Last week we talked about emotional cheating. It's when one person turns to someone outside the primary relationship for emotional intimacy, sexual excitement, or comfort, alienating the primary partner.
Lisa, the woman you met in last week's article, knows emotional cheating all too well.
After being married for ten years her husband started emotionally pulling away. It began with him staying out after work. When he did come home he'd lock himself in the den, talking on the phone with some unknown person, texting, or on the Internet.
She could hear him chatting away to someone else yet he barely said a word to her. At night he'd watch television then fall asleep on the sofa. Lisa tried to tell herself it was stress related, but after six months she couldn't take it anymore. They were no longer intimate and their communication was either polite small talk or accusations.
Lisa tried to reconnect with her husband but everything she did made matters worse. She was focused on her short-term goal of making her husband admit he was a cheater, rather than focusing on her long-term goal of repairing the relationship. These two agendas clashed.
Lisa was justified in wanting his presumed infidelity validated, but her methods weren't working. She had to try something different. She was outraged by this suggestion, because she assumed I was telling her she was at fault. I wasn't pointing fingers in any direction. I was merely suggesting that trying to force a confession produced an unsatisfactory result. Communication was the key to fixing their problems, so her plan had to facilitate talking.
Lisa had two options. Continue with her current course of action, which proved ineffective, or change her actions based on her long-term goal. We eventually agreed upon the following plan.
- Get him talking. The best way to start a dialogue is by asking someone how he or she feels. Clearly, Lisa’s husband was unhappy. Maybe he needed to vent. So she asked if he needed anything or if she could help in any way. She listened to his response and got an earful. He told her that she bombarded him with demands and criticisms and no matter what he did, she reminded him of the things he had yet to do. Furthermore, he told her she was ungrateful and that he had tried to talk about these issues with her for years, but she dismissed his concerns. Susan was stunned. It was a lot to process. The good news was that the lines of communication were now open.
- Express feelings and concerns. In a gentle way, Susan then told her husband that she was worried that someone else was getting his attention. She added that she knew she was acting jealous and possessive, but she loved him and she was scared.
- Ask 'Where do we go from here?’, Susan and her husband both had a chance to talk and to listen. It was the beginning of a new opportunity to work together toward a solution – if that's what they both wanted.
Being honest can be difficult. It takes a great deal of focus and courage to have these types of dialogues, especially if you must hear that you haven't been perfect either. There is also a danger that one person wants out of the relationship. Honest conversations are hard and scary, but necessary.
These steps don't fix emotional infidelity, but they open the door for honest communication. Lisa's husband never admitted to an emotional affair, however he conceded that he was probably spending too much time talking to someone else. He agreed to end the friendship and focus on communicating with Lisa instead. Lisa agreed that she was taking him for granted and didn't consider his feelings and needs. In any relationship, someone has to make the first move by creating an atmosphere for honesty. Since Lisa was the one who wanted their relationship to change sooner rather than later, she was the one who had to set the stage.
If there are lessons to be learned from this story they go something like this:
- Don't let someone talk you out of what you know in your heart, even if you can't prove it.
- No matter how much you want to, you can't always force your own agenda.
- If you want to be heard, sometimes you have to listen first.
- You have to try something different if you want a different outcome.
- We often must delay immediate gratification to keep our eye on the real goal.
In Lisa's relationship the emotional cheating began because of marital dissatisfaction. That's not the case for everyone. Emotional cheating in our connected world can simply be a past time that gets out of hand. Whether it's fantasy play that takes on an all-to-real life of its own, or a way to vent, emotional cheating is still cheating. It’s easy to tell yourself you aren't doing anything wrong, but emotional cheating is a betrayal and can lead to traditional infidelity if unchecked. Finally, emotional cheating prevents you from repairing what ails your relationship and living a life of love and integrity.