When is a friend not just a friend? When can a “friendship” be threatening to a marriage? Most people think of an affair as having sex with someone outside of your marriage. More and more attention, however, is now being paid to “emotional affairs” that are not overtly sexual, but are still potentially damaging to your marriage.

What is An “Emotional Affair?”

Defining an emotional affair can be tricky. Here are some indicators that your “friendship” might not be as innocent as you think.

  • Do you keep the details of your friendship secret from your partner? Maybe you’ve told your partner nothing about your friend. Maybe you’ve shared just enough with your partner so that he or she won’t feel threatened. Secrets are relationship killers. If there are aspects of your friendship that you feel you need to keep secret, this is a big red flag.
  • Do you feel freer to talk about certain aspects of your life with your friend than you do with your partner? If you feel that conversation and intimacy are easier with your friend than your partner, it’s an indication that there are problems in your relationship, and that your friend is fulfilling needs that are more appropriately filled by your partner.
  • If your partner knew all the details of your relationship with this friend, would he or she feel threatened?
  • Is there sexual chemistry? Do you feel that spark of interest and curiosity, and do you get the sense that your friend does as well? Do you find yourself wishing that you could feel that same spark with your partner? I hope it is pretty obvious why this is dangerous!
  • Do you prefer to spend time with your friend instead of your partner? Do you find your thoughts drifting to your friend when you are with your partner? These are indicators that the friendship is in competition with your relationship.
  • Is your friend a “friend of your marriage?” Is your friend supportive of your marriage? Would it be awkward to be with your partner and your friend together? Would it be awkward for your friend and your partner to have lunch together without you there? These are all questions that go the heart of whether your friendship would feel threatening to your partner.
  • Do you complain to your friend about your relationship and/or your partner? Sometimes this can happen in very innocent and platonic friendships. Women especially — though not exclusively! — often confide in a best friend and talk about problems they are having with their partner. By itself, this behavior might not be troubling (though it could be) but, combined with any of the other situations listed here, this can be a major red flag.

How Do Emotional Affairs Start?

Emotional affairs often start off innocently. A lunch with a coworker to discuss business turns into a few lunches that are MOSTLY business, but hey… let me tell you about my kids. Soon you’re looking forward to those lunches because you really enjoy each others company and you find yourselves talking about more personal and intimate things. What do you do if you find yourself in this situation?

How Do Emotional Affairs Stop?

If you believe your friendship is potentially threatening to your relationship, but your partner has not yet become aware of it, full confession might not be the best answer. However, if your partner confronts you, lying and half truths will decrease the likelihood that you will be able to restore trust in your relationship. Regardless, the single most important thing you can do is end the friendship.

Talk to your friend and be frank about your situation. Be honest. Tell your friend that your friendship is a threat to your relationship, and state clearly and emphatically that your relationship is what you value most. Set strict boundaries with your friend and limit your interactions with him or her to only those that are absolutely necessary (for business reasons, for example). Then, talk to your partner about what’s missing in your relationship. Sometimes it’s best to do this in counseling, as these conversations can be hurtful.

Emotional affairs have the potential to be very damaging to a relationship. They can also be windows into issues about which you were not previously aware. Addressing those issues can often lead to a stronger, more resilient bond between you and the person to whom you have committed yourself for life.

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