Emotional Infidelity

Over the past several years, emotional infidelity has been the focus of self-help and academic books, and has become a buzzword in discussions of relationships in the workplace and elsewhere.  Much of the existing sociological research on infidelity looks at ‘risk factors’ such as sex, race, or age, engaging in premarital sex, length of the marriage, greater opportunities to meet extramarital partners, permissive sexual values, and a lower satisfaction with the marital union (Treas 2000).  Infidelity, in this research, is almost always defined as sexual intercourse outside of the marriage.  Emotional infidelity, however, is not premised in advance on the idea that the breach of the marriage rests in extradyadic sexual activity; instead, the transgression may occur long before physical contact does, even before participants meet face-to-face.  Further, experts warn that emotional infidelity can strike anyone, even those in “good” marriages, and that when discovered, non-sexual workplace dalliances, no-contact cyber-affairs, or online flirtations can be as emotionally devastating to the betrayed partner and the relationship as traditional forms of adultery. 

In psychologist Shirley Glass’s Not “Just Friends”:  Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity, emotional infidelity is presented as an unfortunate, but avoidable, accident.  The couples Glass sees in her therapeutic practice are not engaging in infidelity as a means of intentional thrill seeking; rather, this “new infidelity is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing that they’ve crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love.”  These are “well-intentioned people who had not planned to stray”; however, because of increased opportunities for intimate relationships, the line between platonic and romantic feelings has become easier to cross (2003:  1). 

So what can one do?  As precautions against such “fatal attractions,” Glass suggests refusing to fantasize about other partners, eliminating flirting, and avoiding “risky” situations (2003:  41).  But this may not be easy, she notes, as “danger zones” are all around us:  at work, in “your own backyard” in the form of friends and neighbors, and on the Internet.  The workplace, for example, has become an important danger zone because women are both more sexually experienced and more likely to be working in what used to be male-dominated occupations.  Although “rich friendships outside the marriage” are important for a full life, such friendships may need to be forsaken if the boundaries of the marriage are violated (2003:  14).  Therapist Gary Neuman also warns couples to “insulate and protect your marriage against emotional infidelity by avoiding friendships with members of the opposite sex” (2001:  23).  Although this is just his first principle of 11 “secrets” to a great marriage, the idea of “marital isolation” is a cornerstone of his philosophy.  Emotional transgressions, after all, may be initially brushed off by both marital partners:  I’m not doing anything wrong; Don’t be so uptight, they’re just friends! 

            The suggestions of Glass and Neuman for avoiding unwitting emotional entanglements are undoubtedly useful to some couples.  Several of my monogamous interviewees admitted to limiting contact with all members of the opposite sex.  One man said he would never hold a meeting or have lunch with a female co-worker alone.  A woman told me that she was careful never to speak to another man at work or at church about anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary.  More than a few couples described infidelity on the part of themselves or their spouses that had begun online or at work, in a seemingly platonic and nonthreatening manner, but then blossomed into a full transgression that negatively impacted the marriage.      

But is marital isolation the only answer?  Couples may also engage in ongoing discussions about the appropriate boundaries of the relationship.  While such discussions may not prevent initially unconscious or unforeseen attractions from occurring, they may help individuals recognize and work through situations where trouble does arise.  Some experimental couples also negotiate to allow certain activities while prohibiting others.  Swingers may limit outside contact to sex only and reserve emotional connection for their spouses.  Other individuals may attempt to contain or compartmentalize outside emotional connections through limitations on frequency of outside contacts or the geographical proximity of other partners, by requiring that both spouses be included in encounters or correspondence, or agreeing not to ask questions about “girls’ weekends” or “boy’s nights out.”  Even in monogamous relationships, allowing for fantasies about other partners may be seen as a “safety valve” rather than a “slippery slope.”  Couples may share “Top Five” lists of celebrities or joke about friends or colleagues they lust after; including the spouse in such banter can occasionally deflect jealousy or worry. 

Contemporary understandings of intimacy as disclosure of one’s deepest thoughts and feelings can accord the partner in that communication with a special status.  For Neuman and Glass, according such a status to someone outside the relationship can easily develop into a romantic transgression.  For individuals not willing to forego opposite-sex friendships (or same sex, depending on orientation) as an uncertain hedge against relationship trouble, however, marital isolation may seem overly restrictive and even deadening.  Instead, those individuals may do better through being aware that relationship breaches can often be traced back to a secret kept from the partner, long before either emotional attachment or physical contact occur.  Further, if one finds oneself unwittingly having formed a deep, passionate connection with someone other than one’s partner, it may also be good to realize that sometimes those very feelings are themselves products of our culture’s tendency to privilege disclosing intimacy over other forms of connection.