Dear Dr. Gail: My husband of four years has been having an emotional affair with one of his employees (who is also a former girlfriend) prior to and during our marriage. It has severely damaged my trust in him. He denies there is such a thing as “emotional cheating” and believes that I am an insecure, jealous wife. I am not, but I definitely do feel uncomfortable, suspicious, and excluded.
I would like my marriage to be successful, but I feel betrayed and expect that the situation will only get worse. Is it possible for an individual or a marriage to recover from an emotional affair? If so, how can I save my marriage? —Emotionally Cheated
Dear Cheated: After I discussed emotional affairs on “Today,” I received many questions from views like yours. Yes, your marriage can recover from an emotional affair — but it’s difficult to achieve without the willing participation of both spouses.
As difficult as it can be, here are a few things that will help, assuming both of you want your marriage to survive.
First, your husband needs to acknowledge that he’s having an emotional affair. It’s hard to solve a problem if it’s not seen as one. Your husband must understand that his emotional attachment to this other woman is, indeed, a betrayal of you and your marriage.
It’s common for men to say that, if an intimate relationship isn’t physical, it isn’t an affair. As you know, that’s a defensive maneuver. It’s still infidelity. And an emotional betrayal hurts just as much as any other kind of betrayal.
Second, and this won’t be easy for you, you need to ask your husband questions about his feelings for this other woman. This will help clarify for you — and probably for him — the true nature of his emotional involvement and investment in this relationship. (This exercise may also show you why you feel so bad about his friendship with his ex-girlfriend.)
Some questions you might ask him include: Are you attracted to her? Would you be uncomfortable if I sat in on your conversations? Do you dress up when you know you will see her? Do you look forward to seeing her? Are you honest about how much time you spend with her? Do you tell her more about your feelings than you tell me? Do you tell her problems that we are having in our marriage? Do you prefer her company to mine?
Third, you need to ask yourself if you have contributed to your husband’s emotional affair. Is there something lacking in your marriage? Are you aloof? Or angry? Are you withholding sex to punish him? If you are creating a distance between you and your husband, then you have to take steps to correct this.
If he still refuses to understand why you feel betrayed by his emotional affair, then he doesn’t consider your feelings terribly important. If this is the case, then it will be difficult to save your marriage.
If, however, your husband does acknowledge his emotional involvement with his ex, then ask him to break off all contact with her or, if she is a co-worker, keep their association 100 percent professional. Give him a chance to prove his trustworthiness. Ask him to come home directly after work or ask him to curtail unnecessary business travel.
Think about your life if you stay with him and if you leave him. If you stay, will you worry that he’s cheating on you? If you leave, what will be you giving up? If you have children, this is even a more difficult decision. If your husband doesn’t admit that he’s having an emotional affair, and you give him an ultimatum — it’s either me or her — be sure you are willing to follow through on that threat.
I can’t give you a time frame. Trying to figure out if your marriage can be saved may take months — or even years. Some people will never completely regain trust in their spouse after an emotional affair. It’s up to you to decide whether you and her husband if you can work together to revitalize your marriage.
When it comes to infidelity, many couples benefit from couples therapy. He might be better able to understand his emotional affair if it is discussed with an objective third party. Generally, I tell my patients that a marriage is worth fighting for.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: It’s possible to recover from an emotional affair, but it’s not easy — and both spouses need to participate.