It might have started with a conversation over the Internet, or with a seemingly innocent friendship in the workplace. Maybe it began as an uncomplicated thought: Unlike my spouse, this person really understands me.. What can it hurt? I need a little excitement in my life.
These romances may seem harmless — perhaps even "safe" alternatives to cheating on your spouse. The truth is, such relationships venture into dangerous territory; they may not initially lead to physical involvement, but they can still devastate marriages.
"A new crisis of infidelity is emerging in which people who never intended to be unfaithful are unwittingly crossing the line from platonic friendships into romantic relationships ... ,"1 asserts the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.
The statement is backed up by alarming statistics conducted through a national poll. While the findings showed that 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men have had sexual affairs, it was also revealed that an additional 20 percent of married couples have been impacted by emotional infidelity.
Traditionally, the workplace has provided the most potential for extramarital affairs. Now, online chat rooms have opened the floodgates for other opportunities to develop romantic entanglements.
"The Internet is a dangerous place," said Jim Vigorito, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist. "People can begin [a relationship] at an innocuous level, and then it can progress to something more."
What starts out as an emotional outlet can often lead a person down a slippery slope. Because the World Wide Web entices users with the lure of anonymity, one may be more prone to share personal issues with others — issues that they wouldn't normally talk about in person. With barriers down, a deep level of emotional intimacy can develop between two people quickly.
As prevalent as these affairs are becoming, they are not always easily identified or even seen as harmful. One reason lies in the lesser degree, or absence of, guilt and shame that often accompany extramarital sexual encounters.2 The spouse entangled in the relationship may justify it as "innocent fun" due to the lack of physical contact. The impact this may have on a marriage varies according to the couple. In Vigorito's opinion, to women, the betrayal of emotional infidelity can be as debilitating as that of physical infidelity. Even though physical boundaries have not been crossed, "you're taking your best communication outside of your marriage, and then there's not much left to bring to your spouse."
A number of factors can lead to having an emotional affair. Certainly, communication or conflict resolution issues can lure a spouse to look for companionship elsewhere. Extramarital relationships can also attract those wanting to escape stressful situations, pressure and responsibility associated with family. And as with other temptations like pornography, the pursuit of fantasy undermines the presence of reality.
So how can you recognize an emotional affair? These signs may indicate that a relationship has gone too far: