Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Emotional Affair: Will It Ever End?

emotional affair will it end

As a young boy, watching my grandmother colorize old black and white photos fascinated me. Hour upon hour she’d sit at her table meticulously applying colors to the monotone images embedded on paper. A colorful imagination along with her keen eye caused decaying images to explode to life. “How did she know what color?” I sometimes wondered, but later realized that the colors were nothing more than the dynamic expression of the emotions being generated by the photograph. While the skin tones or fabric colors may not have been an exact representation, they certainly represented what she thought they ought to be. Many times in photos, and certainly in the mind of an unfaithful spouse, reality can be in the eye of the beholder.

What may seem like an odd comparison is actually very insightful.  Here are some similarities between my grandmother’s colorizations and emotional affairs. Let’s begin by defining an emotional affair.

Emotional affair:

Involves sharing information with another person (usually, but not always, of the opposite sex) that you’re reluctant to share with your spouse, which creates an emotional intimacy that is greater than that with your spouse. Such intimacy will be hurtful and threatening to your spouse. A frequent path to an affair comes from sharing negative details about your marriage with the other person, seeking to get your emotional needs met outside of the marriage.

Knowing this, why did 80% of men and 89.3% of women who had been unfaithful identify the emotional (rather than the physical) aspects of their affairs as being more difficult to overcome? What makes breaking up so hard to do when it comes to the emotional aspects of an affair? Could it be our colorizations of those relationships? Maybe it’s how we behold the other person? Maybe it’s the chemical bond created between both parties?  Here are some of my thoughts on what makes breaking up so hard to do:

1.  Feeling wrongly accused:

No one wants to be seen as an infidel, nor do most people just set out to cheat. In fact, if we actually saw what we were doing as “really wrong,” then we’d have far more difficulty continuing the behavior. The solution then is viewing inappropriate relationships in such a way that makes it okay with us. We do this by determining in our mind what constitutes infidelity or an affair. Just about anything you’re not doing can serve the purpose of defending why the relationship is legitimate and healthy. If we’re not talking about leaving our mate, then it’s okay. If we only want to encourage one another, then it’s okay. If I’m only trying to help them through a hard time, then it’s okay. If it’s not sexual, then it’s okay. If we’re not expressing feelings for each other, then it’s okay. If it’s not serious, then it’s okay. If it’s for business, then it’s okay. If we never say “I love you,” then it’s okay. There’s no limit to the ways we can rationalize our affairs.

2.  Feeling understood:

If you believe that person understands you in ways no one has before, then releasing the affair will prove very difficult. Especially if you perceive them as good and as someone who’s looking for what you want from life. Why would anyone want to let go of who they now believe to be their soul mate and who they believe will meet all of their needs emotionally and/or physically?

3.  Pride and Ego: 

Letting go can be difficult if pride and ego are involved. At that point rationale has little to do with things. Letting go of an emotional affair is more than possible, but the only currency you can use to buy your freedom is your pride and ego. You have to first admit that you do in fact need to let it go. Furthermore, if you’ve been defending the emotional affair and constantly sharing why the relationship is okay, then at the very least, ending the affair will come at the price of letting go of something you wanted and acting in the best interest of others rather than self. After all, this is a significant component of love: acting in the best interest of another. It’s been said lust benefits self at the expense of another, while love benefits another, at the expense of self.

4.    Feels like dying:

The “high” from an emotional affair can absolutely help someone who’s been depressed or in a lifeless relationship to once more feel alive. Not just merely alive, but feel as though their life has meaning again, and that their mundane existence has been transformed by this new-found love and understanding. Just the thought of life without the high they’ve come to embrace and expect from that relationship gives the unfaithful spouse reason to resist.

5.  Feeling responsible for the Other Person:

If the other person has experienced loss as a result of the emotional affair, such as the loss of a job or the loss of a marriage, the unfaithful spouse may feel a responsibility for the damage done and be conflicted about letting go of the relationship. To assuage their guilt they may try to stay in touch, believing it’s a debt they owe. The more dependent the couple has become on each other for emotional support, the more likely this is to happen. It can leave the unfaithful spouse feeling disloyal and like a failure for not upholding their end of the relationship. This sort of thinking is much less likely to happen in a strictly sexual affair since there’s little or no sense of emotional connection.

6.  Changed vision:

The fantasy associated with emotional affairs often involves dreaming of a future with the other person. In doing so they effectively write their mate out of the vision of the future. In fantasies, the unfaithful spouse can play God, deciding how the future will turn out with absolute certainty. When this happens, letting go of the other person is difficult because they no longer see any future vision with their mate appealing or even possible. The only future they see with their mate is misery, as it means they don’t get to follow the dream they now think is the only dream that will make them happy or fulfilled in life.

We as human beings, are poor predictors of what will make us happy in the future. How often do we fail to save for the future because we believe we know what will make us happy when we’re older? Instead of saving we spend what we have now to get what we think we’ll want later, only to find when we finally get there we’re no longer interested in what our younger self wanted.

If someone has written their mate out of their vision of the future then the couple will have to work at creating a new and appealing vision for both reconciliation and a future together.

This takes time, strategy and understanding, but is more than possible.

As I said in the beginning, these are just my thoughts. This is not an exhaustive list nor does it apply to all people in emotional affairs, but it might help us understand why at times breaking up is so hard to do. By writing this list I am also not saying anything about the emotional affair is okay or justifiable.

Another significant problem with emotional affairs is the fraud perpetrated against both one’s mate and the other person. It’s illegal to sell something that’s not mine to sell.

Others already had first rights to me long before I began giving away what rightfully belonged to another.

The truth is, our justifications are often answers to the wrong questions. When treating infidelity, the question isn’t why it is okay, but rather, why isn’t it okay? How are my actions in the best interest of my mate and my family?

Until I can understand my mate’s perspective there’s a strong likelihood I’ll feel wrongly accused and, in my mind, refuse to end the relationship on the grounds of, “I’m doing nothing wrong.” I’ll then be defensive, shift the blame, rewrite our history as a marriage, and do anything I can to justify my actions to myself and others.

This will only increase the risk of deceiving myself more and more, ultimately damaging myself and my spouse emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

The incessant search for “feelings of being understood” may only reveal a lack of a sense of self and a dependence on the approval of others for their esteem. As long as the unfaithful partner’s core sense of self is in need of feeling understood, there will be limited hope they will be able to be concerned for others beyond themselves, except as a source for that validation. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean the betrayed spouse has to work harder to help the unfaithful mate feel more understood and prevent further emotional entanglements. It means the unfaithful spouse must work at becoming a whole, complete person in and of themselves and stop relying on others to fulfill them.

The “high” from an emotional affair can last only so long and eventually, when true colors show themselves, reality sets in and the relationship no longer produces the same feelings. Yet, due to the dysfunction of the affair, even when the feelings fade, the cravings remain, if not intensify, for a short moment in time. Think of a drug addict who has used so much they become numb to the effects of the drug. They don’t stop using; rather they use more and try new and more dangerous ways to regain that original high they crave. The new pursuit of regaining that lost high from the emotional connection can make letting go of the relationship difficult, as well as open up new doors of self-absorption and in some cases, addiction. What’s needed is a plan to help explain and redirect the desire. Without this plan, the likelihood of the unfaithful spouse prevailing over their yearnings is unlikely. If the 3,000 or so couples I’ve seen proves anything about the unfaithful spouse and the emotionally entangled affair, it’s that their own strength or will power is insufficient to bring healing or resolution to the situation.

Until the unfaithful spouse is able to work through where their responsibility begins and ends, that misplaced sense of responsibility will make letting go difficult. This can be especially true for those individuals who easily take responsibility for what goes wrong in life. Even if it’s not all their responsibility, they take it on and remain a slave to the guilt.

If you currently find yourself in an emotional affair or are sifting through the residue of an ended affair, my advice is to first begin by trying to see it for what it is or was. If you can’t accept where you’re at, you’ll never get to where you’re going. You might start by seeking the right question rather than trying to just give answers. If you want help I hope you’ll take a look at the First Steps Bootcamp. It’s a free, seven day, web-based program you can do alone or with your spouse. It’s a culmination of years of research and experience poured into designing a step by step approach to recovery. If you’re looking for new momentum in your recovery, give the Bootcamp a try. There’s no cost and it’s only 7 days, and we hope it will at least help you get to a better place of understanding and provide hope for your future.




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Emotional Affair/ Chemical warfare

7 months after my emotional affair, and I still get the urge to contact my AP. Pathetic. The longing to see his face, hear how he is doing and what he is up to is overwhelming at times. As a grown adult, you would think I would be "over it" by now. Nope. I have to be careful of the music I listen to and even places I visit as sounds/visuals will trigger painful longings.
This was a brilliant and much appreciated article, to which I would add that a womans hormonal fluctuations over the course of a month can (surprisingly) trigger chemicals that deeply trigger desires for the affair. This may not be solid science, but I've found it to be true for myself . During PMS, estrogen and dopamine levels plunge, causing excessive crying which makes my brain "think" that I'm missing the affair. It's astonishing how biologically imprinted this whole ordeal has been plastered into the chemicals of my body. Every month my sweet husband watches me cry for 2-3 days and in his mind I'm "craving the affair". We get in heated arguments over this statement as I feel like the desires are completely out of my control. I've tried to explain to him that I feel like a drug addict who has no control over their cravings. Part of this is actually true. Thankfully I have a good support network of friends willing to listen to my flounderings so I have not made the mistake of reaching out to my AP but the temptation is ALWAYS a there.

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