Some of the muddiest waters of couples counseling are in the area of infidelity. What one partner defines as “friendship” may look like a budding romance to the other. This can lead to a lot of fights about what defines cheating in a relationship. Does it have to involve physical touch? Does there have to be an emotional connection?
Unsurprisingly, no one is soothed by these arguments back and forth. The partner who feels betrayed stays betrayed, and the partner with the other relationship feels judged and defensive. So what do we do?
We define an emotional affair. There are a few parts:
- It’s a one-to-one personal relationship with someone who could become a romantic partner. Even if you feel you would never actually do anything, it’s that idea that either you or the other person could develop strong feelings.
- There is a sexual charge to the relationship. Be honest with yourself here. Even if this relationship is not primarily about sex, you’re attracted and enjoy that attraction. If you let yourself dwell on that sexual charge, it might grow.
- Perhaps most importantly, you don’t tell your partner what’s going on in that other relationship. Or if you do, you edit it carefully.
If you’re reading this and going “uh oh, I think I’m in a relationship like this,” now is the time to cool it down. It doesn’t have to be dramatic; lots of adult friendships fade out when “life gets in the way.” This should be one of them. Now is also the time to come clean with your partner about everything you haven’t shared regarding this relationship, including the reason you kept it a secret.
If you’re the accuser and your partner is defensive, stating they’re in the right and you’re simply being paranoid, now might be the time to seek some marriage counseling together. There is something bigger going on beyond the possible emotional affair. You and your partner have some trust issues. You’re feeling really vulnerable and unsafe, and your spouse is feeling defensive and maybe “policed”. If your conflict about this third party endures, there are issues that a professional therapist can help you sort out.
If you’re the one suspected of an emotional affair and you’re convinced it’s not one (i.e., maybe your spouse has been jealous of everyone of the opposite sex that you’ve worked with) it’s in your best interest to help your partner feel more confident. This might require a therapist’s help. Your spouse may be feeling vulnerable for reasons that need to be sorted out, and you may be doing other things you don’t realize are contributing to trust issues in your marriage.
Either way, couples therapy can help prevent more damage in the future. It’s not enough to just say “trust me, there’s no problem,” when your spouse is torn up about another relationship.
And if one of you is uncertain about staying in the marriage, a local discernment counselor may be your next best step.