It’s an age-old debate: Can men and women really just be best friends—or are they bound to fall for one another eventually? The answer changes depending on who you ask. And complicating the question even more is the fact that a romantic relationship needn’t be physical to be real. Hence the increasingly popular term “emotional affair.”
So what is an emotional affair exactly? According to Kenneth Rosenberg, PhD, author of the new book Infidelity: Why Men and Women Cheat ($26, amazon.com), an emotional affair occurs between two people who share a mutual attraction and a deep, loving relationship that does not involve sex.
If that definition feels uncomfortably familiar, read on for four red flags that a friendship has crossed the line.
You're being secretive
The telltale sign of an emotional affair? “There’s no way in hell you’d tell your primary partner about the relationship,” says Rosenberg. That doesn’t necessarily mean your S.O. doesn’t know you’re close with this other person; they just might not realize the extent of the friendship. “We all keep secrets from our partners and we might even have relationships that we might not tell them much about, but if it’s a relationship where you know there’s some sexual tension and you keep it from your partner, that’s a sign you’re in troubled waters,” says Rosenberg. That brings us to our next point.
The tension is palpable
“In an emotional affair, sex is not on the table but is generally under the table,” writes Rosenberg in his book. Translation: You aren’t hooking up, but a desire to is felt on both sides. And it’s more than just a fleeting attraction. “Sexual tension is par for the course in flirtation,” says Rosenberg. “But this type [of tension] is more intense.”
You may find yourself fantasizing about your emotional fling while you’re having sex with your primary partner, or thinking to yourself, “If only we could have sex without being unfaithful….” The main point is that you feel enough intimacy or sexual chemistry to get it on with this other person—and you wish you could.
You complain about your partner
That’s a risky move, says Rosenberg: “[You’re] implicitly saying to your emotional affair partner, ‘You’re so much better than my partner, it’s so easy to talk to you, I feel like I can tell you anything,’” says Rosenberg. When you rag on your main squeeze to this other person, you’re “casting your own partner in a very negative light, and idolizing your emotional affair partner,” he explains.
Your new bond undermines your old bond
“What you often have in the beginning of an emotional affair is similar to what you have in any physical affair or normal relationship,” says Rosenberg. “Everything is positive, there’s free-flowing, unconditional love and acceptance.” That can feel like a huge relief, especially if you’re simultaneously dealing with any of the issues or resentments that commonly arise in long-term relationships.
While it’s great to feel super-positive about a close friendship, that new thrill—if it’s kept secret and accompanied by sexual attraction—can undermine your romantic relationship, warns Rosenberg. Things can get even more precarious when your emotional affair partner starts learning things about you that your romantic partner doesn’t know.
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How to stop an emotional affair
Before you beat yourself up, know this: “Affairs—physical, emotional, and virtual—happen, and the desire for an affair is just part of the human experience,” says Rosenberg. “The desire for another is pretty common, especially when you get into the ups and downs of a relationship with your romantic partner.”
That said, “you want to nip [an emotional affair] in the bud, because it’s only going to grow if you don’t,” Rosenberg warns.
The first step is to become aware that it’s even happening. (After all, it’s easy to convince yourself you aren’t doing anything wrong when there’s no sex involved.) Once you own it, talk about it. Let your emotional affair partner know that the relationship needs to cool off, and reach out to friends for support. “The more you bring this relationship into the open so it’s not secretive, the better.”
Talking to a mental health professional may be helpful too, says Rosenberg: “A therapist can say, ‘I understand how you can love person X and want to have sex with person Y, but this is a bad idea and it isn’t consistent with your values or what you want in life.” Reality check received.
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