Jacklyn Collier, a 32-year-old actor in New York, remembers the moment she realized she was having an emotional affair.
Four years ago, she was in bed with her then-boyfriend. He was fast asleep, and she was Facebook-chatting with a guy she’d met through friends. At first their correspondence had felt safe, she recalled, just some witty banter. But by this point, they were talking deeply about what they wanted for their lives in terms of career and family — things she and her boyfriend of several years had rarely discussed.
“Oh s—,” she recalled thinking to herself, with her boyfriend snoozing next to her. “I don’t want (my boyfriend) to read this. I feel guilty that I’m doing it, and it’s not appropriate.”
Yes, it is possible to cheat on your partner without laying a hand on anyone else. And although it can be harder to define than physical cheating, emotional infidelity can have the same effect on a monogamous relationship.
How do you know if that friendship with your colleague or high school crush is verging on inappropriate? For Collier, her affair “felt like a freight train that was heading somewhere that was going to have a conclusion,” she said. “It felt like there was this inevitable thing: Am I going to try to be with this person, or am I going to stop talking to this person?”
There’s not one definition or litmus test for emotional infidelity, relationship experts say. What’s deemed fine by one partner, or in one relationship, could feel like a huge transgression in another.
An emotional affair can start innocently enough, said Stacy Notaras Murphy, a psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. Perhaps one person decides, “I want to protect my partner from the stress that’s happening at work. I don’t want him to know that I might be losing my job or that there might be downsizing, so you start to rely on people outside the relationship,” Notaras Murphy said. “Let’s say it starts off as a fun little ‘I was thinking of you this weekend; I saw this funny thing in the newspaper’ and you text about it.”
Then that might lead to phone calls or drinks after work. “Over time, it can develop into a full-blown affair,” she said.
Eventually, if you’re constantly reaching for someone who’s not your partner, “your partner stops knowing what’s going on with you, stops being aware of these details,” Notaras Murphy said. The ubiquity of cellphones makes it increasingly easy to reach out to others at all times of the day and night, she added, prime conditions for an emotional affair to take root.
It’s a myth that a physical affair is more important than an emotional one, Notaras Murphy said, as it leaves little room for the pain that emotional infidelity causes. She has seen cases in which the emotional connection never led to physical intimacy and the offending partner doesn’t understand why his partner is upset. He or she might protest, saying: “ ‘I didn’t do anything wrong. I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING.’ ”
“Physically, that person did not do anything. But you’re doing something,” Notaras Murphy said. “When you’re reaching for another person for comfort, that’s what you’re supposed to do with your partner. That’s what bonds us.”
An emotional affair can feel like a “leak of energy between two people,” she added. “Our ability to take care of our partner impacts his ability to take care of us. We are a feedback loop. If you are putting some of that energy elsewhere, there’s less for what you’re trying to build at home.”
This is similar to the dynamic Collier noticed in her relationship. She realized that she could have been putting that time and energy she spent chatting with her Facebook friend into her boyfriend; instead, she was “focusing on being witty with this guy,” she recalled.
Eventually, her boyfriend noticed her blossoming connection — after her Facebook friend sent her a birthday card and an ice cream gift card — and called her out on it. “There wasn’t a big dramatic conclusion,” Collier said. “My boyfriend was just like: What are you doing? This is super weird.”
Is it super weird? Or is it normal? After all, vulnerability and intimacy are crucial to developing strong friendships. Notaras Murphy suggests that couples ask themselves: “Would you feel comfortable having somebody you’re in a relationship with reading the texts or listening in on the conversation? If the answer is no, you need to play around with why. Is it just that it’s embarrassing? Is it that this is actually crossing a line that I wouldn’t want him to cross?”
But how do you even know where that line lies? In his new book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage, Eli J. Finkel notes that our expectations of marriage are now so high — our spouses are supposed to be our lovers, co-providers, co-parents, life coaches, our everything! — that it’s easier to feel that a union is falling short. And therefore it’s easier to seek support from outside.
“We look to our spouse to play a large number of roles when it comes to our emotional life and psychological fulfilment, roles that we used to distribute across a broader range of people,” Finkel said.
“It used to be the case that the marriage wasn’t supposed to be your primary source of emotional support and in that era mostly people spent their time in sex-segregated social contexts,” Finkel added. “I don’t think wives felt like the time that their husbands spent hanging out with other men or that husbands felt like the time that the wife was hanging out with other women felt like emotional infidelity, even though it was the primary source of emotional fulfilment, self-disclosure, connection and so forth.”
Although emotional affairs typically involve some level of physical attraction, Finkel implies that it’s not required.
As couples try to figure out where their boundaries lie, Finkel noted that “these lines don’t exist in some morally firm universe.” Rather, each couple and each individual should try to figure out for themselves what’s benign and what would constitute a breach.
Collier knows it can be hard to recognize a transgression before it has occurred. “I always had this self-righteousness about how I would never cheat on a boyfriend,” she noted. “Physically, I never did. Then I realized I did something that’s arguably worse and probably significantly more complicated.”