Why People Have Emotional Affairs

boundaries communication emotional health relationships Jan 21, 2022

When we hear the term "affair," we often think of physical betrayal. Late night at the offices and rendezvous at hotels jump into our mind, we tend to think of sexual infidelity. But people can also have emotional affairs, which can sometimes be more difficult to detect compared to the physical ones.  

An emotional affair is a relationship between a person and someone else that has a level of emotional intimacy that affects and distances a person's emotional intimacy with their spouse. Sometimes an emotional affair can be when one person falls in love with another person, but is not yet a physical relationship. Though not all emotional affairs are sexual, an emotional affair often turns into a sexual affair over time. 


Why they have emotional affairs

When we are the victim of a spouse's emotional affair, it's hard to figure out why. What did we do wrong? But that's the thing, an emotional affair is not your fault. There are a few reasons why someone may have an emotional affair, but none of those reasons have to do with you. Unfortunately, sometimes these things happen.  

Emotional affairs often begin as non-sexual relationships and it can feel a lot like a friendship. Usually, there are no thoughts or plans to develop a relationship beyond a friendship. Having friendships of any gender outside of the relationship is healthy. However, with emotional affairs, the friendship ends up slowly taking a more prominent role. We end up having conversations and sharing vulnerable information about ourselves that is usually reserved for our partner. You share your weaknesses, inner feelings, and maybe even participate in seemingly "harmless" flirting.  

When we share aspects of ourselves with other people instead of our partner, there may be a sign that we don't share the same values or outlook in life. Perhaps we don't have the same motivation and goals as our spouse. When you have different fundamental beliefs and outlooks, there needs to be a level of respect to connect. If you aren't able to have that connection on a deep level with your spouse, then your going to connect with someone who does. Your partner does not need to fit perfectly into everything that you're into, but they need to respect your beliefs and still delve into those conversations with you. 

Most of the time, an emotional affair ends up happening because there is a lack of connection between spouses. Again, this doesn't mean that you did anything wrong, just that there is a barrier to being able to connect at a deeper level. There may be some baggage, narcissism, or your partner has a "grass is greener" mentality. Emotional affairs aren't always black and white. There is a lot of other factors at play. 

Emotional affairs can result from feeling neglected, misunderstood, or even overlooked in a relationship. There can be this feeling that their partner does not value them or does not take the time for them. They can feel a lack of emotional support from their spouse. Others can seek emotional affairs because they are looking for something that is "new and exciting" or looking to make their partner jealous.


Signs of an emotional affair

There are a few signs that you can watch out for if your partner is having an emotional affair. 

  • Secrecy
    • They feel the need to hide their friendship from you. Whether it is outright lying or simply not telling you, there is a need to hide when they meet their "friend" or delete conversations with them on their phone and computer.  
  • Flirting
    • They flirt with their friend either in person or digitally. They brush it off as harmless flirting because they are "just friends".
  • Constantly in their thoughts
    • They tend to always have their friend on their mind.
  • Change in behavior
    • They start dressing differently, and taking up new hobbies or routines that may include their friend. 
  • Putting their energy into the friendship
    • This is the biggest sign of an emotional affair. We only have finite amount of energy to give out. When a spouse is putting more energy into a friendship than the energy they are giving to their spouse, it is a good sign of an emotional affair. 


How to handle emotional affairs

If you suspect that there is an emotional affair happening, there are some things that you can do to handle the situation. 

First, you want to take a step back and take inventory. Look at what has happened in your relationship. Take a look to see if your spouse has been putting a lot of time and energy into their friendship at the cost of your relationship. Have there been issues with secrecy, behavioral changes, and neglect in the relationship?

Next, you will need to talk with your partner. Though you are probably hurt, it is important that you remain calm when talking to your partner. We want to try and avoid anger and blaming, instead we should be focusing on our feelings and "I" language. The goal of the conversation is to find out where there is a disconnect in the relationship. Remember, this is not your fault; disconnects can happen. 

Then you want to choose to either rebuild or let them go. After talking with our partner, we should better understand what led to the emotional affair. Was life being in the way and not being able to spend that quality time together, or was it a difference in values and life goals? This is the part where you will discuss if you can, or want to, salvage and rebuild the relationship. 

Finally, you want to seek outside support, regardless of the decision. Outside support can be friends, family, and even a professional to help guide you through your feelings and pain. 

If you're the one having an emotional affair, there are some things that you can do too. 

The first is to acknowledge that there is an emotional affair. It is looking within yourself and the relationship and acknowledging the changes and your actions in the situation. You want to look and see what happened and why you began seeking emotional intimacy outside the relationship. Like above, take a mental inventory of what has happened and whether or not you want to help in rebuilding the relationship. Next, you need to sit down and have a conversation with your partner. This can be a hard step, but it is necessary if you are wanting to work on the relationship issues. Finally, if you made the choice to stay and want to prioritize your relationship again, then you want to begin redirecting that energy back into your spouse. As far as the “friendship” is concerned, you and your partner will need to discuss whether you need to distance yourself from the friendship or end it all together.

Recovering from emotional affairs can be a long and trying road. But it is one you can eventually recover from.