Sexual infidelity is the headline-grabber when most people think about betrayals in committed relationships. But, in recent decades, another kind of infidelity has been on the rise, and it poses one of the biggest threats to marriages: the emotional affair. Today’s workplace has become the new danger zone of opportunities for emotional affairs, surpassed only by the Internet. One reason is that women are moving into the workforce in steadily increasing numbers. And never before have women been so educated, so interesting and so capable. Both these factors are having a huge impact on available opportunities for relationships of different nuances to develop at the workplace.
A relationship that does not include sexual betrayal can be just as intense, or more so, than a purely sexual affair. People occasionally have a sexual affair just because an opportunity presents itself, but a one-night stand or an alcohol-fuelled romp happens and then it is over. But people usually have an emotional affair when something is missing in the primary relationship: that something could be warmth, appreciation, connection, affection. Though less dramatic than a purely sexual liaison, an emotional affair generally lasts longer, and may even destroy the marriage, which is easy to understand when you consider that emotional intimacy is the most powerful bond in human relationships, certainly carrying more heft than simple lust. What’s more, in the majority of cases (80 percent, according to estimates), the dynamics of the emotional affair cause it to cross over into sexual love sooner or later.
You might be thinking, “This will never happen in my marriage.” Most couples who seek therapy in the aftermath of emotional infidelity thought so too – before it happened to them. In some cases, a person has been faithful for decades, and then one day suddenly crosses a line he never thought he would cross, and at the risk of losing everything. Emotional infidelity sometimes happens in happy marriages, too. In fact, you can lower your guard when you believe you are the exception. The bottom-line: all of us are vulnerable.
How it begins
The reason that the rug can get pulled from under our feet is that emotional affairs begin so innocently. Say, you’re working late on an office project with a colleague, and then on the way out, you might say, “Let’s grab a coffee at CCD before going on home.” And that unwinding over coffee might stretch out for a longer time than you had planned. And gradually you might find that you’re heading for a chinwag over coffee even on those days when you’re not working late – simply because you enjoy each other’s company. And then… you’re starting the working day with a bit of chit-chat over a cup of tea at your desk or his. And then… spending lunch time together, maybe now and then trawling a mall together, maybe sharing commutes to and from your place of work.
Eventually, the verbal nuances of what you’re sharing during those times together also begin to change. Talking about office matters, laughing over the latest Rahul Gandhi or Arnab Goswami jokes, exchanging viewpoints about Trump and Clinton... all completely innocent so far. What is critical is whether you then move into the realm of shared feelings, hopes and fears, confidences about personal problems, and in particular confidences about difficulties on the home front and or in your marriage. Another warning sign is that you feel you are being heard and understood by this person in a way that has never happened, or has stopped happening, with your spouse.
Once the other person becomes the shoulder you lean on and cry upon, you have forged a key emotional bond that properly belongs in your primary relationship. At this point you might even be mentally comparing the other person to your marriage partner, and increasingly finding things that are “positive” and “right” about your friend, and things that are “negative” and “annoying” about your marriage partner. You know you’ve gone down the chute from friendship into an emotional affair when s/he has become the first person you call to share your news, you have started to take more care with your grooming and appearance, and you have stopped telling your spouse what the two of you discuss or do. You may also begin to fantasize about how it would be to have sex with this friend – even if you don’t take any step towards making that happen.
If you then find that you’re using that line about being “just good friends” more and more often, to other people and to yourself, that in itself is a red rag. The rationale allows you to make excuses (or, more plainly, to lie) about something you know in your gut is wrong.
You may try to convince yourself that you’re “not doing anything wrong”. But betrayal is in the eyes of the beholder. The acid test is this: If your marital partner were looking over your shoulder when you’re with your friend, would s/he be feeling uncomfortable and undermined? If yes, then it is an intimate betrayal.
Three key elements are always present in a full-blown emotional affair: a secrecy about the intimacy of the relationship; a strong emotional connection; and a sexual alchemy. “Alchemy” is the key word, because the erotic frisson is such that the kiss you fantasise happening can be as powerful and enthralling as hours of love-making.
Why it happens
Nobody wakes up one morning and decides, “Today’s the day I’m going to begin an emotional affair.” In fact, most people genuinely feel there was no reason why this should have happened to them. But there always is a reason, and in seeking it out, you need to take a long, hard look at your marriage. Marriage is a contract – an invisible contract. Both partners bring to it expectations about what they want and don’t want, what they’re willing to give and not willing to give. Most often, this is not at the level of consciousness – the expectations may remain hidden from both, their partners and themselves. Most marriage partners don’t even know they expected something until they realize that they’re not getting it.
But if we don’t get what we expected – affection, support and love, and above all, a best friend – disillusion sets in, and with it, disappointment. Over the disappointment, the partners erect defenses against each other. They become guarded, wall off parts of themselves, seek to fill the vacuum with other activities – or with a friendship that is just an emotional affair waiting to happen.
The road to recovery
Emotional infidelity can sometimes sound the death knell for a marriage that was already dying on the vine. But if the marriage is fundamentally a good relationship, then a slip into emotional infidelity is a cry for help. In fact, a couple strongly motivated to restore their relationship will actually be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
Make a clean cut. Healing begins, of course, with cutting all ties with the affair partner. “I don’t want to hurt him / her by breaking off completely” really means, “I don’t know how to say ‘no’ and ‘goodbye’.” And / or, it could mean, “I couldn’t say ‘no’ to the part of me that loved the attention and the emotional surge.” If the relationship continues in almost any form, recovery for the marriage is unlikely to succeed.
Accept mutual responsibility. The most important predictor of re-building trust after an affair, other than love, is the capacity for both spouses to take some responsibility for what happened. This can be a bitter pill to swallow for the person who has been betrayed. Yet, it is a step that must be taken if the relationship is to be saved.
An instance: a young wife discovered, by “chancing” to read her husband’s emails, that he was having an emotional affair with an office colleague. On the face of it, this looked as if he were the blame-worthy party. But in the course of couples counselling, it became clear to both of them that it wasn’t enough for her husband to end the affair with his colleague, re-dedicate himself to her, and repair the hurt and humiliation she felt. The young wife arrived at the point where she found it necessary and honest to admit that she had shut down sexually and emotionally since she had become a mother. She had to acknowledge that her husband, in his own way, felt hurt and betrayed by her turning away from him and neglecting to nurture the connection they had shared.
If you have betrayed someone you love, the following steps are crucial:
Acknowledge your wrongdoing. The fact that your partner takes responsibility for the relationship losing its lustre does not let you off the hook in terms of your act of betrayal. You need to take complete responsibility for that and express guilt and remorse for what happened. Very often, the betrayer expresses remorse for the pain caused to the marital partner, but does not feel remorse for the experience of the affair itself. But the distinction is important, and if you do not feel remorse for what happened, chances are it may happen again.
Know that it will take time for your partner to heal. Your feelings of guilt, shame or humiliation may make you reluctant to raise the topic of the affair or, when raised, cause you to close down the conversation prematurely. Don’t. Assume that, even with therapy and the support of good friends, it will take at least a year for your partner to be able to trust you again. You should be prepared to maintain ongoing, sometimes painful, conversations about your betrayal.
Show enthusiasm for change and repair. Your partner may doubt that you want to change. If you really want to show that you are worth trusting, you will have to demonstrate that you are in it for the long haul. It may not be enough just to get into therapy. You may have to change jobs, join a different gym, be more transparent around emails and phone calls – all as part of showing your dedication to saving the relationship. Respect the need for new limits or rules.
Avoid isolating yourselves. After a romantic betrayal, it is common for people to avoid reaching out to their usual support system (friends; relatives, especially the extended family) because they don’t want to share their shame or humiliation. As a result, betrayal begets isolation.
But getting help in dealing with the trauma of betrayal is critical. It’s not just about preserving the relationship: If you have been betrayed, you might need help to control the damage caused to your individual identity, your self-esteem, and your feelings of security in the world. A support system is invaluable.
Couples therapy can help. If you find that efforts to resolve the crisis by both of you only end in recriminations and angry verbal lashings, consulting a marriage counsellor can help – provided both spouses are strongly motivated to heal the breach of trust.
Betrayal runs deep. Re-building trust isn’t easy and it’s rarely fast, with many pitfalls along the way for both partners. But most couples who succeed find that they have created a new relationship, a new marriage in fact, which is in many ways better than the old one. They find they can communicate with an honesty, openness and depth they haven’t had in years. Something about the fear of loss also re-kindles sexual desire, and can take it to new highs. Years later they may find that they have healed a wound that had once seemed it would stay open forever.
(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)