Emotional Infidelity: Why You’re Vulnerable

Janell was shocked and hurt by what she saw. 

She had stopped off at the local supermarket on the way home from work and saw her husband’s car in the parking lot. She was excited to surprise him, but once she found him she witnessed her husband playfully engaging with another woman  (the woman is an “attractive” wife of a colleague). She stood watching for a few minutes and then left.

Why was this so upsetting to Janell, and what exactly did she see?

Here’s the breakdown of her husband’s behavior while interacting with this other woman:

  • He touched the woman’s arm several times;
  • He smiled and laughed;
  • His demeanor was playful, and at times he appeared exuberant (Janell described him as “giddy”);
  • He was very talkative;
  • He was focused and emotionally present. 

You might be thinking, so what’s the big deal, he was just being social. And since his wife couldn’t hear what they were talking about, how does she know he said anything inappropriate or untoward? 

Janell was upset because the behavior she witnessed was different from her husband’s “normal behavior” –different from the way he interacts with Janell. In fact, on several occasions, Janell and her husband had socialized with this woman and her husband at work parties, and he’d behaved quite differently from what Janell saw at the supermarket.  It’s disconcerting to see our spouse/partner act very differently with someone else—it’s especially upsetting to have another person bring out a side of your partner that appears more enlivened and engaging, a side that you’d like to experience for yourself.

And that is part of the problem for Janell: she wants her husband to touch her more, she has been wanting to have more fun together, she’s longing for her husband’s attention and emotional presence. She wants everything her husband gave this other woman during their brief encounter. And because he gave this to another woman (and not Janell), she felt betrayed.

Relationship Help: We’re All Vulnerable to Infatuation

Whether you feel sympathetic to Janell’s reaction or not, I want to highlight what I frequently see with the couples I work with—something we should all be mindful of.  Despite the love and commitment you have for your spouse/partner, it’s not that difficult to become infatuated with another person. There will always be someone (other than your partner) who you feel has the “right  look” or the “right” amount of charm or caring or the “right” amount of ______ to make you feel special. And too often, rather than realizing we’re all vulnerable to feelings of infatuation, we end up misinterpreting our elevated mood or increased excitement as evidence that we’re with the wrong person.

Many affairs (and ruined marriages/relationships) have resulted from this common occurrence.

The short of it is that you need to protect your relationship from your own vulnerability; you need to take ownership of your vulnerability, realize that it is relatively easy to feel emotionally drawn to someone other than your partner/spouse. The important thing to remember is that these feelings aren’t necessarily an indication that your relationship is troubled or lacking;

And ultimately, it’s what you do with these feelings that matters most.

It’s easy to feed feelings for another person—to make decisions that fuel the fires of infatuation by:

  • Spending greater amounts of time with this person;
  • Finding ways to be alone with him/her;
  • Flirting and acting charming (having the “best” you on constant display);
  • Confiding your secrets, strugglings or dreams with him/her (***a MAJOR red flag is if you discuss your relationship problems with this person***);
  • Offering him/her Gandhi/Mother Teresa-like amounts of concern, empathy and support (which s/he should be getting elsewhere). 

The above actions are a recipe for emotional infidelity (which often precedes a physical affair).

Steps to Protecting Your Marriage/Relationship

One suggestion I often tell the couples I work with is that whenever you are interacting with someone you are (or might be) attracted to, or who you find engaging/charming, you should imagine your partner standing next to you.  This will allow you to feel your partner’s presence and to realize the appropriate boundaries you should be maintaining for the sake of your marriage/relationship.

Here’s to protecting your marriage/relationship!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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