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The Truth About Emotional Affairs

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Emotional affairs venture into dangerous territory. They may not lead to physical involvement, but can still devastate marriages.

An emotional affair may start with a conversation over the Internet, or an innocent friendship in the workplace. Maybe it begins with a simple 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 a “safe” alternative to cheating on your spouse. But emotional affairs venture into dangerous territory; while they may not lead to physical involvement, they can still devastate marriages.

Not just a harmless romance

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy warns against emotional affairs: “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.”

To clarify, this statement is backed up by alarming statistics conducted through a national poll. Findings showed that 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men have had sexual affairs. But they also revealed that an additional 20 percent of married couples are affected by emotional infidelity.

Impact of the Internet

Traditionally, the workplace has provided the greatest potential for extramarital affairs. Now, online communication has 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 as an emotional outlet can often lead a person down a slippery slope. Because the Web entices users with the lure of anonymity, one may be more prone to share personal issues with others. With barriers down, a deep level of emotional intimacy can develop between two people quickly.

Not just “innocent fun”

As prevalent as emotional affairs have become, some people don’t think they are harmful. Christian authors Dave Carder and Duncan Jaenicke explain the reason for this thinking in their book, “Torn Asunder: Recovering from Emotional Affairs.” “One reason lies in the lesser degree, or absence of, guilt and shame that often accompany extramarital sexual encounters.” The spouse entangled in the relationship may justify it as “innocent fun” because of the lack of physical contact. 

The impact an emotional affair has on a marriage varies according to the couple. In Vigorito’s opinion, to women, the betrayal of emotional infidelity can be as damaging as that of physical infidelity. While you may not have crossed a physical boundary, “you’re taking your best communication outside of your marriage, and then there’s not much left to bring to your spouse.”

Contributing factors and warning signs

Several factors can lead to having an emotional affair. Communication or conflict resolution issues can lure a spouse to look for companionship elsewhere. Extramarital relationships can also attract those wanting to escape the stressful situations, pressures or responsibilities associated with family. And as with other temptations like pornography, the pursuit of fantasy undermines reality.

So, how can you recognize an emotional affair? These signs may show that a relationship has gone too far:

  • You share personal thoughts or stories with someone of the opposite sex.
  • You feel a greater emotional intimacy with him or her than you do with your spouse.
  • You compare him or her to your spouse and begin listing why your spouse doesn’t add up.
  • You long for, and look forward to, your next contact or conversation.
  • You change your normal routine or duties to spend more time with him or her.
  • You feel the need to keep conversations or activities involving him or her a secret from your spouse.
  • You fantasize about spending time with, getting to know or sharing a life with him or her.
  • You spend significant time alone with him or her.

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