Is your partner having an emotional affair?

Milly Stilinovic
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
You've come home after a long day's work to realise your significant other is on the phone to their friend yet again.

Evenings in front of the television have been swapped for an extra hour at the gym. Texts come throughout the night, arguments are frequent and there's the sensation that you and your spouse have grown apart.

Infidelity is quite common amongst Australian couples.

According to Sexual Health Australia approximately, 70 percent of all marriages experience an extramarital affair. This statistic includes engaging in an "emotional affair" which, experts warn, could be as damaging to your relationship as a physical affair.

"It is important to note that emotional affairs, compared to physical affairs, can inflict just as much — if not more — hurt, pain and suffering," says sex therapist Desiree Spierings.

What is an emotional affair?
An emotional affair is an ongoing, dishonest relationship that you or your partner cultivate outside of your partnership, says Neil Buckley, Principle Counsellor at NorthSide Counselling.

"There are always boundaries that relationships put in place that dictate what is considered normal levels of contact with others," he says. "This other relationship, primarily based on friendship, is exceeding your normal boundary of engagement."

This engagement may harbour strong feelings of lust, or even love, but contact, unlike a physical affair, begins and ends with verbal communication, but if undetected an emotional affair can develop into a sexual affair.

Detecting emotional infidelity can be far more difficult than detecting a sexual affair as the relationship is shrouded by a long-standing friendship.

"Sometimes a person can understand why their partner had a physical affair and they take responsibility," Buckley says. "When it is an emotional affair the person might not acknowledge it for what it is and it can go on for longer."

Signs of an emotional affair are synonymous to those that accompany a physical affair.

"There may be changes in their usual behavioural patterns," Spierings says. "They may all of a sudden spend much more attention on their appearance, go out more, share less and spend less time with you."

Both experts agree the biggest telltale sign that something isn't right is the feeling that you are excluded from their friendship.

"There's nothing physical happening but their behaviour is clearly inappropriate," Buckley says.

If you suspect that your partner is engaging in an emotional affair, Buckley advises that it is an imperative that you confront them as soon as possible. "If you don't discuss it, (the affair) will grow into something you can't discuss," he says.

Use words that explain what you are experiencing, rather than criticising your partner. "The old adage is that you need to use I feel statements," he says. "Also, refrain from commenting about the person and focus on their behaviour instead."

If your partner retaliates in a defensive manner this is a good indication that you are in the right as "people know when their partner is inappropriately connected to someone else", Buckley says.

Fall out
Spierings believes that having your relationship suffer from an emotional affair might not spell the end. There is hope of it surviving if the four big ifs are being met:

  1. If both people are willing to be patient;
  2. if the unfaithful partner is willing to change;
  3. if the spouse is willing to forgive; and,
  4. if the couple is willing to confront the issues that may have led to the affair.
If you and your partner have decided to continue your relationship, Spierings advises that you will experience a crisis phase.

"Common characteristics of this phase are intense arguments, sleepless nights, wild mood swings, irrational outbursts, intense anger or sadness and a feeling of helplessness," she says.

"These four big ifs and the fact that an emotional roller coaster can go off at any moment is what makes it challenging for a relationship to survive an affair."

If you survive the crisis phase it is useful to then identify what type of affair it was. This will increase, or decrease, your chances of survival.

"It could have been an accidental affair, a romantic affair, or it could be classified as philandering, serial cheating, which could be seen as something like a hobby and affairs continue to happen," she says. "So chances are high this will happen again."

Buckley warns that if you are not willing to forgive your partner, even after the crisis phase has subsided, there is no hope of survival.

"You cannot continue to punish your partner after you have chosen to forgive them," he says. "These next steps begin and end with you."

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