How to Protect Your Relationship from an Emotional Affair

SYR Podcast # 4 Session Notes 

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How to Protect Your Relationship from an Emotional Affair

Most couples who come to see me after an affair are in enormous pain. The betrayal severs trust and tears at the fabric that holds the relationship together. While rebuilding is possible for many of these couples, the journey to healing has many twists and turns. For many people, just the thought of your partner being intimate with another person can make you feel overwhelmed by jealousy, despair and rage.

With so much to lose, affair-proofing your marriage or relationship should be a top priority. Protecting your relationship from an emotional affair starts with the realization that you’re not immune to the dynamics that can lead to emotional infidelity.

Aren’t we all in danger of sliding down this slippery slope?

When we believe our love (and the specialness of our relationship in particular) elevates us above the marital and relationship problems that befall so many couples, we create blind spots that prevent us from proactively dealing with any emotional affair signs that require attention. When we see our marriage or relationship as inherently superior to other relationships, we become myopic to patterns that make us increasingly vulnerable to betraying the person we love.

The reality is that most people don’t wake up one day and decide to have an affair. Sexual affairs frequently occur when one of you is starting to get your emotional needs met outside the marriage. The pathway leading to sexual affairs often begins in the emotional arena. We all want to feel seen and understood by our partner/spouse. When attention, kindness, admiration, and the like are lacking in our relationship, and when our wish for emotional intimacy is fulfilled by someone other than our partner, the stage is set for emotional infidelity.

The starting points of emotional affairs aren’t always so clear-cut. For example, you notice that a coworker needs some emotional support—you happen to find him/her attractive. If you offer that support, have you crossed a line? Should you consciously avoid contact with anyone and everyone you find interesting or intriguing out of fear that it will grow to something more and that they’ll reciprocate that admiration? Can there be “innocent” flirting, or is all flirting inherently non-innocent by definition?

The fact is we’re going to come across people we’re attracted to, perhaps someone at work or a neighbor or a friend-of-a-friend you’re drawn to for some particular reason. This is part of being human. Acknowledging this is an important first step in affair-proofing your relationship. This is why boundary-setting with others is so important to protecting your relationship. These boundaries are for you—they help you safeguard against acting on your emotional vulnerabilities.

Because emotional cheating can arise from a relationship that starts off as innocent and platonic, being fully aware of the signs of an emotional affair are important in the affair-proofing process. Don’t allow any shades of grey about your relationship with another person to obscure the fact that there are clear warning signs that you are heading toward a full-blown affair.

What Makes Us Vulnerable to an Emotional Affair?

Psychologically, you must do something for the process of emotional infidelity to unfold. There is a big difference between being flattered because a coworker gave you a compliment or flirted with you versus allowing the flirtation to feed your self-esteem and take on heightened significance in your life. You cannot control whether or not someone flirts with you. You can control, however, how you react to an invitation to flirt—do you encourage it and flirt back or do you graciously smile without engaging further?

There are different reasons why we may be vulnerable to engaging in an emotional affair.

The first has to do with the conditions of your relationship or marriage. If you’ve been feeling emotionally deprived and disconnected from your partner, you may be more susceptible to getting your emotional needs met outside the relationship. When we crave intimate contact that is not forthcoming, the attentiveness of a caring person can make us feel alive and excited in ways that we haven’t felt in a long time. When this occurs, it should be a red flag that change needs to occur in your relationship. Hopefully, this would open up a dialog with your spouse/partner about your emotional needs and what you need from him/her.

The second vulnerability has to do with the unresolved childhood issues we all bring into our marriage/relationship.

For example, if you grew up in a household where cheating and/or secrets were the painful norm, you may find that you are vulnerable to repeating these patterns in your relationship. In this case, the issue of how your past is playing out in your present relationship would require some soul-searching.

5 Warning Signs of Emotional Infidelity

1. You don’t communicate your emotional needs clearly. If you aren’t sure what they are, it will be important to do some self-work to become attuned to your emotional life so that you can more effectively share it with your partner/spouse.

2. Be mindful of how you speak to others. If you say things that you wouldn’t if your partner/spouse were with you, then you probably shouldn’t say them. This is an important litmus test to determine if you are starting to step over the emotional infidelity line.

3. When you’re in the presence of someone you find yourself drawn to, your personality changes uncharacteristically.When you’re with this person you’re transformed into Ms. Empathic Listener or Mr. Talkative; you become overly supportive/friendly; or your sense of humor comes shining through (the sense of humor your partner/spouse hasn’t seen in years)—and if your partner were observing you from afar, these changes would strike a nerve because s/he doesn’t see this version of you.

4. You start to think about this person, anticipating time together, hoping you’ll “run into” him/her. Anticipating time with someone you admire or enjoy isn’t inherently a problem. But this type of anticipation is different. When you look forward to spending time with a friend it’s because you miss him/her: you enjoy her company, you admire him, you value one another. When you anticipate being with someone you are developing feelings for, you anticipate how this person makes you feel—craving the changes and feelings stirred in you becomes a central dynamic in the relationship.

5. Another emotional affair warning sign is that you begin confiding in this person. When you open yourself up in this way, a more intimate relationship is forming. You are sharing parts of yourself that others don’t readily see. Some would argue that a betrayal involves the sharing of personal information that should only be shared with your wife/husband or partner. When this level of intimate self-disclosure occurs, you’ve elevated the relationship to “special” status.

It’s important to note that many of us deny (to ourselves as well as to our partner) that the undercurrents of an emotional affair are beginning to swell. Entering an affair dynamic may start in very subtle ways. You start to slowly open yourself emotionally to another person; you take the good feelings you experience while in this person’s presence and you allow them to draw you in, increasingly opening yourself up emotionally, sharing the parts of yourself that should be reserved for your partner. And then a threshold is reached and you stop resisting the magnetic pull…

The sooner you identify the warning signs of an emotional affair, the quicker you’ll be able to remove yourself from this risky game for the sake of your relationship. And then the important work begins—turning toward your partner in an effort to get your emotional needs met by the person you’re committed to.

Here’s to affair-proofing your relationship!

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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