Is this an emotional affair?

By Daniel J. Tomasulo, PhD, TEP, MFA, MAPP

Recently, my wife became closer with a male friend who needed help with his marriage. We have a three year old together. At the same time, ours was going through a slightly rough patch but nothing that we hadn’t fixed before. My wife had to work long hours because she was on jury duty and needed to make up the time, she was trying to get pregnant but couldn’t (she obsessed over her cycle and had to document everything, her doctor told her she was stressing herself too much to get pregnant), she had a long bladder infection, which caused her to miss work and have to make up more time. In the mean time, she was very short with me, and without thinking of her stress level, I was short back.

During this time, she became very, very close with her friend and even stopped babysitting so he could go out with his wife. She appears to have stopped trying to help with the marriage. They go out to lunch, skip work, and spend every possible moment texting each other. When they do go out, they always go to public places and she rarely tried to hide the fact they go out (uses her debit card). Basically, she has given all of the fun, attention and affection she used to give to me, to him. We discussed this a couple weeks ago and she blew up, said I was being controlling and didn’t trust her. I trust her to not do anything stupid but can’t trust her completely because she does hide things from me. The friend is a married father of five, in his early 40s and is about to lose his job. He had his fifth child in January. It was unexpected.

My wife refused to talk about the problem and gets upset if I talk about how I’ve been reading things that might help. So my only option, as far as she’s concerned, is to be almost completely isolated from her until she feels better. I recently found some information that proves I was right to trust her (the e-mails she sends are that of a close friend, not of a lover) but the e-mails he sends are one of a boyfriend. He sends depressing e-mails while we are on dates and she visibly gets upset, but takes it out on me. He also sends her e-mails making fun of me and links to advice about divorce and children…while we are on dates. I know I shouldn’t be looking at her e-mails but I need answers. I feel horrible about it. I’ve talked to several of our old friends and even a member of the clergy and they have all seen the same thing. What can I do to keep the friend from being toxic to our marriage, which is a big stumbling block, to fixing mine? Remember, she won’t talk to me and has been isolating her old friends.

A: Your wife is having an emotional affair and most likely doesn’t realize it. All the classic behavior patterns are there:

  • Spending less time with you and more with him;
  • Connecting with him via text, email and conversations with regularity;
  • Not wanting to talk about it;
  • Isolating herself from her friends;
  • Getting angry when you say you have a problem;
  • Escalating the frequency and intensity of her contact with him; and
  • Taking his texts and emails while with you and not appreciating that this is hurtful.

Additionally, her saying you are too controlling rather than looking at her own behavior becomes a means of justifying her stance. Please know that I am not making a judgment or criticism about you wife’s behavior, per se, but simply saying that your reaction makes sense, and her behavior pattern is classic when it comes to emotional affairs.

The two primary defense mechanisms used by the partner engaged in an emotional affair are denial and minimalization. The argument goes that there is “nothing happening,” referring to the fact that there has been no sexual contact. What isn’t understood is that the emotional engagement with the other person has eclipsed the emotional connection with their partner. Is this a cause for concern? Yes. About half of all emotional affairs end up sexual.

I can understand how difficult it is to witness the person you love so dearly give their affection and attention to someone else, and your concerns and upset are legitimate. The fact you feel there is a problem means there is one.

Typically the people involved in an emotional affair are not able to appreciate the impact it is having on their spouse. For most the impact is as devastating as a sexual affair.

The chances are that your wife does not want to acknowledge the impact this is having on you because it is very life affirming to her, and provides a need that isn’t being met in your relationship. But the only way to make sense of what is happening is to appreciate the fact that this other man is a symptom, not a cause, of your marriage not being okay. The resistance by your wife to acknowledge the impact of her behavior on you may come from the fact she is not happy with you and the marriage, and may not know how to approach you with her concerns.

The central issue is that your marriage is in trouble. If she is seeking emotional nurturance and intimacy outside the relationship, and you are feeling like you are losing her, it is time to set up an appointment with a couples counselor. This is important for both of you. You will each learn to express your needs to each other.

On the good news side (yes –there is good news here believe it or not!) This is early in the cycle of discomfort between the two of you. Many couples ignore the symptom of an emotional affair until the issues have mushroomed. When that happens the repair and healing process becomes more problematic, hurtful and complex and many couples that might have had a chance if they had addressed the issues earlier end their relationship, often before they can understand exactly what happened.

Shirley Glass, author of “Not Just Friends: Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal” said it best:
“The new infidelity is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing that they’ve crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love. Infidelity is any emotional or sexual intimacy that violates trust.”

If your wife isn’t willing to go to counseling I would encourage you to seek your own. But my sincerest hope is that you will both have the courage it takes to face your issues with each other.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 4 May 2010

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2010). Is this an emotional affair?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2010/05/04/is-this-an-emotional-affair/