Becoming emotionally intimate with someone other than your partner can be just as hurtful for your partner as a physical affair — but emotional affair recovery is possible.
Infidelity can be a relationship ender. It’s an experience where you choose someone other than your partner to become intimate with physically, emotionally, or both.
Emotional affairs may never progress to the physical level, but they still involve a closeness that can pull you away from your current partner.
You may start to feel more aligned with the person you’re now sharing thoughts, feelings, dreams, and vulnerabilities with.
Emotional infidelity can be painful for both parties— a longing for connection, validation, and a breakdown of trust can prove challenging to overcome. Ultimately, both partners need to be willing to work toward emotional affair recovery to continue the relationship.
Yes. Your marriage can come back from emotional infidelity.
“Marriages can not only survive emotional affairs, they can become stronger than they were prior to the affair,” says Dr. Dena DiNardo, a clinical psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist from Philadelphia.
“It depends on what each partner wants. If they both want to be together and improve their relationship, with a lot of honest reflection and effort, things can significantly improve.”
DiNardo explains emotional affairs happen for many reasons, but primarily because one partner isn’t feeling connected with the other partner and emotional needs aren’t being met.
While this doesn’t justify emotional affairs, it may be part of the reason why post-infidelity your relationship can become stronger as needs are communicated and you gain a deeper understanding of one another.
At first, it may feel as though emotional affair recovery isn’t possible. The initial feelings of hurt and shock can be overwhelming.
It’s okay to take time to allow yourself to grieve for your relationship as you knew it. When you’re ready and if you’re willing, you can start the process of emotional affair recovery.
It can be challenging to acknowledge your part in emotional infidelity if you weren’t the party participating in the affair.
However, according to Dr. David Helfand, a licensed psychologist specializing in couples therapy from Saint Johnsbury, Vermont, the responsibility often falls on the shoulders of both parties.
“You have to explore each person’s contribution to the affair. We have a tendency in our society to think affairs happen because one person is a jerk and goes outside the marriage. That is actually not the norm.,” he says.
Helfand indicates it’s the dynamic between partners that tends to lead to emotional affairs, and both parties need to understand what it is they have to improve on.
If you’re not ready to enter into this process with another person, journaling may provide a way to discover your needs without fear of judgment.
DiNardo states that once you and your partner have completed a humble and honest process of introspection, the next step is communicating your wants, needs, and personal patterns to each other.
Because infidelity can create strain that may diminish communication, third-party mediation in couples therapy can be crucial to this part of the process.
“Couples therapy is an important and crucial element to overcoming an emotional affair,” she says, noting it can help you reassess expectations of the relationship and understand the boundaries or lack thereof.
What to do if you had an emotional affair
If you’ve been having an emotional affair, understanding why can be important. After introspection, you may realize you don’t want to — or shouldn’t — continue your current relationship.
Entering the process of emotional affair recovery implies you want your current relationship to work and improve, and that you see the potential for a happier outcome.
Cutting ties with the third party
“The very first step in affair recovery is to conclude the outside relationship with the affair partner,” says Terri DiMatteo, a licensed professional counselor from Princeton, New Jersey.
“Since it is an emotional affair, this needs to be done with great care to assure that the outside relationship concludes firmly.”
Being completely open
When your emotional affair comes to light, being completely honest and transparent about it can be important to healing your current relationship.
“Many people give a brief description of what happened in the beginning and this can create more harm and more distrust when more details come out later on,” says Rachel Elder, a license mental health counselor and relationship coach from Seattle, Washington.
Expressing your remorse
DiMatteo indicates that apologizing for your emotional affair is often not enough — you may need to genuinely express your remorse for causing your partner pain.
She explains, “When the party that did not engage in the affair expresses their deep pain and hurt, the party who engaged in the affair needs to convey their own emotional pain at seeing and feeling how much pain their spouse or partner is in.”
This specific type of empathetic apology can help your partner feel less alone in their distress.
“It helps the betrayed partner know that their feelings not only matter but have a direct impact on their spouse or partner. Research tells us that this approach is beneficial in moving a couple forward,” says DiMatteo.
Couples therapy can be an invaluable asset when seeking emotional affair recovery.
Not only can a professional help you and your partner explore your feelings and relationship dynamics, but they can also address any underlying conditions that may complicate emotional affair recovery.
While anyone can experience emotional infidelity in a relationship, certain mental health conditions and attachment styles may contribute to feelings of emotional disconnection.
“I would say emotional affairs could be common amongst most diagnoses related to anxiety and depression,” says DiNardo. “Those who are anxious and have difficulty regulating their affect may find comfort and/or temporary short term relief in their emotional affair partner, even though that can actually cause more anxiety.”
She adds that emotional affairs may feel like the perfect antidote for someone living with depression, which can be characterized by feelings of disconnect, isolation, and loneliness.
“Emotional affairs can also be common amongst those who have a more avoidant personality style or defense mechanism default,” says DiNardo. “Genuine intimacy with one’s primary partner can be incredibly overwhelming and threatening.”
If you’ve experience an emotional affair in your relationship, you can speak to a qualified mental health representative anytime by calling the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357.
You can also join a free infidelity support network by visiting infidelitysupportgroup.com where you have access to additional resources, professional input, and insight from other couples who are working through similar experiences.
Emotional affair recovery is possible. It frequently involves honesty, introspection, genuine remorse, and a commitment to communicate emotional needs with your partner.
While there are steps you can take to heal after emotional infidelity, professional guidance can support both partners and provide a safe place for mediation.