more completely into the emotional affair.]
A wife’s ultimatum spurs marital re-commitment
It was only when Ava told Jonas to move out that he panicked, reevaluated the situation, and started to take ownership in his part in harming the marriage. He made the decision to end the emotional affair and has recommitted himself to making his marriage stronger.
While there are different reasons an affair may start, it’s important to note that the signs of an emotional affair are often subtle at first. This, combined with our denial and/or rationalization of what is happening, makes us increasingly vulnerable to entering into dynamics that can weaken our relationship while shifting our energies toward another person (energies that should be part of our marriage/relationship).
Affairs don’t “just happen”
Despite the common refrain of “I never meant for it to happen” from unfaithful partners, affairs of any kind (emotional and/or physical) don’t “just happen” to us. The path from an exclusive, committed marriage to infidelity is marked by decision points that accelerate the affair process or shut it down. Denial and rationalization obscure these decision points, leading us to believe that we are either helpless in the face of what is transpiring or that we are destined to give ourselves over to the embrace of another.
In order to affair-proof your relationship, it’s important to be aware of the psychological defenses of denial and rationalization that can so easily undermine our sense of agency when faced with the potential of entering into a relationship that is harmful to your marriage. Holding these emotional affair signs in consciousness is an important step in protecting your relationship from the temptations that we all come across sooner or later.
Here’s to affair-proofing your relationship!
Dr. Rich Nicastro