Let’s begin with a simple definition. An emotional affair is any relationship where we go outside our marriage to have our emotional needs met. This is by necessity an egregiously broad definition. The difficulty comes from the fact that we are created for relationship. It is our position in the relationship that determines whether it is an affair or not.
Examples of Emotional Affairs
Consider for a moment a wife who loves listening to live music, and a husband who doesn’t. He doesn’t engage with her and she feels lonely. She finds a friend who also loves live music and they begin going out on weekends. In the absence of her husband’s attention, she becomes attached to this friend, begins preferring her over her husband and choosing her needs over his.Or a husband who works on a Bible Study with a single theology student who goes to his church. She is lively and interested and genuinely appreciates his mind. Things are okay at home, but this woman makes him feel alive in ways he hasn’t felt in years, or maybe ever. He begins to find reasons to text her and meet with her, and his interest in spending time with his wife begins to wane.
Or a pastor begins counseling a single woman, who is attractive and genuinely interested in him as a person, or damaged in a way that makes him feel good at what he does. He meets with her on Wednesdays. Without even noticing, on Wednesday mornings, he takes special care with his hair, hygiene, and clothing choices. When he sees her, his face (and heart) light up unlike any other person he meets. He begins altering his schedule around hers and finding reasons to make additional contact.
How to Identify an Emotional Affair
Did you notice a recurring theme in the vignettes above? In each case, the emotional affair developed outside the person’s awareness, increased gradually, and became a substitute for the marriage relationship. Take a moment to examine your work relationships, your church relationships, your friendships – are there any that feel like they are replacing something you aren’t getting from your spouse? Be curious about that.
If you suddenly realize you are having an emotional affair, you may have a surge of guilt or shame. Put the mallet down, and don’t beat yourself up. We are wired to try and have our needs met, and when our spouse is not there for us, we naturally begin to seek satisfaction elsewhere.
Be ready, also, for a surge of anger and self-justification. Typically, when we haven’t been getting the attention and affirmation we need from our spouse, especially over time, we can be semiconsciously angry, enraged even, over the lack. This subliminal outrage over not being seen and loved well often drives the unaware involvement in the emotional affair, more so when it is layered on emotional deficits we suffered at the hands of our parents.
The important thing is to identify that the affair is happening and take steps to correct it. If your reaction is, “No, my spouse is not there for me, I’m going to continue with this relationship,” then it would be better to be honest up front and tell your spouse you want out of the marriage, because that is the road you are choosing. If you don’t want to end the marriage, there are some steps you can take to end and guard against an emotional affair.
How to Re-engage with Your Spouse
Reconnecting to your spouse can be very difficult. If the behavior fueling the emotional affair has gone on for a long time, it may be very hard or impossible to change. Your spouse has to be willing to work on the relationship, or it is time for you to make some critical decisions about your future together.
If one spouse says to the other, “I can’t go on like this, we need to get into counseling,” and the other says, “You can get counseling if you want. I’m fine with things the way they are,” you can do that – getting help for yourself is always a good idea – but you will likely end up at the same decision point, “What is keeping me in this marriage?” The answer to that question will determine your next steps.
Assuming your spouse is willing to try to make things better in the marriage, here are some steps you can take:
Get into Counseling
Usually, the emotional structure driving the disconnection in a marriage goes deep into painful, not often examined areas of our trauma narratives. We will need guidance just to know how to talk to each other, how to set healthy boundaries, honor them, and identify and ask for our needs. With some organizing structure in place for our interactions, we can begin to look at the triggers that undermine our desire to connect with each other.
Set Healthy Boundaries
Often, after years together, couples slip into enmeshment, where one person has high desire and one has low desire, and they are constantly in a tug-of-war to try to get the other person to do what they want. We may feel responsible for the other person’s feelings and find that incapacitating. We may have to see the expression on the other’s face to know how we are feeling. We may beg, wheedle, cajole or coerce the other person, but never actually express a need using our words.
Good boundaries means I get to say no without guilt, get to pause a conversation if it is escalating, get to state my needs without guilt, and am not responsible for the other person’s feelings. “You make me mad” is an untruth. “I am having an anger response to what you just said or did,” would be more accurate.
Identify Needs and Ask For Them, Being Able to Hear “No”
Most often we are raised by parents who had to try to anticipate our needs (is the crying because baby is wet, hungry, tired, etc.). If one or both of our parents continue this dynamic, we may be trained to get what we want by our look of disappointment, or a well-placed sigh, or by withholding affection from the target of our need.
Healthy communication requires that we use our words. Use your words. Take a few moments to identify your need and express it: “I would like a hug.” “I just want you to hold me.” “I was hoping we could have sex.” Now this is the hard part: we have to be willing to hear “no.” So, a more complete request would be, “I would like a hug. You can say no.”By saying it is okay to say no, we honor the other person’s adult agency and take coercion off the table. If what we really mean is, “I would like a hug, and if you don’t give me one, I will pout for the rest of the evening and ignore you,” we are trying to coerce behavior out of our spouse, which violates their adult agency, and puts you in a parent-child dynamic instead of a mutual adult one.
If you ask for a hug and the answer is no repeatedly, that’s important data and you need to figure out why the person is angry or anxious, or disconnected. Here again, a counselor can provide much needed direction and buffer for these conversations to happen.
Work on Connecting Action With Emotion
When we’ve been married for a while, it is easy to do so many things on automatic pilot. Make breakfast, kiss goodbye, kiss hello, make dinner, kiss goodnight. All can happen with no connection to emotion. You can begin to reconnect to your emotion with just a little adjustment. Take breakfast, for example. Do something to make it a little special. Add an unexpected treat of some kind, just because you love them.
When you kiss them goodbye, look them in the eye with a smile and tell them you miss them, or gently touch their cheek or whatever expression of affection is natural for you. We can disengage the automatic pilot by being present in the moment with our spouse, really seeing and hearing them, and calling them out if they are disengaged, “Hey?” And when they look at you, “I hope you have a good day.” Little changes like this can help us reconnect to our emotion around our actions.
Dust off Your Healthy Courting BehaviorsDating your spouse is a great way to begin to reconnect. Make a list, if you haven’t already, of things you can do together that you both enjoy. Sometimes this won’t be easy, but there has to be something you can do together that you both enjoy, or at least can tolerate because it’s good for you (like walking, golf, etc.).
Remember why you fell in love. Think about what you like about your spouse. List the things you would tell a friend that make your spouse look good. We usually have the list of negatives right at our fingertips. It’s time to develop the positives.
Find Your Spiritual Practices
Here again, it may be necessary to reconnect emotion with action. If we go to church together every Sunday by rote, but there is no joy or emotional connection to it, be curious about that. If praying together is drudgery or uncomfortable, you don’t have to power through it. That doesn’t mean give up on praying, just don’t feel like you have to slog through it as a mirthless task.
Begin to ask the question, “What works for me?” Be creative. There are many spiritual practices out there. We are holistic beings, and when we allow one area to lapse, the other’s suffer.
Prefer Your Spouse
If we have allowed our fondness for our spouse to lapse, it may be natural to want to spend more time with friends, or at work, or at church, or even involved in school activities. You may have to schedule time deliberately, which dovetails nicely with the courting behaviors. Set up a lunch date, a dinner date, a bowling date, a movie night, or whatever works for you.
When you are going to be scheduling time out of the house with friends or church or whatever, check in with your spouse about it. This will make them feel like their opinion matters, and that you are preferring them rather than defaulting to something not them.
If our spouse wants to wield veto power over our outside life, barring issues of control, we are likely not communicating our needs well and are coming up short in the presence department. A spouse who feels secure in the marriage relationship is much more likely to be amenable to the other spouse having active friendships outside the marriage.
One of the best ways to protect your marriage is to stay vigilant for possible threats. The moment you notice you are attracted to someone, that your heart beats a little faster, your day seems a little brighter, you start wanting to do nice things for them, or begin to change your schedule or dress for them, that should be a warning sign. The more capable we are of deceiving ourselves, the more we must be on guard.
If you are out of town for training or taking a night class and the instructor is attractive, you may have the impulse to try to ask them to coffee, for some completely plausible reason. If you’re attracted to them, don’t take the chance. They may refuse, but why play Russian Roulette with your marriage like that?
And if you are placed in a situation, such as work projects where you are working late nights with someone who is attractive to you, take steps to ground yourself in your marriage. Put up a photo of your wife and/or kids, or if the conversation strays into personal waters, mention your spouse early. Nothing cools a budding emotional affair like mentioning your spouse in a positive way.
These are just a few tools for reconnecting with your spouse and mitigating the likelihood of an emotional affair. Remember your wedding vows, to love, comfort, honor, and keep your spouse for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, forsaking all others, as long as you both shall live. This is a good template for your marriage relationship, and if you need help, admit that and take steps to do something about it.
“In love,” courtesy of Valerie Everett, Flickr Creative Commons 2.0, CC0 License; “Texting,” courtesy of Daria Nepriakhina, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Decay,” courtesy of WEB AGENCY, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Strolling,” courtesy of photo fiddler, Flickr Creative Commons 2.0, CC0 License