The sexless affair

You don't need to jump into bed with someone to be unfaithful… sometimes an extra-marital relationship starts out completely innocently, writes Elmari Craig, for INTIMACY.

You know the scenario. You find each other immediately attractive, and quickly find yourselves drinking coffee together every day. “It's completely innocent,” you tell yourself. “We understand each other so well.” You tell your husband about your new friend, but feel more and more guilty about the fact that you look forward to your chats, and later, you stop mentioning him all together. He doesn't listen to what you say anyway, and wouldn't understand. You do feel bad, but reason that there is nothing between the two of you: it's not as if you are jumping into bed together.

These types of situations occur daily, and emotional affairs are a reality. I often see couples in my office with serious marital problems as a result of the fact that one of them has engaged in an emotional affair. The diagnosis is difficult. When is it just friendship, and when does it become something more? I believe that when the emotional investment in the relationship is much bigger than the emotional investment in your marriage, it’s safe to say that it’s an affair.

People often don't realise the dangers of such a relationship, and how easy it is to become involved in an emotional affair. It is even more enticing when there are unmet needs in your own marriage, like a lack of emotional intimacy. Remember, there will always be someone who thinks that you're great, and who can meet your emotional needs. This doesn’t make the relationship right!

Be more realistic

Women are more emancipated today than they have ever been before. To say that they aren't allowed to have any male friends would be unrealistic. What is important is that women are aware of the dangers these relationships pose, and that they set their boundaries very definitely.

If you know that your marriage is not in a very healthy state, and you have an emotional need that isn't being met, you need to be especially careful. An emotional affair could be the beginning of a full-blown relationship. Be very cautious about making daily contact over the telephone, text or e-mail. Don't tell each other too many emotional things, and don't cry on each other’s shoulders about the problems in your marriage. As you invest more and more energy in a relationship, it grows stronger. If you don't invest energy into your own marriage because you are placing your energy elsewhere, the gap between you and your marriage partner will grow wider.

People show love within relationships in many different ways – displays of physical affection, spending time together, verbalising your partner’s value or doing things for each other. When these things occur more within your friendship with someone else than in your own marriage, it becomes a problem. The moment that you start sharing intimate thoughts with someone other than your marriage partner, a red light should flicker.

No one can read your thoughts – the only way someone is going to understand you is if you share your feelings with them. This is often what happens: you talk to your friend and share everything with him, therefore he understands you. Your marriage partner doesn't understand you, because you don't share. Your marriage relationship becomes worse and worse, and more and more energy is withdrawn from the relationship.

So where do you draw the line?

The distinction between an emotional affair and a friendship won't be the same for all relationships. For some relationships, a platonic friendship will be potentially damaging, and for others it won't. Once you have committed yourself to a marriage relationship, it isn't about what’s right and wrong any more, but about what will build and what will break down your marriage. It is important that your marriage partner knows about the friendship, accepts it, and is happy with it. Your rule of thumb should be openness, transparency and honesty.

If your mate isn't happy or can't accept the relationship, you need to submit to this and invest in making sure your needs are met within your marriage. Because an emotional affair isn't physical, it is easy to justify, but the fact remains that it involves investing energy in a relationship other than your marriage. A clear danger sign is the keeping of secrets. The moment that you feel you need to hide something, you’ve already crossed the line. If you are doing something that your mate isn’t happy with, you are damaging your marriage.

Preventing heartache

It is impossible to be sure of the other party’s intentions, or your own ability to resist temptation. If you experience guilt, or engage in deeply emotional conversations with your ‘friend’, the danger signs are there. Work against opening up your heart to someone of the opposite gender. 

Remember, you have a choice. Programme your heart and mind to be faithful to your mate. No marriage will ever fulfil all of your emotional needs. Rather share your unmet needs with a platonic friend or family member.

The key to protecting yourself against an emotional affair is to make sure that your marriage is healthy. Communicate your needs to each other and work on enriching your marriage on an emotional as well as physical level. Don't be naïve and think that it won't happen to you. A spider’s web is spun strand by strand, and before you know it, you’ll find yourself knee-deep in the web. An emotional affair is just as wrong as conducting a physical relationship. It destroys trust within a marriage – which is one of the hardest things to restore. 

An emotional affair is enough to shipwreck even the strongest of relationships. Protect your marriage by ensuring that you and your mate fulfil each other’s needs within your marriage. (June 2010)

This is an edited article which first appeared on INTIMACY4US in March 2009.

Read more about Emotional infidelity

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