Written By: Caitlin Edwards
The couples I work with who come in struggling with infidelity often tell me a similar story. The member of the couple who had the affair will often begin with ‘at first we were just friends.’ This is a hard place for everyone: we do not want to limit our partners friends. And, at the same time, we want to be our partner’s primary point of contact, the person they share their life with. So, a fundamental question arises: how do we know if someone is ‘just a friend?’
There are several ways in which we can clarify this. Primarily, do you tell your friend more about your life, your dreams, yourself, than you tell your partner? Affairs can begin by feeling truly understood by another person. The friend may share a similar background or lifestyle that your partner does not. When your partner does not understand, or perhaps care, about these parts of you, it seems reasonable to fulfill these needs elsewhere. There is a balance between fulfilling all parts of you and remaining committed to your partner. So, if you find yourself talking to someone else in the way you wish you could talk to your partner, this can be (to be cliché) a red flag.
Secondly, do you discuss the details of your romantic relationship with your friend rather than with your partner? When things are hard, we often turn to friends to discuss our romantic relationships. Yet, research shows that people who discuss their romantic relationships with friends, colleagues, etc. find themselves unhappier with their romantic relationship than those who do not. When you find yourself talking to everyone but your partner about your relationship struggles, this can also indicate a red flag.
Third, would you feel comfortable if your partner knew about what you tell your friend or overheard a conversation between the two of you? We need friends; they meet social needs of ours that our partners cannot meet. Yet, when affairs begin, it feels necessary to keep secrets from our partner, to hide how intimate the relationship with our friend is. When we begin telling our friend details of our lives that we used to tell our partner, we have arrived at a very slippery slope.
Finally, is there an attraction to your friend? We are human. It is normal to find others attractive, even while committed to a serious romantic relationship. However, if you begin to feel more attracted to your friend than your partner or start comparing your partner and your friend, you have reached a worrisome point. Attraction can present itself in different ways. It may be that your friend is meeting emotional needs that it seems like your partner cannot. Or perhaps they begin to be sexually appealing. Either way, if you start to feel more attracted to your friend than your partner, this is a red flag for a potential affair.
Counseling can be incredibly helpful at this point. It may be that you have feelings you need to sort out on your own, in which case seeking individual therapy may be appropriate. It is also possible that this friendship has highlighted ways in which you are not feeling fulfilled in your romantic relationship. At this point, couples therapy is a great option for organizing your experience. To leave you with a quote from Ira Glass: “you know you’re in trouble when the word ‘just’ appears before the word ‘friend.’”
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