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Sexual Affair or Emotional Affair? Questions and Answers
Posted On August 18, 2012
Do you know the difference between a sexual affair and an emotional affair? Is one more ok than the other? Can someone have a “mental affair,” even if he or she isn’t seeing anyone?
You have this feeling in your gut that your partner is cheating on you, and you have some evidence. But, your partner may insist that he or she is not having an affair. Before confronting your partner, make sure that you are clear not only on definitions, but also on what you need to do. If it is an affair, you need to feel sure about what you are doing because your partner is going to try to cause doubt in your mind.
If you are single and dating someone who also is dating other people, it’s not necessarily an affair
An affair (unfaithfulness or “cheating”) can only happen in a committed relationship. Commitment requires agreement. Just because you have committed yourself to someone you are dating, doesn’t mean he or she has committed to you. A common mistake is for needy people to commit as soon as they start dating someone. This is neither normal nor healthy. Commitment should not come until much later in the relationship. Until then, dating others is not only not cheating, it is the best thing to do. Dating is a process of elimination, until you end up with the best possible partner. It is only then that you make a mutual time limited commitment of engagement that either leads to marriage, or to once again being uncommitted. During this time of engagement, dating others would be cheating. So, unless you are engaged to be married, dating others is not cheating. (See also my book, Overcome Neediness and Get the Love You Want.)
Sex can make people confused about whether they are committed or their partner is having an affair.
This is especially true when there are cross cultural differences in the relationship. Men and women can both mistakenly believe they are in a committed relationship because they are having sex. Even words like “dating,” “girlfriend,” and “boyfriend,” can have very different meanings from person to person. You can’t assume that your partner has the same values that you do. The best course of action is to wait until you are engaged to be married to have sex. Sex early in a relationship tends to prevent the relationship from becoming deeper and more satisfying and is less likely to lead to commitment. Do not mistakenly believe that your partner must be committed because you have had sex with him or her. And, while pregnancy creates obligations, it does not create commitment, as many young couples have sadly discovered. Commitment involves the heart, the mind, and the body until death. Anything less is simply a relationship of convenience.
There are two kinds of affairs that can happen in marriage and engagement
In marriage and engagement, there are two kinds of affairs (also called adultery, cheating, or unfaithfulness) that can occur. One is called sexual infidelity and the other is called emotional infidelity.
Sexual Affairs or Sexual Infidelity
Sexual infidelity means that your spouse or fiancé is: 1) participating in some kind of sexual behavior with someone other than you and, 2) that behavior conflicts with an agreed on or understood expectation that you both have about the relationship. In order to be considered sexual infidelity, both of these things must be true.
Emotional Affairs or Emotional Infidelity
Emotional infidelity means that your spouse or fiancé is: 1) sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with someone other than you and 2) the sharing involves secrecy which conflicts with agreed on or understood expectations that you both have for the relationship. Perhaps even more so than with sexual infidelity, the expectations regarding emotional faithfulness need to be clearly understood before committing to someone. It is not prudent to assume that any two people will draw the lines exactly the same on sharing intimate thoughts and feelings.
“What about lustful eyes, pornography, or fantasies about others?”
Although everyone draws the line differently on what is unfaithfulness, the above definitions are the ones used by marriage and family therapists in the United States. They do not include such things as visiting topless bars, strip clubs, viewing pornography, lustful gazes, or fantasies about others, although those behaviors also break trust and damage relationships.
Sexual and emotional infidelity do not depend on the gender of the other person
Notice that the above definitions do not specify the gender of the other person. What this means is that if you are a woman intimately communicating with another woman or a man intimately communicating with another man, your communication could still be considered to be emotional infidelity by your partner. Once again, it is better to clarify the expectations between you and your partner before having this level of involvement with anyone else.
Intimate–that which is private and generally shared only with one person, whether it is physical or emotional.
“Does this mean that if I have an intimate conversation with my friend, I may be committing emotional infidelity?”
Only if you’re talking to her: 1) secretly and, 2) your talking violates what you and your spouse agree is appropriate or understand as appropriate. The best way to find out is to ask your spouse or partner first. If he or she thinks it’s fine, then you can consider that it is not infidelity. If you can’t ask because you are afraid of your spouse’s or significant other’s response, then there is a good chance that you are being unfaithful.
A clinical analogy would be if I were to share a client’s personal information without his or her permission. I would be betraying the trust that client has in me. In my case, I could lose my psychology license. For a marriage partner, they could end up losing their marriage license.
“My spouse still fantasizes about a previous woman he actually had a sexual relationship with. Is this an emotional affair?”
If he has no contact with her, or he has contact but is neither sexual with her nor sharing intimate information, then he is not having an affair of any kind. This is a common struggle in relationships, especially when the relationship starts to become stressful. Better than blaming your husband for the fantasies would be helping him to have a better relationship with you so that what his mind will value most is his relationship with you rather than a past lover.
If he admits to struggling with this and your relationship is already good, then he could benefit in getting some help for letting go of the previous relationship. Letting go is not as easy as wanting to. There are many people who struggle with wanting to let go of a past relationship, but who do not know how to do that.
“My spouse is having a sexual or emotional affair. What should I do?”
Anyone who gives you a standard answer to that is doing you a disservice. To me, as a marriage and relationship coach, the pertinent questions are not how long your spouse has been having an affair, how many affairs there have been, or how many problems there are in your relationship. The pertinent questions are, “Do you want to continue your relationship with your spouse if he or she ends the affair and commits to working on your marriage relationship?” and “How much does your spouse care about losing his or her relationship with you?” With these answers, I can tell you whether it is possible to save your relationship. Although many people have affairs, they do so believing they can hold on to their marriages. Do not assume that because your spouse is having an affair, he or she no longer cares about losing you.
“Is there really hope for a relationship when there is an affair?”
Many people end their relationship when they discover an affair. But, an even greater number of people work on their relationship after they discover an affair. Many happy couples have had the traumatic experience of an affair earlier in their relationship and gone on to have great relationships. An affair, like addictions, or abuse, doesn’t mean the relationship has to end, but it does mean that immediate, nondamaging action for ending an affair is necessary if the relationship is to survive.