Allison rose for a glass of water late one night and saw a sliver of light below the door to her husband’s office. This was normal. She liked to go to bed early, and Peter was a night owl, so sometimes she would visit him with a wee-hours kiss. (Some names and identifying details have been changed.) That night, as she came up behind him, she noticed an email on his screen with an unrecognizable sign-off, followed by “XXOO.” “Who’s that?” she asked. Peter, startled, clicked away from the screen. “Nobody,” he said.
Peter had recently lost his job, and Alison noticed he’d seemed out of sorts, as if inching toward a midlife crisis. Still, he was a devoted husband and a loving, rough-and-tumble father to their three young kids. But something in his manner that night was unfamiliar to Alison: He couldn’t meet her eye. The next day, she opened his computer and discovered that, for a few months, he had been exchanging intimate emails with a woman he’d met through work. They read like love letters, personal and poetic. Confronted, Peter eventually admitted that he had fallen for this woman, though there had been no sexual contact. But Alison recognized what had transpired between them as infidelity nonetheless: He was enmeshed with someone else. They were sharing their inner lives with each other and using the linguistic shorthand of a couple. They were having an emotional affair.
The collapse came quickly. There was a perfunctory attempt at counselling, and then Peter told Alison he couldn’t be married anymore. Within a month of the discovery of the email, he had moved out, and their 12-year-long marriage was over.
To Alison, the pain was excruciating. Theirs had been a long-term monogamous relationship; inevitable cracks in the foundation had been easily repaired. “We had a real marriage. We had ups and downs, and closeness, and sex and not sex,” she says. “I just felt so betrayed. The person I trusted most did something that was so much outside of the parameters of what was okay.”
The draw toward infidelity often reflects private troubles — the affirmation-seeking impulses of an unemployed 40-year-old dad, for example — but macro forces are at play in our bedrooms, too: Cultural conditions have never been better for emotional affairs. Sexual gratification isn’t hard to come by, with porn and hookup sites in swiping distance, yet emotional connections are scarce. It’s now possible to be at once hyperconnected digitally and disconnected in real life, with shadowy “friends,” followers and likes filling in for vital, happiness-inducing face-to-face human contact — hence the gravitational pull toward work spouses and Facebook chat sessions with grade 10 crushes. One in five Canadians reports feelings of loneliness and isolation, while an epidemic of overwork saps busy couples of crucial time together to tend to their relationships. All of these developments till the soil for emotional infidelity. What constitutes intimacy is shifting at a dizzying pace and, with it, emotional security has become a rare commodity.
At the same time, the ideal of monogamy itself has fallen under scrutiny. In the wake of the legalization of gay marriage, Canadians have demonstrated a welcome openness to new family and relationship structures. Polyamory — having more than one partner — is on the rise, with one U.S. poll suggesting that up to 10 percent of all committed relationships, including marriages, are now self-categorized as “open.” Rewriting the conventional-relationship script — you, me, death do us part — can be a liberating proposition. But while we’re thinking more freely about our physical relationships, does that leave us in greater need of emotional ones? An affair is an affair is an affair, but the sex kind may be yesterday’s brand. Emotional affairs appear to be the future of infidelity — and perhaps the greater betrayal.
Cheating is nothing new, though monogamists have long pretended it isn’t lurking close by, like a bad smell in an elevator. According to a national survey by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men have had affairs. But the incidence rate jumps about 20 percent higher when respondents included intimate relationships without intercourse in their definition: People are having a lot of emotional affairs.
Of course, whether or not you’ve had an emotional affair depends on context. What one couple might define as an emotional affair, another might deem a healthy outlet — each to his/her/their own. The constant is that an emotional affair violates the boundaries of what’s agreed upon at the threshold of the relationship. In a monogamous couple, it likely means becoming emotionally entwined with someone who isn’t the committed partner: confiding, connecting and exchanging the most private parts of yourself with someone who isn’t your “person,” the kind of intimacy Alison stepped in on that night in Peter’s office. In contrast, sex outside the relationship is a more recognizable violation, clearly labelled in theology and pop songs.
The best person to identify and name an emotional affair is probably neither of those who are involved, but the excluded party looking in from the outside. If one partner is troubled by the proliferation of the other’s lunch dates with a new friend or chronic texting with that colleague, then the behaviour should be troubling to both. But many couples’ therapists I spoke to have found that when counselling around emotional infidelity, one partner is often minimizing (the one who had the affair) and the other is hurt. If the act of emotional infidelity can’t be named, then injury is compounded by erasure: Being told that what you’re seeing isn’t actually there is an agonizing kind of gaslighting.
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Robert T. Muller, a psychology professor at York University and author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up, counselled a couple — we’ll call them Candace and Tom — after the wife discovered her dentist husband had been involved with an associate for several months. Candace came across a cadre of extremely flirtatious, personal emails between them. The two had also attended a conference together, though they hadn’t yet consummated the relationship. “The conference wasn’t actually what the wife was upset about,” says Muller. “What she was really upset about was that she felt her husband had been emotionally gone for months, and she had lost him.”
In counselling, Muller asked what each partner needed to move forward. Candace told her husband, “I need you to take responsibility for what’s happened.” Begrudgingly, Tom said, “I’m sorry you were lied to.” Candace smashed her fist down on the table, stood up and walked out of the office, slamming the door behind her. Devoid of accountability, the apology was beyond inadequate — a Band-Aid for a severed limb. It’s almost impossible to imagine a sexual affair engendering the same flabby response.
“To the person who is feeling cheated on, an emotional affair feels every bit as painful and traumatic as any other kind of affair,” says Muller. “There are feelings of betrayal and a lack of trust. They may feel, ‘What they did to me hurt so badly, how can I bring myself to trust them again?'”
The root causes of an emotional affair often aren’t so different from those that send one partner to seek sex outside the relationship, according to therapists. “There’s a longing for some sort of connection that’s missing — a need that is not being met,” says Iona Monk, a registered clinical counsellor based in Vancouver and co-host of the podcast Relationship Dish. “Often, it’s a result of one partner’s inability to air that need with their partner or understand the need themselves.”
A lacuna at the heart of the marriage was clearly a factor in Rosa’s* emotional affair. She had been in an unhappy second marriage for two years when she became involved with a male massage therapist she met on a spa retreat with her husband. While lying on the table, the masseur complimented her appearance, eroticizing the transaction. Rather than calling the manager, Rosa was enthralled. “I wanted to be touched as intimately as massage would allow,” she says.
Touch had been lacking in her life. The emotional affair that ensued was a symptom of a marriage in trouble (therapists call the person who has had the affair, emotional or otherwise, the “symptom bearer”). Rosa and her husband were living separate lives, she recalls, and the differences that had once fuelled an opposites-attract relationship now kept each other at bay. For two years, she and the masseur regularly stayed in touch, despite living in different cities. They called each other frequently and wrote letters. During that time, Rosa recalls imagining a conversation with her husband: “I’m not having sex with this person, so how could there be anything wrong with it? Sure, I think about him day and night, and he’s the only one I want to talk to, and he’s the one person I share my deepest desires with — not you, honey.”
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Though there was no physical contact, the relationship sated her so intensely that it provided a near-sexual type of satisfaction. “An emotional affair is so deeply charged that you feel physically connected,” she says. But by not having sex, Rosa was able to dodge the implications of infidelity. “I wanted to have an emotionally charged drama that allowed me to be self-righteous.”
Rosa’s husband had known the two were in touch, and one day he told her, “You’re having an emotional affair with this guy.” Shocked, she denied it — even to herself, she says in retrospect — and quickly became more secretive about the contact. They never talked about it again. “That shows you how disconnected we were,” says Rosa. If it had been a sexual relationship, she’s certain his response would have been more explosive.
Several studies, including a recent one by psychologists in Norway, have found that men are more bothered by their partners having sexual affairs, while women take more umbrage at emotional infidelity. Evolutionary psychology is offered as an explanation: Men, in seed-spreading survival mode, need to make sure their mates reproduce, while women, those heart-first nurturers, need to make sure that men love them enough to stick around. But sociologists note that jealousy plays out differently across cultural lines, so how can this gender divide be innate? Men and women may learn what kind of response to infidelity is expected of them and act accordingly, playing roles assigned long before the relationship has even begun.
The expectation, or the dream, of the committed relationship is that the partnership will provide all the emotional sustenance for both parties — the puzzle-finishing, “you-complete-me” perceived promise of monogamy. Yet, researchers have found that upwards of 40 percent of married people complain of feeling lonely, sometimes or often. Anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will recognize that dark sensation of being “alone together.”
But loneliness is everywhere, so much so that it’s been labelled a “public health crisis” in some cities. Urban dwellers especially — but not exclusively — struggle with weakening community bonds. The checklist for a lonely existence is long: the fading of religion, with its built-in social scaffolding; a global population laying down roots far from home and family; social media, which can actually increase feelings of isolation, among other factors.
And so, work steps in to fill this void. For most of us, overwork is a necessity in a delicate economy; for others, it’s a status symbol. Either way, most people spend more time at work than at home, and workplaces handily sub in for family and friends — it’s no wonder that so many emotional affairs take root at the office. Work-spouse relationships spark off commonalities and instant connections: If you both got hired at a gaming company, you’re probably both into gaming. Meanwhile, real-world spouse gives zero cares about Rainbow Six Siege. So it’s tempting to hang on to those relationships as a kind of insurance policy — a reminder of a path that may be taken. A British poll found that as many as half of all women keep in touch with a “backup husband,” just in case their current husband doesn’t pan out.
Of course, not all work relationships are affairs, and it’s necessary and even empowering to have professional allies who keep us invested and happy. But many of today’s white-collar workers report 50-plus-hour workweeks, and constantly being at work, mentally or physically, means spending a lot of time away from the people we love. Healthy relationships require physical proximity — its absence is a harbinger of relationship discord. Loving partners must be able to depend on each other for nurturing and protection, according to Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love and a practitioner of emotionally focused therapy (EFT). EFT contends that humans are hardwired for connection and bonding. When that bond is broken, the relationship is vulnerable to infidelity. But stressed and overworked people may not be able to muster the time or energy to truly meet each other’s needs.
“If I’m giving it everywhere else and I have zero to give to you when I get home at night, you’re going to feel lonely as hell,” says Johnson. “Most people go into emotional affairs because they feel isolated from their partners on some level. They feel alone, and it’s too hard to be alone. We can’t deal with being alone. We’ve got all this bullshit about independence and self-sufficiency, but the only self-sufficient human being is a dead human being. We are not wired for self-sufficiency.”
But are we wired to be with one person forever? “Straying” wasn’t always condemned. For hunter-gatherers, multiple partners were the norm. It wasn’t until agrarian times, about 8,000 years ago, that humans began to couple up. Theories about this abound: Dividing a family’s spoils was easier to do within secure relationships, and the spread of sexually transmitted infections was a threat to the community, so people had to contain their urges. But the celebration of monogamy as a virtue and romantic ideal didn’t completely take hold until the 19th century.
Relationship guru Esther Perel, author of The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, points out that today’s long-term, monogamous relationships are under extreme pressure. We demand that our relationships be all things: as sexually edgy as a hookup, and comforting and secure as a warm blanket — and all those feels should last forever.
This is impossible, of course. And it turns out that, for many, a single relationship can’t provide all the comfort and connection that a human requires, especially with our longer lifespans. Heterosexual, monogamous couples might suffer under these constrictions more than other groups. In some gay and polyamorous relationships, social norms allow partners to find sustenance, sexual or emotional, with other people. But for these arrangements to work without injury, negotiations around what’s permissible must be clear and lines must be well drawn.
Alison told me that, in her relationship with Peter, they were realistic about needing other people in their lives. They both had friends of the opposite sex, and neither was particularly jealous, so how constrained could he have felt? This is how so many monogamous couples operate: People understand the need to give their partners freedom to get emotional nourishment from outside the relationship — the same freedom they want for themselves — but only to a certain point. What “too much” looks like is often recognizable only when it breaks a heart.
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Alison doesn’t buy the idea that something was missing in their marriage to spur Peter’s infidelity. “It always bothers me when people assume, ‘Oh, if somebody is having an affair, that means that they weren’t getting their emotional needs met,’” she says. That narrative carries a whiff of victim blaming. To Alison, the affair wasn’t a reflection of their lack of connection but something broken in Peter.
Perel has written that affairs occur in happy marriages, too. Peter may have been seeking a version of himself — playful, newly desirable, free of domestic responsibility — that he’d lost, through no fault of Alison’s. As Perel writes, “Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another, it’s not our partner we are turning away from but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves. Mexican essayist Octavio Paz described eroticism as a ‘thirst for otherness.’ ” So often, the most intoxicating “other” that people discover in an affair isn’t a new partner; it’s a new self.
It can be hard to explore those other selves — or even know they exist — within the confines of a relationship where our identities have been fixed for so long. Daring to express a desire to do so undermines the fairy tale of monogamy.
Chiara Piazzesi, a sociology professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal who has studied the history of love, views the rise in emotional affairs as part of a broader rethink of relationships overall. “We have inherited a very romantic conception of intimacy, in which one partner will satisfy all of our wants and needs, and meet all of our expectations forever,” she says. “This can work for some of us, but it’s not the case for most of us,” she says.
“I think [emotional affairs are] part of this reconfiguration of what an intimate relationship is and how much the partner should be the centre of the world. The idea that loving relationships have to be monogamous to be true, honest and good — there is a slow movement in the opposite direction. Polyamorists are saying that love is love and that love can be felt for several people at once. It happens for children, relatives and friends, so why wouldn’t it be the same thing with regard to intimate partners? We can multiply our objects of affection and attachment, but we refuse to accept that this is the case for erotic love.”
Yet, for many therapists, the solution to emotional infidelity isn’t to rethink monogamy but to secure the monogamous bond through time and attention, and cut off emotional infidelity at the pass.
“The essence of a strong relationship is that you give your partner attention,” says Johnson. “You know how to tune into each other, you know what each of you needs, and you know how to respond to those needs. Emotional responsiveness is the main predictor of the stability of a bond.”
Surely, hope for happy relationships lies in a complicated reckoning: vigilance over keeping emotionally attuned to our partners in an increasingly disconnected world and clear-eyed honesty about the limits of monogamy. We have to figure out how to raise our voices above the you-complete-me mantra of monogamy and find the courage to say to our partners and ourselves, “I need something more, something new, something different,” before we say it to someone else.