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Weekend Today
updated 8/11/2006 1:11:39 PM ET 2006-08-11T17:11:39

How would you define emotional infidelity? Dr. Dale Atkins explains what it is and how you know if you're an emotional cheater.

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What is it?
Emotional cheating is about forming meaningful attachments with people other than your partner in ways that prevent your partner from having that deep emotional intimacy with you. Emotional cheating damages the relationship because it is about “connection” and that is what people want. Feeling emotionally distant from the “wife who doesn’t understand me” or the “husband who doesn’t appreciate me” makes someone more vulnerable to becoming emotionally attached to an idealized friend.

How common is it?
Quite common because people are spending so much time at work and online and are not investing their non-tired, non-frustrated selves in their primary relationships. These days many primary relationships get the “leftovers.” People come home tired, irritable, and are physically and emotionally spent. They find it easier to hang out at lunch with a work buddy and talk about their problems. At work, they are dressed nicely, on their best behavior, possibly involved in a project with someone who understands their work pressure, and knows what challenges they face during the day and are supportive. They speak the same “language.” It is not surprising, therefore, that emotional infidelity often happens with co-workers who allow boundaries to blur as they have conversations about their personal and professional dreams and goals, and marital problems. These relationships also occur online as people chat on internet sites and allow themselves to flirt, share intimate fantasies, information they do not feel safe sharing with their primary partner, or feel “understood or appreciated” — the two biggest complaints partners have about their primary relationships.

What are some of the red lights that detect whether you are an emotional cheater?

  • You keep aspects of your intimate life for your “friend” and do not share them with your partner.
  • Your friendship shifts from platonic to romantic and you feel less connected to your partner.
  • You think about your friend most of the time and you fantasize about him or her even when you are making love with your partner.
  • You feel recognized, appreciated, even loved by your “friend” so you do not feel the need to connect to your partner. You feel a distance between you and your partner.
  • You withhold and “cut off” valuable aspects of who you are, particularly your intimate self and your intimate life from your partner. You stop having sex with your partner.
  • You discuss the things you don’t like about your spouse or your married life with your friend and not with your spouse.
  • You tell your “friend” more about what goes on regarding your workday and your work life than you do with your partner.
  • You feel as if your “friend” has your heart.
  • You are dishonest with your spouse about the extent of the friendship and feelings with and for your “friend.”
  • You would be embarrassed if your partner read the e-mails, notes, or eavesdropped on a conversation, or saw the way you interacted in person with your “friend.”
  • When you are with your “friend” your body language communicates that your feelings are stronger than friendship.
  • There is sexual tension and you can discuss it openly with your “friend.”

How can couples rebound from an emotional affair?
Understand that even if you have not slept with this person you have cheated. You have given your heart to someone else and prevented your partner from sharing what is essential to who you are and what is important to you.

Agree that you went over the limits of trust between the two of you and that you recognize what you were looking for, getting, and missed in your primary relationship.

Recognize and be clear that you are still committed and attached to your partner and that you will discuss with him or her difficulties you have in your relationship and work on them together. 

Change the dynamic of the “friend” relationship so you can once again focus on your partner. Avoid discussing such personal details of your life and save them for your partner.

Find ways to share your feelings, goals, and dreams with your partner. Take the time to pay attention to your appearance, go out, find time to be intimate, erotic, whatever works for you to keep your love exciting and enticing.

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