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

Emotional Affair: Will It Ever 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.

Similarities abound 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? Here are 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.

Humans however are poor predictors of what will make them 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. One 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 2,000 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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Cold Turkey

I discovered my husband's, of 10 years, emotional affair by complete accident. Before the discovery, we had never had any problems in our marriage...we both agree. The other woman was an old girlfriend that moved just down the street. She began coming around quite often. My husband began secretly texting and calling her. When I discovered the affair, it had been going on for 15 months. They never missed one day of communication during that time. He begged for sex, sent pictures of his penis and they both were telling each other, "I love you" and wishing things could be different so that they could be together. My husband refuses to see that this is an affair. They both frequently told each other that they were doing nothing wrong and that they were "just friends". He says he was "just playing a game" and only wanted her to THINK he wanted her. She says she was using him for friendship, but was hoping for more. I have since found out that this woman is the SAME woman he had a physical affair with during his first marriage, 39 years ago. Over those years, he also messed around with her on several girlfriends. My husband had a severe alcohol and drug addiction, but has been sober almost 29 years. The amount of texts (over 200 a day) and phone calls(he called her 9 times daily) show an addiction pattern. He says he was just passing the time of day. He continues to down play his actions, but knows that it has hurt our marriage greatly. He says he stopped communication "cold turkey"...it has been 18 months. I can't wrap my head around the deceit. I'm not handling his promises to, "never do it again", very well. My trust is very broken. Our lives were wonderful until this. He doesn't have any explanation for what he did, stating that "he just wanted to". He has lots of denial and still "can't remember" any details, which makes me believe the affair was probably physical as well. I want a divorce...he does not. I feel broken and like what he did has damaged our marriage beyond repair, because he will not see his actions for what they really were...AN AFFAIR. Why is he acting this way?

Emotional Affairs

This is the first article I have seen devoted to emotional affairs and I appreciate it very much.
I had an emotional affair first, about 10 years ago, after almost 30 years of marriage. Yes , I felt almost "dismissed" in marriage communication and wished for some deep conversations which never happened. I also felt taken for granted after so many years of marriage. The thought crossed my mind that I must have married the wrong person. One day, I received an email from a former boy-friend.
It was the proverbial "link to your past - high school sweetheart" through and internet site. The fellow lived 600 miles away and we connected through emails. My husband found out, and of course, was very upset.
At first, I wondered why because we never saw each other...so what was the big deal? But as time went on, I realized that my relationship with my husband was becoming more and more distant, and as the article said....I was emotionally and intimately attached to this other man. I did feel guilty and could see that I was travelling down the wrong road and would eventually do irreparable damage to my marriage if this kept on. So would 'he' -with his wife. Luckily, we both saw the light and stopped our connection - but that took a couple of years to do.
Sadly, a few years later, my husband made a personal connection at first, with a female who was young enough to be his daughter, in fact, she was younger than our own son. There was nothing physical here; she was just finished a year at university and was going back home, but the connection kept up with emails as well. I couldn't imagine what they could possibly have in common. He told me about it after about a 6 month time frame.
While I knew that what I was doing was wrong and admitted it and apologized to my husband, he has yet to see that he did "nothing wrong' because there was no physical contact.We spoke of both our affairs several times after the day of discovery of his affair, but in my mind, never really resolved the issue, other than stopping our behaviour. He still feels that nothing was wrong, but I feel differently. We never really delved into any self-discovery and why we had the need to seek out intimacy with someone else.
I feel that proper closure is still needed but he will not talk about it anymore because another 9 years has gone by. Our marriage has improved in many ways, but this "elephant in the room" is still an issue for me. Not for him. I'm even afraid to bring it up again at this point, because he gets upset. What should I do?

Emotional Affairs

I have to say I enjoyed this article.
I am almost 3 years out from D-Day. I thought we were doing pretty good this past year and a half but I have recently been hit again. My husband of almost 18 years is leaving. He has told me that his heart is no longer here with me and our daughter, she's almost 10, she is going to be devastated. :( He says he has been unhappy for many years but even when we were in counseling for the sexual affair he had with a so- called friend of mine, he never brought up anything. When I found out about the affair in 2012, I vowed I would do anything to keep my family together. He agreed, begged me to let him stay and now he says he hasn't been happy for a while. Once again it is because there is another woman giving him attention. Texting all day and any time away from the house. All I kept hearing was that she was just a friend, right! Told him if she was just a friend then why are the texts always deleted??? Lame excuse about his phone doing strange things. He has apparently known this woman for about 25 years and she has been back in the area for the last year and a half. The first time this happened I was a stay-@-home Mom, was caring for for my Mom who lived with us and had Dementia, dealing with my Fibromyalgia and doing the office work for our business. Yes, I unfortunately got pre-occupied and we lost connection. This time I was healing from the depression I was in from the first time and trying to rebuild the trust that was lost. My husband is the worst communicator, he bottles everything up and then puts up walls, which I can not seem to get through to this time. Once he finally opened up via texts and told me what was wrong or missing, I asked him for a 2nd chance to change things like I had done for him but he says he has nothing left to give. So because he didn't share with me why he was so unhappy, I lose my family. This other woman has 4 kids, 7-21, so how can he walk away from us and want to be with them??? I just don't get it. I never realized that you can feel real pain from a broken heart. This weekend we are suppose to tell our little girl and I honestly can not imagine how we will get through it!! Emotional affairs are definitely harder to let go!!

Great article.

I suspect that many readers would love to see more articles on the topic of emotional affairs. Social media is everywhere and now it's so common for partners to fall in love with someone online. This really helps explain why they are appealing and so hard to end. When I discovered my spouse engaged in a two week online affair I was perplexed at the speed it progressed. It went from friendly to soul mates in 21 days. I couldn't wrap my brain around it. It has been one of the hardest self esteem crushing experiences I have gone through. I felt so disposable. I couldn't understand how our life and two beautiful children could be glossed over for a women he had never met. To this day he still isn't sure if he was catfished. It took a lot of therapy to get to a good place and yet I am still very raw. I just don't know very many people who could relate so I don't share. I'm grateful for this article.

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