The Truth about Emotional Affairs

If you've ever wondered whether an emotional affair is as damaging as one that involves mostly sex, the answer is yes--maybe even more so. That's the word from relationship experts, who say it can be harder to break off an affair when it's purely an emotional thing. If you're a couple whose relationship has been ripped apart by an affair, it's definitely a challenge to rekindle your feelings for each other when your partner's emotionally attached to another person.

"An emotional affair is harder to leave behind," says Lisa Rene Reynolds, Ph.D., author of Still A Family: A Guide to Good Parenting Through Divorce. "This is because the affair is filling a much bigger need than just a sexual need. If they have really fallen apart, the couple may not even have an emotional connection or be sure they want to work on a marriage."

As she explains it, a physical affair is often impulsive and quick to run its course. The excuse for a fling might be: "Oops! I made a mistake" or "I had too much to drink." But an emotional affair starts insidiously when emotional intimacy is missing between the two spouses so one looks elsewhere. It can progress and grow deeper with time.
"If one half of the couple doesn't feel like they're getting treated in a respectful, I-care-about-you way, they will go out and connect with someone who will give him what he needs," Reynolds says.

Men and women tend to be at polar opposites in the kinds of affairs they have, Reynolds says. Women usually have an emotional affair first, she explains. As she gets to know the man better and they grow closer, then the affair often turns physical, she says. Men, on the other hand, tend to cheat for sexual diversity, for newness, and for the exciting physical attraction, she says. Very often, a man's physical affair becomes an emotional one, she says.

And once that happens, it's harder for a couple to get back on track. "The other spouse is very angry and frustrated about the affair the husband is having," Reynolds says. "The affair, on the other hand, is looking just peachy. There is no cheating, no financial strain, just her welcoming him with open arms. And when I work with couples, it is much harder to work with this situation than with a situation where it is just the sex, and they don't care about each other. An emotional affair is far more hurtful."

It's possible to be having an emotional affair with someone and just not owning up to it inside yourself, says Lou Manza, professor and chairman of the psychology department at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. How can you tell?

"Obviously if you start to develop romantic feelings for a person other than your spouse, you've crossed a line," he says. "It may start as two people just talking, and he may confide in you and you may confide in him. Pretty soon, you're relying on that non-spouse person, going out to eat with him while your spouse is eating dinner at home, or hanging out with him when your spouse is home alone."

These are definitely signs that it's time for a relationship check, Manza says, and time for a couple that is committed to staying together to consider counseling.