“It’s not like we had sex or anything!” he says.
To which she responds with, “No, it’s worse than that!”
He throws up his hands in an exasperated plea to the therapist to help him explain this to his wife, who just doesn’t get it. The wife is, of course, crying and seriously considering whether or not she is going to leave this man.
Now, this scenario could be happening in any relationship, gay, straight, married unmarried and with any gender being the cheater or cheated-on.
But the truth is that for the person who is cheated on, the emotional affair is worse. Why? Because there is an intense emotional attraction to someone else.
The Difference Between the Emotional and Physical Affair
Of course, it is possible to have both an emotional and a physical affair, so that one falls in love with and gets involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with someone outside of the primary relationship.
But we’ll talk about that some other time. For now, what we need to know is that a physical affair is simply an elongated or short term sexual relationship with another outside of the primary relationship.
The affair may establish a friendship, but for the partner in question, whether the other person in the affair has fallen in love or not, your partner has not.
An emotional affair on the other hand is very often filled with a great deal of intensity, simply because it is not sexual, nor physical in any way.
This leaves a lot of room for fantasy about not only what the sexual relationship might be like, but about what the relationship itself might look and feel like.
That fantasy heightens the obsessive quality of an emotional affair, so that the partner you love is frequently thinking about being with that other person.
The result of all of that intense and obsessive fantasy is that your partner now becomes someone who may be hypercritical of the little things you do, the things you say and how you say them, the way you eat or any number of other little things.
The partner is less interested in your touch or your encouragement. In fact, unless she is able to fantasize that you are the object of her new flame, the sex life may diminish or stop altogether.
He may spend long hours talking on the phone to his new emotional affair, or texting, or emailing. She may stop talking to you about what bothers her, because she can always run to her new “friend.”
He may even spend considerable time talking to you about her.
He’ll tell you how much he admires the way she confronts the boss, or about the things that she says. And he’ll say it in one of two ways: 1) as if you should be more like her, or 2) as if she were a higher being of some sort.
The Internet Emotional Affair
Even more intense is the internet emotional affair, in that not only can your partner not have sex with him, but she can’t even meet him, except in cyberspace or by online video of some type.
This heightens the fantasy life to an even greater level, and increases the amount of time your partner is online, while decreasing the amount of time he spends with you.
It is easy for any of us to fall in love with a fantasy of a person—even when we marry them. We can project fantasy onto our partners with relative ease, and begin to assume that our partners really do carry those fantasy characteristics.
Our partners didn’t mislead us, rather we decided on who they were and that was that. And we may continue to interact with the fantasy even in the face of all manner of incoming data to the contrary.
Sometimes we land on planet earth with a crash that informs us that we’ve been far off the truth of the matter. Other times there is a slow torturous awakening.
So, when it comes to emotional affairs, because there is usually not much chance of landing on planet earth, the fantasies are all the richer.
In a real relationship the everyday routines of living together or even dating will allow us to come to know the other person in all of his or her flawed glory, if that is the intention.
But with an emotional affair we only see what seems to be so—and it seems all the more so, the more invested we are in fantasy.
What Can Be Done
Well, if the emotional affair is really all about escaping temporarily from the problems of the real relationship, working on the problems of the real relationship can serve to pull the projection off of the third party and move the heart and mind back into the real relationship. It will take real work on the part of both parties.
But if the emotional affair is really all about something deeper, such as relationship addiction, a mental illness or just a coping mechanism that creates a simple inability to adjust to adult living in the real world, then the real relationship may have to be dissolved in order for any real change to occur.
And unfortunately, the change is much more likely to occur in the one who did not have the emotional affair. So, determining the cause of the problem is going to be a major part of finding the cure.
About the author
Andrea Mathews is the author of two published books, with another coming out in late 2012, as well as several magazine articles and a blog on Psychology Today Magazine entitled Traversing the Inner Terrain.
She is a Psychotherapist, practicing both Transpersonal and Cognitive Therapy, for individuals, families and couples—living together, married or alternative (www.andreamathewslpc.com/id1.html).
She is also a Corporate Trainer, teaching soft skills to large and small corporations, and a Motivational and Inspirational speaker www.InnerWings.com.
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