Possibly the deepest human need is the need to feel appreciated. – Psychologist William James
One trend I have noticed lately is a growing number of couples identifying an emotional affair as the main cause for coming to counseling. For those who are unfamiliar, an emotional affair is any infidelity that does not involve physical touch with a third party. If you are saying to yourself “how can it be cheating if no one touches anyone else?” you have something in common with a number of my clients. However, even if that line is never crossed it is still possible to damage the relationship just as significantly as if there had been a physical affair.
Emotional affairs often take place electronically via social networking, texting, or phone conversations. A wife who finds a husband sharing a romantic relationship online with a woman he has never been in the same city with will feel the sting of infidelity. A husband who discovers that his wife is the main topic for gossip hounds in her office due to her daily private lunches, regular closed door meetings, and frequent shoulder rubs from the man in the office she seems just a little too close to will tell a couple’s counselor that trust is a big issue in his marriage. Does this mean that having friendly relationships online or with coworkers is wrong? Only if there is any part of the relationship, communication, or activities you share with the third party that your spouse doesn’t know about. The simplest test is secrecy. If you hide it from your spouse, then it’s probably detrimental to your marriage.
The question of how we went from being in love with our spouse to seeking emotional fulfillment outside of our marriages is complex and unique to each couple. However, the pattern I have seen most often is that one person will feel unappreciated by their spouse for so long that they eventually rationalize it is necessary to develop an emotional connection with someone new because their spouse isn’t interested in them anymore. When confronted with this in counseling I often hear some version of the following statement: “I do still love him/her, it just seems like nothing I say/do was ever enough so I stopped trying.” This is a strong indicator to me that the couple’s problems are based in the way they do (and don’t) show love to each other. While work has to be done to heal the foundational cracks left by the emotional affair, the solution to the root cause is readily available in the form of a book I often recommend to anyone who is or ever plans to be married. The Five Love Languages, by Dr. Gary Chapman, explains how and why people need to express and receive love in different ways. When we receive love from our spouse in the way we most need it we feel a sense of emotional fulfillment. When we show our love to our spouse in the way they desire we ensure they feel appreciated, cared for, and are emotionally connected to us.
Is this a guarantee against an emotional affair? No, it isn’t, but I believe someone who feels strongly connected to, emotionally fulfilled by, and completely in love with their spouse would have little interest in trying to develop that kind of relationship with someone else.
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