Emotional Affairs

There are numerous actions that can cause cracks and breaks to the foundations of a relationship—the greatest of which for many individuals would be infidelity. Most relationships will tolerate and often sustain the impacts of other forms of lying, jealousy, poor conflict resolution styles, and numerous other relational transgressions. However, infidelity will cut deep, hurt hard, and meaningfully damage any relationship. For many individuals this is often irresolvable. For the next few days I will explore this relationship transgression—some of the topical areas include:

  • why these occur
  • what are the chances of an affair becoming a successful relationship
  • what is required if two people choose to rebuild after an affair occurs and
  • what are the different types of affairs

We will begin with the defining of what an affair is—an affair is a non-sanctioned and often secret relationship of a sexual and/or emotional nature with an individual outside of one’s primary relationship. Individuals can be deemed to be having an affair even without physical/sexual contact; in fact, these types of emotional affairs are often more damaging then a onetime sexual encounter that occurs outside of the primary relationship. Affairs occur in a variety of scenarios and are often a sign of a failing relationship; however, there are some affairs that are more individually driven than a reflection on the primary relationship.

Emotional Affairs: this is where an individual seeks the company of another to meet and often reciprocate the emotional needs of themselves and the other party. These affairs are often of a longer standing nature and can build ties that do not even exist in the primary relationship, which is why this can become more damaging. To discover that your partner “loves” another hurts to the core of ones being. Individuals that seek this type of affair often rationalize that this is simply a “friendship” even though it remains secret, is time consuming, and enters emotional realms often neglected or ignored in their primary relationship. This type of affair can occur for a variety of reasons some of which include:

  • seeking unmet emotional needs outside of the primary relationship
  • having an inability due to past hurts to be open with one’s own partner so seeking an external partner for this critical area
  • having an inability to tie “love” in their primary relationship with total openness

Any of these concerns can be addressed in a therapeutic environment as a coupleship, individually, or both depending upon the circumstances. Many couples are able to restore their relationships when the affairs remain at an emotional level. Later on, we will explore the therapeutic environment for gaining resolution and reconnectedness within the primary relationship after an affair. Next time—physical/sexual affairs.


Sexual Infidelties

Sexual infidelity generally creates a significant amount of relationship damage regardless of whether it is a one-time event or an ongoing affair with someone outside of the primary partnership. When most people take a marriage oath or make a decision to live in a common-law situation, being faithful typically places sexual fidelity at the top of the list as it relates to this commitment. There are many who debate the legitimacy of taking such an oath or making such a commitment and the human condition for lifelong mating; this forum does not provide the space to address such a debate. Instead, we will focus on the decision that people make in taking an oath of faithfulness and then breaching said commitment. Sexual infidelity has a broad spectrum of definition; a prime example of this was the infamous statement by past president Bill Clinton who made the now famous comment of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”…which at the time was meant to mean that there was not sexual intercourse and simply was used as a spin on words. For anyone unclear on this topic, physical/sexual infidelity ranges from hand-holding, kissing, sexual body massages, oral stimulation, to intercourse. If you believe that it is not infidelity unless you have sexual intercourse, you would be sorely mistaken in that belief.

There are numerous rationales for infidelities to occur, some of the reasons that physical/sexual infidelities occur include:

  • A consummation of an already present emotional affair
  • Seeking unmet sexual needs outside the primary relationship
  • As a response to “sexual bargaining” within a relationship
  • As a means to meet unresolved ego needs
  • As a “one-night stand” in an inebriated state
  • As a passive/aggressive response to the primary relationship

The vast majority of long-term affairs have little to do with the sexual components; most long-term affairs are emotionally driven and thus more of a danger to the primary relationship. There are some who have “affairs” that last longer than their primary relationships—they may go through a couple of marriages all the while maintaining their infidelity. No matter the rationale for the infidelity, it is a breach to the foundation of a relationship and may cause irreparable damage. It is equally important to note that a sexual/physical affair is NEVER an appropriate response or action regardless of the rationale; there are always other options available to address the issues of a relationship.

Historically, the “cheater” was ostracized by the partner, family, friends, society, and even clinicians. Over the past 20 years, significant research has been conducted to show that most infidelities are resultant and signs of dysfunctional relationships as a whole versus solely an individual issue. This statement is not to imply an equitable responsibility for the infidelity but that without exploration both sides run the risks of repetitive patterning. Primary responsibility for the infidelity clearly rests with the person who decided to take such action—for without the infidelity we are simply at individual and/or relationship problems which are less complicated than dealing with the hurts/ pains/ embarrassments etc that additionally go with having been cheated upon.

A few points about infidelities that is important to make…

  • Someone always gets hurt
  • These are a fantasy world and a non-reality
  • Affairs create significant emotional damages and for some spiritual distancing
  • Besides a partner, where children are affected there is major familial and developmental damages

We have explored the different types of infidelities (Emotional, Sexual, or Combined) and some of the rationales why each of these occur. Next time we will look at “what would be required if two people choose to rebuild after an affair” and then finally “what are the chances of an affair becoming a successful relationship”.


Rebuilding – After the the Affair

Rebuilding after an affair is a difficult, lengthy, yet attainable reality for some. The reality—most affairs will end relationships and marriages. For those that do pursue resolution they have an opportunity to have a relationship better than they ever did before. Some come into therapy requesting that “they just go back to where they were before all of this happened”; I strongly recommend against this positioning as this is what eventually lead to the affair itself. The key to rebuilding is to tear down the relationship and begin anew—new goals, new directions, new commitments, and most definitely, a new foundation.

The starting point for rebuilding after an affair is discovering the rationales for the affair—if these areas are not addressed and then rectified then the couple remains on a path for this to be a recurring reality. I remember one couple I saw years ago where the rationales for the affairs (key word—affairs, not affair) were fully presented and the partner that had the affairs was clear that they had no intent on altering the behavior. Moreover, in no uncertain terms this individual informed their partner that if they wanted all the benefits that came from being together (money, status, and a desired life-style) they would either accept this as part of the relationship or seek a divorce; I would have thought that would have been the end, yet the partner stayed. Not surprising this individual that was being cheated upon then came to see me for depression counseling; I informed the individual that given the choices there was nothing that I would be able to do to assist in gaining resolution to this depressive state given the circumstances; I then referred this individual to another practitioner. I state this because if there is no change there is a high price to pay in staying in a relationship where infidelity exists and where it is known about. I often wonder if this relationship ever sustained over the long-term.

Another important point to affairs is that the less serious the infidelity the higher likelihood for success in resolution. Affairs that are long-standing, emotionally committed, and sexually consummated are difficult to resolve—infidelities of a “one-night stand” nature are less complicated.

Below are some of the steps that can be taken to begin a process of resolution;

  • End the affair; unless the partner is willing to end the affair, nothing can be resolved
  • Do not discuss details; where no image is present all that the details will do is paint a full picture that becomes difficult to erase
  • Stay away from “blame” statements and instead explore how things went so far sideways that one partner made a decision to seek an outside emotional and/or sexual affair
  • Tear down all structures that are contributing to dysfunction in the partnership and begin to rebuild from the foundation outwards (see past blogs on these topics)

A final note; the most difficult part to gaining resolution in this area will rest on two behavioral patterns. The first is this—the person that was “cheated” upon will need to find and then live with a forgiving heart. The second— the person who committed the act of infidelity will need to live above suspicion, no matter what that will mean to their life.


Affairs to Relationships – the Reality

This is the last in a current series on relationships and today we will explore the sustainability of moving from an “Affair” to a “Relationship”. Research done in this area suggests that there is a limited ability for an affair to move into a long-standing healthy relationship. For those that have followed the previous few blogs the rationale for this is obvious and easily understood—the foundation is broken!

Affairs are a fantasy world. People that engage in this type of relationship often over-rate its significance and meaning. Firstly, it is built on a foundation of lies, deceit, and disloyalty. Once this relationship transitions into a “primary relationship”, whether spoken of or not, under the surface exist the question of “could they do this to me”? Immediately, this relationship has some significant issues around perceived loyalty, trust, and potential jealousy concerns. The person that you once “loved” and thought the world of is now having their phone checked, queried any time they go out as to where they went, who they were with, and potentially asked, “did you sleep with them too” type statements. This may not happen right at the start of the relationship but wait until problems develop (as they do in every relationship) and it will begin to run through one or both partner’s minds—the reason, you did it before so they know you’re capable of it and you were good at it; they were able to get you or you them. Both sides know that when at least one if not both parties had their previous relationships go sideways, the person’s out was to have an affair versus fix themselves, fix the relationship, or leave.

Secondly, the way a person behaves in an affair is very different from how they interact in a relationship or marriage. As stated, affairs are a fantasy world—there are no bills, no children (unless someone is really inappropriate), typically no bad moods as people get together at times when it is convenient and both are happy to see the other. Once life hits and our moods come forward (admit it, we all have them) and both people are put in front of the idiosyncrasies and the blemishes of personality it’s not nearly as much fun as the affair was so people often leave—the reason, one or both people are in the relationship for the immaturity of having ONLY fun in a relationship; they struggle with day-to-day difficulties and seek external resolutions to these rather than exploring meaningful problem resolution tactics. This is potentially one of the reasons they had the affair in the first part.

Finally, most affairs today come with one or both parties having children from their original partnership and this will become difficult when there is an attempt to move this affair to relationship status. The most difficult familial system is the “blended family”; I will not go into all the details to this area but suffice to say that the blended family unit often begins with a lot of stresses, realignments, rule negotiations, and potentially power struggles. For a “new” relationship, this is often too much to sustain and people end up going in separate directions—especially those that prefer a fantasy world to one of commitment, loyalty, perseverance, openness, and love.

As such, if you want to move an affair to relationship status then do the work first. End the affair, deal with the consequences, work on how you contributed to the affair happening, and ensure yourself that the likelihood of this occurring again is limited before moving into another relationship. Mistakes happen, affairs happen, it is not an unforgivable behavior—but do the right things to limit this ever happening to yourself or someone else going forward as the damage these create is measurable, significant, and meaningful.