I have sat with many couples, both personally and professionally, who are grappling with the impact of an affair on the relationship. An emotional affair can be particularly confusing.
In some relationships, the affair is ongoing. In others, there is a denial. What is called a friendship has all the hallmarks of an affair. Or those late-night trips to the office that don’t prompt curiosity.
In addition, there are those couples where the affair is a thing of the past. But the past is still present. Resentment, vigilance, possessiveness, disconnection and passive aggression are clues that they’ve never really gotten over it.
And then there are those couples for whom the end of the affair only brings a temporary respite because they’re on a rinse and repeat cycle.
What’s for sure is that affairs create chaos, and they cause pain for all concerned.
Now, one person is deciding how the marriage works when the original decision was joint.
With an affair suddenly, the marriage you once held as sacred isn’t sacred anymore, and someone else has had access to the private members club.
Breaking a sacred bond
The problem with an affair is that it breaks any trust and ruptures the sacred bond within a marriage.
This betrayal cuts to the bone. We know from neuroscience that emotional and physical pain involve the same part of the brain. That means the pain is real, reactivating attachment wounds, especially when many affairs are with a friend (43% ) or work colleague (38%).
And so, while it’s easy to assume that the person having an affair doesn’t have any feelings, that’s not necessarily true.
Affairs, whether physical or an emotional affair, cause pain all around.
For some couples, this painful experience heralds a new and different life. The disruption and chaos shake up the relationship’s status quo, and they go on to create and experience something different with more depth together.
Affairs don’t necessarily mean the end of the marriage in terms of the divorce. But it might mean the end of the marriage as it was and starting a more conscious connected path in the future.
That said, often, affairs destroy a marriage. For some married couples, the fracture an affair cause is simply irreparable.
How common are affairs
According to YouGov, a national survey revealed that 1 in 5 adults had had extramarital affairs.
Before the introduction of no-fault divorce here in the UK, 14% of UK divorces cited adultery as the grounds for the marriage breakdown.
As the legal definition of adultery relates to sexual intercourse with someone who is not your spouse, some infidelity was likely recorded as unreasonable behaviour. Therefore affairs probably play a more significant role in ending marriages than we think.
Indeed an American study shows that extramarital affairs are about 20 per cent higher when emotional and sexual relationships without intercourse are included. Emotional affairs count.
What is considered an affair?
Having sex with someone outside of the marriage (without permission) is cheating.
But an affair doesn’t have to involve physical contact. Flirty text messages with a work colleague or cybersex also fall within the realm of cheating.
Google the word affair, and the top listings are for dating agencies that can make an extramarital affair possible, all without even having to leave the marital home.
Emotional affairs are more nuanced. Couples get into endless debates when they feel uncomfortable about their partner’s close friendship. This is especially true when with someone they fear could become a romantic partner. These discussions don’t soothe anyone. Inevitably the partner who feels there is an inappropriate relationship stays upset. Similarly, the partner in the other relationship feels judged and defensive.
How to recognise an emotional affair
This is the time for a real deep dive. Ask yourself:
- Is it a one-to-one personal relationship with somebody who could become a romantic partner? Even though nothing at the moment is on the cards, ask yourself is it within the realm of the possibility that stronger feelings could develop.
- Self-reflection and honesty are vital tools. Even though it’s not primarily a sexual relationship, there’s an attraction and enjoyment from that attraction. If there’s some sexual charge to the relationship, which could grow.
- The third part is critical: The partner in the friendship doesn’t tell their spouse about what’s happening in the other relationship. They don’t go home and share what they and the other person talked about with their spouse or edit it carefully.
If this is you and sounds familiar, you are likely having an emotional affair. Now is the time for the inner work. Have an honest conversation with yourself about what is really going on. You cannot be honest with your spouse if you’re not honest with yourself.
There is something bigger beyond the possible emotional affair in these situations; the absence of trust. One partner feels vulnerable and unsafe, and the other, when challenged, feels defensive and treated as an untrustworthy teenager.
Why do people have affairs?
Most people who have had affairs say they cheated because of problems in the marriage, but I think that is to oversimplify things.
There are lots of different theories regarding why people have affairs.
Ester Perel believes a crisis of identity causes affairs. Instead of having an affair because they’re lonely, people cheat to find their true self. They’re not really looking for another partner; they’re looking for a lost part of themselves. For Perel, a good relationship is no guarantee against infidelity. You can watch her TED Talk on the subject here.
David Richo, the author of How To Be An Adult In Relationships, considers an affair a distraction. The distraction happens when someone finds an outside person to compensate for what is missing in the relationship. There’s an attempt to make tolerable what feels to that person intolerable.
But it’s a covert and often unconscious attempt, acting out instead of expressing and addressing the problem in the marriage head-on. So, a third person is bought in and stands between the partners who now avoid seeing one another or their relationship honestly. In this case, the role of the affair partner is to fill the gap that has opened up between the original couple.
Dr Ellyn Bader of The Couples Institute considers affairs in terms of the developmental stage of the couple. The developmental stages relate to how a couple can differentiate, i.e. develop a robust sense of self while simultaneously staying connected and committed to the relationship. For Dr Bader, affairs stem from avoiding the hard work of differentiation.
Many relationship problems occur because one or both partners want to remain enmeshed. This want can be the result of an attachment style. In the conflict-avoidant couple, for example, with a long-term pattern of enmeshment (symbiosis), the partners aren’t able to talk about their sexual wants, desires or hopes for fear of altercation. This silence contributes to an ongoing underlying tension, and then one partner looks outside of the relationship to get their uncommunicated needs met.
What to do next?
An affair doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road, but you must clarify what you want as a couple to commit to in the marriage.
Healing from an affair does not come easily and can be pretty painful. To heal the wound caused by this experience, you must be willing to open to looking at and clean up what caused the injury. This task isn’t a quick fix or easy.
Couples therapy can help prevent more damage in the future. It’s not enough to just say, ‘trust me—there’s no issue,’ when your spouse is torn up about another relationship.
And if one of you is uncertain about staying in the marriage, Discernment Counselling may be your next best step.
Over To You
If you’re worried about an emotional affair in the relationship and asking yourself, ‘should I stay married?’ and want a safe space to explore this difficult decision get in touch for a clarity session. I offer video sessions online via a secure platform.
Or call me today on 07535 864836.
Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.
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© Sandra Harewood 2022
Soul Centred couples therapist, counsellor and Jungian Shadow Work coach Sandra Harewood specialises in working with women and couples stuck at a crossroads in their marriage. Relationships are precious; this is your chance to begin a new journey and experience the connection and intimacy you most deeply desire.
Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore creative solutions to their difficulties and deepen their self-knowledge to discover what keeps them ‘stuck’ in their marriages to create and experience extraordinary relationships.