When does a relationship cross the line from friendship into becoming a threat to a primary relationship? Almost everyone agrees that sexual infidelity is cheating. However, cheating can occur even without actual sexual contact. Emotional cheating can be just as much of a threat to a relationship as a full-blown sexual affair.
Emotional Affair versus Friendship
According to Ronald T. Potter-Efron, MSW, Ph.D., and Patricia S. Potter-Efron, MS, coauthors of The Emotional Affair: How to Recognize Emotional Infidelity and What to Do About It, an emotional affair differs from a friendship because it is more emotionally demanding of the people involved. The couple who is involved in an emotional affair will share intimacies with one another that should be shared with their spouses or partners. An emotional affair does not respect the boundaries to which a legitimate friendship adheres.
Emotional affairs, like all illicit relationships, have an air of secrecy about them. People involved in emotional affairs attempt to hide the amount of time they spend with one another. They may lie to their spouses about the nature of meetings with the outside person, for instance, claiming a meeting is business-related when it is actually time spent with a work colleague with whom they are emotionally involved. They may not reveal to their spouses how much detail about their private lives they actually share with the outside person. They may also attempt to hide email and text messages to and from their outside partners.
Even if they never touch one another, two people involved in an emotional affair share a great deal of intimacy. They think about one another when they are apart, for instance, a song on the radio may remind one of them of the other rather than than the spouse. People involved in emotional affairs turn to one another for emotional validation and support, rather than seeking that closeness with their spouses or partners. They share private jokes, pet nicknames and special secrets with one another. On the other hand, they may behave almost like strangers with their spouses, sharing physical space, but little else.
Many emotional affairs take place at least partially in cyberspace. Oftentimes the liaisons take place between people who know one another and use computer time to gain the privacy that telephone conversations often do not allow. They spend increasing amounts of time emailing with their outside partners rather than with their spouses or significant other. However, in other cases, two people involved in an emotional affair may never have actually met. Venues such as Second Life allow people to adapt a whole new persona, which may or may not match their actual identities. Other emotional affairs begin in online "chat rooms" where people adopt screen names and profiles that, again, may or may not match their true identities. Nonetheless, the real people behind these avatars and handles often begin very passionate associations outside their real-life marriages or dating relationships.
Along with the inherent dangers of an emotional affair, there is the very real danger that an emotional affair can become a full-blown sexual affair, according to Steven Stosny, Ph.D., coauthor of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. According to Dr. Stosny, the longer sexual tension builds up between two people involved in an emotional affair, the more likely it becomes that they will cross the line into physical infidelity. Dr. Stosny also claims that the fact that two people are not having sex can make the connection obsessive. Also, stopping an emotional affair is easier said than done, and can cause genuine anguish on the part of one or both partners.