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An affair doesn’t have to be physical to be intense – or to ruin a relationship. Guardian readers open up about bonding, betrayal and what happened next.
Chloe had encouraged her husband to accept the new job. “I told him: ‘Life is too short to be unhappy.’
The effect on him was transformative – but not in the way she had imagined. “One minute, he was a family guy, the next, he was always working late and going in early.” She found out why when she visited him one day at work.
“My heart dropped when I saw them talking to each other – they had this closeness,” says Chloe, 49. “I realised then that it was her that had come between us. He went to her with problems, shared secrets and aspirations – all those things that we used to do together.”
Chloe is confident the relationship was never physical – but 15 years later it is still enormously hurtful. At the time, they had been married for 12 years and had a three-year-old son. “Before, I thought that pain could only come from a physical betrayal – there wasn’t a rulebook to follow for this type.”
An emotional affair is characterised by nonsexual intimacy with someone other than your partner, in such a way that violates their trust and expectations. With technology enabling round-the-clock and covert communication, it has never been easier to fall into that grey area between “just friends” and “more than friends” – often with plausible deniability.
According to a 2015 YouGov study of 1,660 British adults, 20% of people have been unfaithful to their partner. Of those, 15% said their infidelity had no physical component.
When the Guardian ran a reader callout asking for experiences of emotional affairs, the responses showed that the fallout of this kind of affair is no less devastating for the lack of sex.
Chloe says she could feel her husband’s relationship with his colleague “eroding” her own, but “it was so easy to duck out of discussing it because nothing had physically happened”. Then she looked at her husband’s phone: “His messages to her had their own kind of language and intimacy – I knew then that we wouldn’t work.”
Not every relationship would be threatened by such a bond: only 44% of respondents to the YouGov survey said they considered a non-physical connection to be cheating. Some people actively make room for others through consensual non-monogamy. Albert, a retiree who identifies as queer, says an “emotional affair” strikes him as a non-sequitur: “It equates the attachment with something that is duplicitous – this need not be the case.”
Jealousy over friends or colleagues might also denote a relationship that is controlling or even abusive. But in instances where those suspicions are well founded, the truth may emerge only after many painful arguments, denial and even gaslighting.
Confirmation of her ex-partner’s emotional affair made Anneka, 31, feel strangely relieved: “I felt vindicated that I had been right. I’d spent a long time questioning whether I was just being crazy and controlling.”
Anneka’s paranoia had been piqued by her then boyfriend being “glued to his phone”, while keeping it out of her sight. “I’m pretty confident he wasn’t cheating on me physically – but, in my mind, emotional cheating is almost as bad.”
What constitutes infidelity is specific to each relationship, says Sarah Calvert, a sex and relationships therapist based in London, but secrecy can be proof enough. “That is one of the factors – telling secrets and deep, intimate feelings that you wouldn’t want your partner to know you were sharing. It comes down to that basic question: would you be happy for your partner to be overhearing these conversations, or to know how much time you spend thinking about them?”
Georgina, 40, says her three-year emotional affair with a colleague was “as intense as a physical affair – perhaps more so. We never even kissed on the mouth. I had never felt closer to anyone.”
Dr Gayle Brewer, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Liverpool, says that if our partner is confiding in someone else instead of us, perhaps with intimate details about our relationship, “we tend to view that as a betrayal”.
Conversely, “if we feel as if our partner is not listening to us or supporting us, we’re more likely to engage in emotional infidelity,” she says (although a strong support network outside the relationship could mitigate this).
The impact is felt more by women, says Brewer, with studies showing “time and time again” that they are more distressed by an emotional affair than by a sexual one, while the opposite is true for men.
“Men tend to question their partners: ‘Have you had sex with that person?’ Women tend to ask: ‘Do you love that person?’ And the unfaithful partner will deny the aspect that’s more hurtful.”
Daphne, 25, broke up with her boyfriend over his messages to a former colleague: “They were chatting like boyfriend and girlfriend. It hurt more than if he had drunkenly snogged someone on a night out.”
When they got back together a year later, her boyfriend struggled with Daphne’s sexual encounters during the break. “He didn’t really have the right to say anything about it,” she says.
The common conception is that an emotional affair is a precursor to a physical one. “A little bit of chemistry or sexual tension” is typical of emotional affairs, says Calvert, but their underlying cause – the behaviours driving the betrayal – may not be obvious. “In my experience, it comes from deeper issues within the relationship or the person – unresolved issues from past traumas, for example, or a need that’s not being met.”
Walter, a middle-aged father of three, paraphrases When Harry Met Sally: “Affairs are a symptom, not a cause.” His wife’s emotional affair, with a female friend, had roots in her sexual confusion and childhood abuse, he says. “I can’t judge her from an intellectual perspective. But I can say that when your lover gives her heart to someone else, it’s simply painful.”
Other readers linked their (or their partner’s) emotional affair to a wide range of factors including religious upbringing, difficulties in conceiving, new parenthood, mental and physical illness, the death of a parent, professional impostor syndrome, and the disruption to a social network caused by a change in job or location.
One 29-year-old described feelings of panic at a looming engagement: “I couldn’t explain why – I had spent the past six years dreaming of our future. But a birthday message from an ex-lover popped up in my inbox and the rest unfolded at a rapid pace.”
Much more pronounced than doubts about the relationship was the toll taken on them by day-to-day responsibilities, especially after many years of monogamy.
“The emotional high we both got from a feeling of being recognised as people – not parents, colleagues, spouses, whatever – was addictive,” says Yvonne, 47, who had an emotional affair with her colleague. Clara, 24, echoed many respondents in describing a man she met via an app, with whom she talked nonstop for four months: “He was everything I wanted my partner to be.”
When the third party is often idealised, it is not a fair comparison, says Calvert. “It’s like this big fantasy is created – they seem to understand you, but actually you’re not seeing the whole of them, because you don’t have a full relationship.”
Confronting what is at the root of your emotional affair could reveal the path out of it – and strengthen your relationship, she adds. “Just like physical affairs, emotional affairs give an opportunity to look at the underlying issues, whether that’s within the individual or the relationship. It can be a catalyst for quite a seismic change – but re-establishing trust takes a long time.”
Phyllis, 58, and her husband are opening up their 20-year marriage to polyamory after admitting to emotional affairs: “I’m not ready to give up the person I’m having an emotional affair with, but I am willing to repair what is broken in my marriage,” she says.
Caitlin, 37, says her husband’s emotional entanglement with a colleague has “been a real kick up the arse for us”. At the time, they had been working long hours and raising young children, with little joy in their lives or time for each other. After the affair came out, they relocated, resolving to make a change.
Now their marriage is “better than ever”, says Caitlin. “We remember we do actually like and love each other, and we feel good that we’ve gone through so much together … it just as easily could have been me who had had an emotional affair; things were that bad. We’re grateful that it happened now.”
Even if a relationship does not recover, there is more to be gained from confronting the problems at play, says Calvert.
Through therapy, Walter found the self-esteem he needed to end his marriage after his wife’s emotional affair. India, 28, says she is much happier after hers led to a divorce. Likewise, Tanya, 30, says it was a catalyst to end her 10-year relationship: “I’m thoroughly enjoying the independence and growth.”
As for Chloe, her husband’s emotional affair led to their divorce. “I slowly rebuilt myself by going to [the counselling service] Relate to ‘get over it’ – and him.” And she did, later remarrying and having another child. She says her husband’s emotional affair was the making of “the more savvy me. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.”
Source: The Guardian (UK)