What’s emotional infidelity?
“Intimacy with someone besides our partner that’s emotional, not physical.”
It happens to many people, and in a world of hyper-communication and connectivity, it’s becoming an increasingly big topic. So, what do we do?
Let’s take this in two parts…
- Part I: Attraction
- Part II: What To Do With It
— PART I: ATTRACTION —
What it is, its power, and limitations.
Attraction sneaks up on us
Love is a choice, but attraction may not be.
It’s just there to navigate, leaving many flailing and trying to deny our basic humanness, like “I didn’t ask for this!”, at a loss as to how to safely indulge…
Attraction feels really good
Like most people, I have enjoyed the sweet, sodden satisfaction of crushes. I have obsessed over the way they smile, or sit, or stand, or the wrinkled folds in the hips of their jeans when they’ve done both. I’ve listened to songs they sent me —like Best Coast “Want You” or xx “Angels” — about a billion times. They’ve been the last thing I thought about before falling asleep each night.
It feels good.
An intoxicating rush, like chocolate cake or video games or a good book or [insert guilty pleasure of your choosing]; we often convince ourselves it’s “safe” if at arm’s length.
Except attraction is other people, often going on longer…
Attraction is chemical
And we have neural and chemical responses to infatuation.
Dr. Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Oxford, wrote, with “attraction,”
“The stress and reward systems in our brain are working overtime… Nerve cells in the brain release a chemical called norepinephrine that stimulates the production of adrenaline, and give us the feeling of arousal... The feel-good chemical dopamine is also released, making us excitable.”
And fortunately/unfortunately for us,
“Dopamine is your go-to reward chemical in life.”
It powers many decisions that we most enjoy — and are most helpless to…
Attraction is addictive
When examined in an MRI, people experiencing attraction will have high activity in the limbic system — which is associated with addiction. Meaning:
Navigating a crush can feel like addiction.
So while crushes may not be real, the lure of infatuation is.
In “So Sad Today,” Melissa Broder wrote,
“I crave eros, fantasy, and intrigue… This isn’t about love. This is about using people as drugs.”
Attraction is fantasy
As I wrote before, emotional affairs are fabrication.
Dr. Carl Pickhardt wrote,
“Crushes have more to do with fantasy than with reality.”
Dr. Machin wrote, they seem like “the right person” because,
“You idolize them… They’re going to be who you want them to be.”
And if you compare this to your partner — the day over day, year over year, with all the minutia and gritty details of real life — they never stand a chance.
“You believe that this fantasy person will fill you, because he or she possesses all the imaginary qualities you seek in a lover. And how do you know that he or she possesses all of these qualities? You put them there.”
And every time we interact with them, we strive to reaffirm this...
Attraction is escape
Because we make it up, it’s more “perfect” and alluring than real life.
In “So Sad Today,” Broder writes,
“Real love is responsibility, compromise, selflessness, being present, and all that shit. Fake love is magic, excitement, false hope, infatuation, and getting high off the potential that another person is going to save you from yourself.”
“It’s easy to ignore that reality. Simply project your own romantic ideation, childhood wounding, and overactive fantasy life onto onto another human being.”
We use them.
Attraction is about US
Love is about others, but in attraction, we don’t want the other person as much as we just want whatever we’ve projected.
As Dr. Carl Pickhardt wrote,
“Crushes… tell much more about the admirer than the admired.”
When a person has a crush or emotional affair, he or she,
“Projects onto another person idealized attributes the admirer highly values and wants to be associated with. Then she or he attaches strong positive feelings to the perfectly wonderful image that has been created.”
“You take a living, breathing human being and try to stuff them into the insatiable holes inside you. These holes are in no way shaped like that person (or any person.)”
Because even though these feelings can be incredibly strong (see above), it’s:
“Never really about the person you think you’re obsessed with.”
How do we know this? Because true, mature love does not act like this. Real love builds — always — over time. It is a choice; an investment.
Pickhardt calls crushes an “approximation of love;” the similarity being: we lodge it in other people. While love is meaningful, attraction is instead,
“A potent mix of idealization and infatuation.”
We don’t want them; we want the abstraction — what they represent to us; how they make us feel.
“Although the crush appears to be about attraction to another person, it is actually about projection of valued attributes onto another person — a statement about what they find attractive… they signify a lot about the dreamer.”
It’s about us.
And, as Broder wrote,
“Nobody can save you from yourself.”
— PART II: WHAT TO DO WITH ATTRACTION —
Know that you WILL be attracted to other people
See: section above.
One of the most truly remarkable things in life is when people act baffled to realize that they are, in fact, people.
And do messy “people” things like feel attracted to other people.
If your plan is to never feel attracted to anyone else — and if this is your “proof of” or “insurance for” your relationship — you’re gonna have a bad time.
Because, as Winton from Five Year Engagement put it:
“Underneath all that polite bullshit we’re all running on caveman software”
“You are not DEAD.”
Attraction doesn’t mean something’s “wrong”
Infidelity can happen even in otherwise happy relationships.
Sheila Wray Gregoire wrote,
“We sometimes believe that attraction can only happen if we are unhappy, or lacking something… We… figure there’s something horribly wrong. There’s some unmet need, and my subconscious is trying to point it out to me.”
And sure, sometimes that is true — maybe there is something wrong, and it’s worth asking: is there something else going on here I need to address?
“Just because you are attracted to someone else DOES NOT mean that there is something wrong with you or your relationship.”
The problem is that by looking for explanations — “the problem” with our partner, our relationship, or ourself —we create them, when in fact “attraction” is just a part of being human.
Attraction is not cheating
This is where we often lose people, because so many schools of thought — especially the bible — make a lot of emotions (e.g., envy, lust, laziness) into “sin.” But I mean, damn, as Gregoire wrote,
“Even Jesus was tempted.”
Attraction is not a sin. You are not “bad” for being a living, breathing human who is occasionally no better than the “caveman” wiring we all share.
We don’t choose our attraction — or feelings
See: Part I, above
But(!) feelings are not your master!
And this is also where we often lose people.
Many people have imbalanced relationships with their feelings, either a.) shutting them down as “sin” (above), or b.) overindulging them as the guiding light in life.
It is a mistake to “equate ourselves with our feelings,” or think that to be “true to ourselves” we must always understand and abide by our feelings, and to this second group, a critical area for growth is understanding that feelings “are not a true source of support” and “the self is not its feelings.”
“Your feelings are telling you something about yourself as you are at this particular moment, not necessarily more than that.”
This is part of the problem with defining “love” as “a feeling”
And one of the biggest risks with doing so.
As I’ve written before,
If you’re the sort of person who insists on defining “love” as a “feeling” rather than a “choice,” then you are also exactly the sort of person who intends to stay together only for as long as that “feeling” lasts — or until it’s replaced by something stronger.
Which leaves you completely vulnerable to — see above — the realities of human nature, which feels and attracts all the time.
Feelings ebb and flow. So,
If you define “love” as a “feeling” rather than a “choice,” then you are also directly putting love at risk of not lasting “forever.”
We do, however, choose our thoughts
And we control our responses.
“What you do with those feelings is something for which you can be held to account… We have control over our thoughts. We can choose whether to entertain them or not… If a thought enters your head that you know is wrong, replace it with something else.”
Because the thoughts are actually fun. Infatuation is fun. What’s real is deciding to love someone, day in and day out. So recognize you’re in a battle and fight! If you engage in that fight for long enough, by praying and taking every thought captive, you’ll find that your thought patterns do start to change. But don’t expect it to be easy. You have to FIGHT!
We also control our actions
Because where the mind goes, the body will follow.
The problem, however, is when we lose — or, more accurately, relinquish — control of our judgment…
But we CANNOT rely on our rationale
In light of the complexity and gray area of “the rules” of attraction and emotional affairs, it would be so easy — so tempting — to follow that up by suggesting, simply, “use your best judgment!”
It doesn’t work that way.
People are incredibly talented at explaining away almost anything we want.
As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink,
“We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.”
In one study, individuals are given a short questionnaire asking what they want in a potential partner: attractiveness, interests, sense of humor, sincerity, intelligence, and ambition.
They are given the questionnaire before — and then again after — meeting potential partners. And wouldn’t you know it… the answers change, reflecting descriptions of people they like.
We see exactly what we want — and we can explain away almost anything, and if it comes to protecting an addiction, this will include denial.
In the same sense that a drug addict will throw away their lives to feed their addiction, someone “too far gone” in the allure of emotional intimacy may compromise more than they planned.
We will not feel attraction forever
This is true regarding our partner, and true regarding anyone else.
We often assume that we’ll always feel as strongly about our extraneous love interest as we do today, but in reality: we won’t.
- FEELINGS. CHANGE. (See: this entire post.)
- We assume whatever’s happening now will go on happening forever, but this is a psychological error.
- The “grass is greener” fallacy. We exaggerate how great this other person will be.
While ~40% of marriages end, as many as 75% of relationships that begin with infidelity (or as high as 95% if both people were unfaithful before) eventually fall apart.
Part of the reason is everything so far: the relationship was always fabricated, fantasy, escape. Sometimes it’s just a catalyst to end the other one.
But another problem is that the new partner, rather than representing the elation they once did, often instead starts to represent shame and darkness.
But you can’t just “get rid of” your feelings
Sometimes we just wish we could rid ourselves of “feelings.”
The problem is: we think we’re getting off lightly with this approach, but in reality we’re bringing on a whole other challenges…
- In thinking this, we’re trying to deny that we are messy, imperfect people. We’re pretending that we are above the yuckiness that is innately human, and we’re setting ourselves up for failure when — shocker — our “humanness” happens again in the future, knocking us on our asses.
- By willing ourselves not to think about it, we’re thinking about it. The brain is Baby Groot, and it does not understand “negatives.” The more we worry about “getting rid of” this thing, the tighter and closer we’re holding it.
Most people don’t intend for emotional affairs
The vast majority of people who end up cheating do not go into it explicitly looking for an affair.
“Most people are not looking for an emotional affair. They find themselves connecting with a person… [and] they start to depend on… the emotional highs… It can quickly become an obsession. The secrecy often adds to the excitement and the attraction. As the intensity of attachment and involvement rises, so does the possibility that the affair will become sexual.”
Just like the vast majority of people who get addicted to drugs or gambling never intended to. And yes, while some people do go deliberately scoping around, most people instead sort of “fall into it” as if “by accident,” when they “didn’t mean for it to happen”…
What counts as an emotional affair?
“Semi-secret friendships when there is a clear mutual interest or attraction”
“A strong emotional bond which hurts the intimacy of the spousal relationship”
“Sexual tension or chemistry”
“Cheating without sex.”
“Feeling closer to the other person than our partner”
Michael J. Formica defined emotional infidelity as:
“Any situation that creates or causes some degree of emotional unavailability on the part of one partner that interferes with one particular aspect of the relationship” or “quality of the relationship as a whole.”
But that begs a lot of big questions…
- What IS “emotional intimacy?” Where do we draw the line?
- What if the non-affair partner doesn’t care? Probably not a good relationship, but we need to be careful about how we’re defining things. Is it truly only an emotional affair if the partner is impacted?
- What if it’s not a person on the other side? Does it matter? Don’t pretend the issue is just regarding “another person” if “pulling away” for work or fantasy football is also a problem.
- What if there’s NOTHING on the other side? What if they’re simply checked out? Again, don’t pretend the issue is just that “there’s something else” if “pulling away” is the core problem.
- What if they tell their partner they’re doing it? Again, don’t play like the issue is “dishonesty” if this would hurt as well.
This is where we get too simple-minded with “emotional affairs,” slapping cheap labels on things without enough perspective and honesty.
Why is it bad?
- Dishonesty —the sense of being deceived, betrayed, and lied to
- Unhealthy dopamine hits — using people as drugs
- Slippery slope — it can be a “gateway” to physical cheating
Can emotional affairs ever be “good?”
Lol. Depends on what you mean.
On the one hand… research shows that emotional affairs can “decrease loneliness” and “boost confidence.” They may also “help reinvigorate stale relationships by revealing what they are lacking, and give people insight into how to improve their love lives,” because “people aren’t always good at knowing what they want, so a crush may actually be insight into something you don’t like and didn’t realize or didn’t want to admit,” Dr. Lewandowski said. (And, if nothing else, they’re fun.) Duh. But the question is: how cheaply, and at what cost?
The long and short of it is that:
The question of “good” and “bad” is part of what gets us into this mess.
We want to put things into boxes, explaining them away as “good,” or condoning them (and ourselves, and human nature, along with it) as “bad.”
But they simply are — in the same sense that people eat and sleep and sneeze and shit — and in the same way people feel envy or anger or anxiety or shame — people, yes, sometimes also feel attraction to others.
It is neither inherently good or bad, or black and white. It just is.
And it’s what we do with it that changes things.
The “signs” and “rules” are NOT black & white, either
People like to pretend emotional infidelity can be avoided with an easy-peasy list of super-obvious things, or “signs” that suggest you’re “taking it too far.”
Things like “don’t text after hours,” “don’t dress up for them,” “don’t daydream,” “don’t tell dirty jokes,” “don’t spend time alone,” or, my personal favorite: “don’t flirt.”
- Not doing these things is not “fail-proof protection”
- Doing these things doesn’t mean you’re doomed to emotional infidelity
- Many of these things are okay with friends, and many emotional affairs develop over time, so…?? At what point do “the rules” change?
What the hell counts as flirting?
What does it even mean?? People say this like it’s concrete, but in reality it’s more of a “I know it when I see it” situation.
Who draws the line between “banter” and “play” and “I like you” energy, and something that is “bad?”
When is it “okay” vs. “not?”
Here are a few specifics:
- What if you’re also giving a presentation at work, and the extra effort that went into “dressing up” also gives you an edge in front of everyone else?
- Some lists include “don’t hang out after work” and then go on to say “hang out strictly as colleagues.” That’s great for, like, librarians, but in many fields, colleagues routinely socialize after work. So?
- I make dick jokes with my brothers. I make tons of dick jokes with my mom, and my sister. I laughed at a dick joke with a previous CEO. Don’t tell me who I can and cannot make a good dick joke with, pal.
- After-hour texts, emails and calls are very common in many industries, esp. if you’re on a tight deadline, which makes the real rule more like “don’t do this unless: everyone else is doing it, you’re expected to, you have no attraction for them, etc.” Come on.
We do, however, have some guidance…
- Don’t vent your relationship frustrations to anyone else. Not your mom, not your BFF. Unless it’s very serious and you need explicit help, you shouldn’t be airing your relationship woes with anyone, Tacky-Lee.
- Don’t do things with them you wouldn’t do with others. This line is harder for some people (who instead use it as sweeping justification for all kinds of shitty behavior.) But for me it’s an easy barometer for things like texting and calling, because I don’t really do those with anyone in life.
- Don’t get hung up on “getting rid of your feelings.” Thinking about “not thinking about them” is thinking about them. Thinking about your feelings keeps you thinking about the person you shouldn’t be thinking about.
- Don’t get hung up on finding “faults” with them. We don’t need to foster these sorts of thoughts just to “get by” in life.
- Don’t share your unmet needs to subconsciously see if this person will meet them. (But, that being said: know that if you do this, you’ll likely be subconsciously unaware or actively in denial about it.)
- Don’t keep any element of your “friendship” a secret from your partner.
- Keep privacy between your relationship and everyone else, attraction or not.
- Talk to your partner. About other people you meet, but also life overall.
- Keep places appropriate. Don’t hang out at their place or yours.
- Pay attention if you are making excuses. Like, “it’s okay I’m texting him late; we’re on a project!” — it’s a red flag. (If there wasn’t anything wrong, you wouldn’t feel compelled to actively explain it away.)
- Double down on the investment in your partner. Flirt with them, nurture it, dump energy and attention into it.
The list of “acceptable” activities is indirectly proportional to the level of interest and chemistry between you two: the more attraction, the shorter the list of shit you can get away with. This is hard, because as it grows, it gets harder to curb. But this is the real rule:
You can hang out, or you can feel attraction, but you can’t juggle both.
We can still connect w others while in a relationship
Simply follow the above.
We can’t run from attraction — LIFE IS “attraction”
Sometimes people pretend this is reasonable, suggesting:
“If you are on a committee… consider leaving that committee. If you work with him, consider leaving that job.”
LIFE ITSELF is based on attraction and repulsion. I can find something sexy about almost anyone, and I’m sure people are attracted to me. That is LIFE.
If we dodge every situation in which we might even have a semblance of — gasp — attraction, we wouldn’t be living. Life is not about avoidance!
To pretend “attraction” is something we can gracefully and delicately dodge is to foster complete blindness to how human beings and life actually works.
Do we have to tell our partner everything?
Again, I know people love to say “yes” to this, but: no — boundaries, much? This whole thing reeks of unhealthy dynamics.
You want a partner in accountability? Sure, say something.
Want to drain some of the taboo out of it? Sure, say something.
But if you think “telling you partner” is somehow going to save you, you are wrong. It may help, but we can put an affair right in front of our partners’ faces and still be having it. And this tempts a power-playing partner to create a dynamic of subservience while you’re all at it. (Read more S/M erotica, ffs)
So, what do we do?
And there are a couple of options…
- Deny it. Hide it. Pretend it’s nothing until — shocker — something you “didn’t mean for” is still staring back at you, showing you you’re human
- Gorge wildly on the fantasy. Indulge in the candy even after we learn that Red Dye 40 is bad; make ourselves ill on the fabrication of fondant. Lose ourselves to the magic and go so far that we prefer it to reality.
- Get scared. Avoid any semblance of attraction because we’re not sure how to sort it; it’s not real and it scares us and makes us feel superficial or small.
- Love the human being and just let yourself be human without stepping out of line. Accept, then let it go.
If you’re IN an emotional affair:
- Same as always: admit the problem.
- Decide whether you want in or out (or deny it, e.g., choose to stay in)
- Take the steps below (and if you can’t, you may need external help)
To prevent one:
- Understand that humans are messy and imperfect beings, who feel attraction
- Recognize and accept that we are all human
- Therefore, recognize and accept that we are all messy and imperfect, and will feel attraction
- Understand that attraction triggers dopamine like other pleasures
- Recognize that dopamine triggers are very powerful and addictive
- Attraction becomes powerful and addictive, making it hard to control
- Addiction (and “going too far”) is a very real risk
- And if you become addicted, you will be helpless to it (as with anything)
- We have to monitor for signs of losing control, and if we don’t do this, we are willingly and eagerly relinquishing our agency in our own lives.
- Accept our attraction with lightness and compassion!! Accept that we are human!
What it comes down to is this:
Acknowledge that we will feel human things and have human messiness — and then gently let it go. Don’t cling to it, don’t idealize it, don’t make it into something extraordinary. Treat it in the same way we treat any other human emotion: fear, anger, anxiety, shame.
In Buddhism, negative emotions such as these are treated with lightness: don’t deny it, but don’t indulge it wildly. See it, then let it slip away.
Acknowledge attraction, accept it, and then gently set it on its way.