Lisa,* a married mother of one who lives in Southern California, has been in a relationship for 10 years and is "very happy." But a few years ago, things were different.
In 2013, Lisa, who is now 41, was going through a stressful time at work – and at home. Her husband was struggling with alcohol addiction, and they were raising a toddler. Amid this personal chaos, she was called for jury duty, which turned out to be a "fantastic way to get away from everything," she says.
During the trial, Lisa's life was easier. She was getting paid $35 a day, fulfilling her civic duty, and seeing firsthand how the law – always an interest of hers – worked. Plus, the prosecuting attorney was attractive and charming.
After the trial, Lisa mentioned to him that she had some questions about the case. He gave her his number and said he was happy to talk. They soon became friends on Facebook, and she saw that he was single.
In the months that followed, they occasionally had lunch together and texted or emailed each other almost every day. There was an underlying attraction there, she says, but other than a hug, nothing physical ever happened. Even though their relationship didn't turn explicitly sexual, it provided her with something that was missing from her marriage. "I need to be intellectually stimulated, and this guy did that for me," Lisa says.
It probably comes as no surprise that Lisa is not alone, and her story of an extramarital attraction that turned into something deeper is common. Many experts would consider her relationship with the attorney a kind of emotional infidelity – a nonphysical bond outside of marriage that involves secrecy and temptation. "When you're being emotionally satisfied and nurtured by someone outside of your relationship to replace what's not happening inside your relationship, that's a problem," says Christiane Manzella, PhD, clinical director at Seleni.
How many people cheat emotionally?
Experts get asked that question all the time, but unfortunately, there are no definitive numbers. The available data shows that 20 to 25 percent of couples deal with sexual infidelity in the course of their relationship, says Frank Fincham, PhD, the director of the Florida State University Family Institute. But stats on emotional infidelity – much more difficult to define, let alone quantify – is virtually nonexistent.
However, Nicolle Zapien, PhD, a certified sex therapist and human sexuality professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, estimates that adding purely emotional entanglements into the mix, including online relationships, would likely bring that lifetime figure closer to 70 percent.
Why do people have emotional affairs?
People have emotional affairs for many different reasons, according to experts. Sometimes unhappiness or low self-esteem is a driving force, says Sarah Watson, a licensed professional counselor in Detroit. Stress (whether caused by parenting young children or dealing with financial pressures¬¬) as well as emotional or physical disconnectedness can play a role.
So here's where things get tricky: Every long-term relationship is going to have some of these pressures. At some point, you or your partner will undoubtedly be unhappy or stressed, and there are bound to be peaks and valleys in your sex life. Both you and your partner are also likely to have close friendships with and be attracted to – even fantasize about – people outside your primary relationship. This is all totally normal.
But when friendships outside of your relationship mix with temptation and you’re not comfortable sharing what's going on with your partner – "when you have an icky feeling and start hiding things," Watson says – you know you've crossed a line. Before this line was ever crossed, though the relationship was probably in a vulnerable place, Watson adds, most commonly caused by "not being able to communicate your needs or your desires to the person that matters most in your life."
Do emotional affairs always turn physical?
There is always a risk that an emotional affair will turn physical, but even if it doesn't, it can cause real harm in a relationship, Manzella says. "Sometimes an emotional affair is more confusing than a physical affair because it's as if one of the partners has left home," Manzella says. Although the partner that had the extramarital connection might not understand this injury because they didn't "do" anything, Manzella says, their partner still might feel betrayed and find it difficult to trust again. "Even without turning physical, one partner has given their heart to someone else."
Lisa's relationship fizzled before it ever turned sexual, but Beth,* a mom of three from Georgia, was in a relationship that did become physical after many years of emotional intimacy and friendship.
Beth still remembers how it all started. Fifteen years ago, she was working part-time in an office and had two little kids at home. Her relationship with her husband was strained, and she regularly felt emotionally neglected. "We parented very well together, but beyond that, we didn't do a very good job being a couple," she says.
During a lunch with coworkers, Beth started talking to a male colleague, and they became close over the next three years. As that relationship strengthened, the bond with her husband continued to fray. After the birth of their third child, their sex life took a hit as well. "I am very much the kind of person that needs an emotional connection to have the physical one," Beth says. "He was the opposite way, and that really impacted things."
This type of desire discrepancy is common in most relationships, Zapien says, and not acknowledging it only widens the gap. But it's still not the root cause of infidelity. "High conflict and low intimacy," are the main ingredients of infidelity according to Douglas Snyder, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at Texas A&M University and coauthor of the book, Getting Past the Affair.
When her coworker left the company and moved out of state, and she left the company to stay home with her children, she finally laid her romantic feelings on the line in an email. He replied that he had feelings for her too, and things turned physical when he returned to the area for a vacation.
Beth considered leaving her husband to pursue her other relationship and told her husband about it. But the affair stalled out, and she and her husband decided to recommit. However, couples therapy, weekly date nights, and hard work failed to keep them together, and Beth's marriage ended. "I'm not sure if my husband ever trusted me again," she says.
Knowing when to stop something before it really starts
Here's something that may surprise you: "Most people having an affair don't recognize it as such," Zapien says, at least not at first. "An affair is just a betrayal plus eroticism," she continues. Many people that she's counseled haven't recognized those early stages of an affair – when they were attracted to someone, flirting, and keeping that contact secret from their partner. Even after realizing what was going on, some people continued down that path because it was intriguing and fun, she says.
The key to stopping something before it starts is communicating openly with your partner. When you're comfortable letting your partner know about those texts with your coworker or the guy you flirted with at the gym, that maintains an honest and open dialogue. But it can spell trouble when you decide to hold back and keep the contact private, or even intensify the connection by texting more frequently or making plans to meet outside of work. At this point, Manzella says, the relationship has gone beyond flirting, and "there often becomes a sense of 'we-ness,' (as in the 'we' of a romantic couple)." This is a good time to pull away and focus on reconnecting with your partner.
For Beth, a major turning point in the friendship with her coworker occurred when she started sharing details about issues she was having in her marriage. In hindsight, she realizes this was wrong. "It opened a door for me to be vulnerable with another man, and to have an emotional connection with someone when I wasn't having that with my husband," she says. But at the time, "it felt so good to have someone be kind to me," she says.
Keeping your relationship emotionally strong
Beth believes she and her husband could have done some things differently that may have changed the trajectory of their relationship. For one thing, they could have committed more fully to both individual and couples therapy when the emotional distance began, she says.
Watson, who specializes in sex therapy and often counsels couples, says that she frequently advises partners who have emotionally drifted to reestablish intimacy by finding time every day to be together without distractions. She suggests taking a walk, gardening, or having a technology-free dinner together to really check in and focus on each other, says Watson. "As basic as that sounds, people aren't having these daily conversations," she says. "This lack of connection can lead people to try and find it elsewhere."
Manzella adds that reintroducing nonsexual touch into an at-risk relationship is also a way to bring things back to a friendly and loving place. "Showing emotional support can be as simple as a touch on the arm or a hug," Manzella says.
Couples can also work to reintroduce curiosity and mystery into their relationship – qualities that are often part of the attraction of external affair – Manzella continues. For example, one partner can plan a surprise for the other person, participate in a sport that the other partner loves, prepare a special favorite dish, or plan an impromptu trip, Manzella says. "[You] should be thinking about how [you] can enrich the relationship on a physical level, an emotional level, and perhaps on a spiritual level," she says.
And when tensions arise, as they will in any relationship, try to remember to give each other space to be imperfect, Manzella says. "When that goodwill goes away in the midst of other stressors, that's a real danger point."
Staying connected physically
Once you're emotionally supporting one another, it's time to focus on the physical realm, says Erin Martinez, a certified sex therapist based in Dearborn, Michigan. The first step is to stop talking about what's normal in other peoples' relationships, she says, and focus on what you want in your relationship.
This includes working to understand what each partner desires sexually. Martinez has clients do a body-mapping exercise, using a stick figure to highlight parts of the body where they want to be touched, while Watson gives her clients an at-home questionnaire that asks each partner to think and to talk about turn-ons and how they'd like to incorporate fantasy and role play into their relationship. Both methods "allow couples to dream a little," Martinez says.
In addition to talking about desires, Martinez says a second important conversation centers around what makes partners feel comfortable and uncomfortable, and what each partner thinks constitutes cheating and why.
"That's a long conversation and can be a changing conversation," Martinez says, adding that she "truly believes that the definition of cheating varies" and can be different for each person in a couple. One partner might consider watching porn the same as cheating, while the other is ok with flirting or some mild physical acts. When these kinds of discrepancies exist, couples need to talk openly and find a compromise about what's acceptable in their relationship.
If this proves difficult to manage without guidance, couples can enlist the help of a therapist to wade through these issues, says Martinez. You can find a therapist through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists.
Sustaining passion takes work, Zapien says, whether that means fantasizing and articulating what those fantasies are, trying novel things in and out of the bedroom, or having satisfying conversations. "You have to dream a little and try to remember the person you fell into love and lust with," she says.
For Lisa, communication has played an important role in keeping her relationship together. She and her husband talk about their sex life, which she says has become less frequent but more satisfying with time, and are reflective about their individual issues and emotional triggers.
Things have been good since her husband stopped drinking more than a year ago, her son got a bit older, and she left her stressful job, Lisa says, and she can see her past flirtation for what it was. "There wasn't any reality to it," she says. "It was a way to escape."
* Some names have been changed in this article.