Emotional Affairs: the New Infidelity

Emotional infidelity is the new threat to loving relationships. An emotional affair starts as friendship, often with colleagues or seemingly harmless online relationships, and slowly progresses to something more. A gradual blurring of the lines between friendship and deeper intimacy draws even happily partnered people into relationships they never saw coming. 

Many of us have a vision of infidelity in which one partner starts a torrid sexual affair and selfishly lives a double life until it all comes crumbling down. Emotional infidelity couldn't be more different, which leaves many couples vulnerable to its damaging effects.

A couple's best defense against emotional infidelity is to learn about it, then fortify their relationship against it. However, if you've experienced emotional infidelity, there are also some key lessons to be learned from it that can make your relationship stronger.

What is an emotional affair?

An emotional affair is one of those gray areas of relationships. It usually occurs when a person in a committed relationship forms a deep attachment to someone he or she is attracted to and pursues increasing intimacy, but without sexual activity. At least at the outset. Emotional affairs are often the precursor to full-blown sexual affairs.

Unlike a purely sexual affair, today's affair looks--and begins--more like friendship than the no-strings-attached sex of years past. Today, both men and women are having emotional affairs that start with the heart and the mind.

How dangerous is an emotional affair?

These sexually charged but unconsummated relationships drain significant energy and excitement from a current relationship. They redirect a partner's attention elsewhere. The strong feeling of connection and intimacy may or may not progress to sex. Regardless, the wedge in a person's primary relationship is both noticeable and harmful. In fact, the lack of sex in an emotional affair can be more damaging than the affairs of days past, due to an intense build-up of unconsummated sexual energy.

What's the difference between attraction and emotional infidelity?

We're all living, breathing sexual beings. Attraction doesn't end once we're in a relationship. Even the most happily coupled people are going to feel the familiar buzz of attraction when someone catches their eye or laughs at one of their jokes. However, while feeling attraction is unavoidable, acting on it crosses the line.

Attraction is one ingredient of an emotional affair. In order for attraction to launch into an emotional affair, a person has to also develop intimacy and, eventually, a feeling of connection with that person that supersedes their current relationship.

In other words, attraction + effort + intimacy = emotional infidelity. Take away one, and all you're left with is a natural instinct or a harmless relationship.

The 3 ingredients of an emotional affair

An emotional affair often begins with a feeling of wanting more from someone you are sexually attracted to and energized by in your day-to-day life.

According to a comprehensive book on the subject, Not "Just Friends" by Dr. Shirley Glass, an emotional affair is marked by three distinguishing qualities:

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