We live in an easy access society where information, people, and instant gratification are just a mouse click away. We look up old high school sweethearts, text co-workers, and innocently "friend" the attractive person we just met at a bar. These actions are all part of today's culture, but are these fast and seemingly innocuous connections a slippery slope toward a new type of infidelity?
We all know what infidelity is. It boils down to having any type of sexual contact with someone other than the person we have committed to. Bill Clinton made an adamant claim that he did not have sexual relations because he did not engage in intercourse and was therefore faithful. Does anyone agree with that?
Most people text, but what would happen if the text is sexual in nature? Is the texter unfaithful? Would you consider a person faithful if he has absolutely no sexual physical contact but spends hours on sex chat lines while his wife is sleeping and unaware? How about online flirting? What would you call that? I call it all emotional cheating - the 21st century version of infidelity.
Emotional cheating is when one person turns to someone outside the primary relationship (either online or in person) for emotional intimacy, attachment, sexual excitement, or comfort. Emotional cheating is dangerous because it can start out innocently and can fool you into thinking you aren't doing anything wrong. Then, it can quickly escalate and destroy a relationship without you ever having left your house.
Emotional cheating occurs when acceptable behaviors are taken to the extreme. There is nothing wrong with "friending," or texting someone, or confiding in a friend when you have a problem. It is the intent, intensity, and secrecy that carries these behaviors over the line to infidelity.
US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said it best about obscenity, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it." This is the same as emotional cheating. Somewhere deep down you know it when you are doing it, and you certainly know when it is happening to you.
How do you know if you are an emotional cheater? Emotional cheaters:
- have sexual conversations with people other than their spouse for the purpose of excitement or arousal.
- create secret relationships with new "friends" or lie about how much time they spend talking to these new liaisons
- boost their new friends up while diminishing their spouse. (For example, I wish my husband would listen the way you do. Or, I'd be happy if my wife was in half as good a shape as you are.)
- share sexually suggestive photos, fantasies, or stories.
- have conversations that are so private and intimate, that their spouse would be heartbroken or devastated if they overheard.
Maybe you're not an emotional cheater, but maybe your partner is. Do not underestimate the impact of an emotional affair. It can be even more detrimental to a relationship than a quick sexual affair for the same reason that many adult children have a more difficult time recovering from emotional rather than physical abuse.
Physical abuse and sexual infidelity have a common thread. They are both concrete. There is a clear victim and a clear right and wrong. On the other hand emotional abuse or emotional infidelity consists of acceptable behaviors, taken too far. Identifying the fine line between okay and not okay isn't always easy and can create intense emotional chaos.
I have a client, Lisa who was at her wits end trying to wrap her mind around what was happening in her relationship. She was generous enough to allow me to share her story.
Lisa had been married 10 years when she felt her husband drifting away. After work he locked himself away in his office, texting, on Facebook, and talking to an unknown somebody on the phone. She also caught him looking at porn on the internet when they hadn't had sex in months. It was obvious something was up. When Lisa brought up her feelings, he would say, "I'm just busy with work." For six months she tried to convince herself everything was fine until she couldn't take it anymore and confronted him. "Are you having an affair? Do you still love me?" He blamed his work schedule and accused her of being paranoid. Lisa didn't buy it. Positive he was cheating, she surprised him at the bar where he often went for a drink after work. She was pleasantly surprised to see him having a drink with Jill, a longtime co-worker and family friend. At first Lisa felt relieved until she saw how tense they looked when they saw her. She sat with them for a few minutes until Jill made a hasty retreat. Lisa asked him what was going on. He said, "Nothing. We're just friends. We've never even kissed. Can't I go out for a drink with a friend? Why are you so jealous?"
The interaction made Lisa feel worse because she knew something wasn't right, but he denied it and threw accusations back at her. She tried to talk herself out of what she felt by saying, "Well, all relationships have natural ebbs and flows - maybe we are just on an ebb. He is home every night, maybe he is just busy. Of course he can have friends. Maybe it's me. I should apologize."
What do you think of Lisa's story? Does it sound familiar? Do you think her husband is an emotional cheater? What do you think she should do? Tell me what you think and in two weeks I'll post how Lisa handled her predicament and where she is today in her relationship.