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Birds & Bees

Even Nonsexual Affairs Hurt Marriage


It seemed like nothing at first.

The man and woman met at a West Los Angeles school their children attend. The man, who is divorced, and the woman, who is married, spent time together volunteering on school projects. School-related meetings led to meeting for coffee. Talk turned from the non-personal to the personal.

The woman began revealing her feelings of distress about her marriage. The man listened, empathized and offered up the pain-filled details of his divorce. Each time they saw each other, entre-nous intimations were exchanged, deepening an emotional connection that fairly sizzled with an underlying sexual tension.

There is heavy petting, and there is heavy emoting. Both constitute infidelity to a marriage or primary relationship. Psychologists call an affair without any physical touching extramarital emotional involvement, emotional infidelity or an emotional affair. In emotional affairs, deep, personal intimacies are traded instead of fantasies of the flesh.

The hallmarks of an emotional infidelity are secrecy and sexual chemistry, according to Shirley Glass, a Baltimore area clinical psychologist who has studied infidelity for the last 25 years. Friendships, whether they are hatched over the Internet or in the flesh, begin and develop quickly when someone connects with a person who appears to be empathic and who shares common interests. The first transgression of an emotional infidelity is when two people share information about problems in their primary relationship that their respective partner would feel was a violation. This flags vulnerability and possible availability, writes Glass in the forward to "Infidelity on the Internet" (Sourcebooks Inc., 2001), co-written by psychologist Marlene Maheu and therapist Rona Subotnik.

Trouble looms large when one person intimates feelings to a potential sexual partner, things they are unwilling to confide to their existing partner, Glass said. Suddenly, the emotional intimacy in the friendship is deeper than that of the primary relationship, drawing the two people closer to a sexual affair. A primary relationship is even more threatened when marital troubles are discussed with someone who has no vested interest in the marriage, according to Glass.

"Once you have an emotional infidelity, it can make the jump to someone else's bed a whole lot closer," said Gary Neuman, a Miami Beach clinical psychologist and author of "Emotional Infidelity" (Crown Publishers, 2001). Neuman argues in his book that people need to learn to invest their emotional selves in their primary relationship, not in intense emotional bonds forged with colleagues and friends. Neuman believes that if too much is spent outside the primary relationship, not enough is left to sustain it. "An emotional infidelity is about consistently sharing with someone [outside the relationship] things that you are not sharing with your spouse."

The reason people have emotional affairs is they are looking for emotional nourishment on some level that they are not getting in their main relationship, added Ann Langley, a marriage and family therapist at the San Jose Marital and Sexuality Centre ( Indeed, the is rife with people looking for emotional and sexual connections, a great many of them married or already in exclusive primary relationships--a status that is regularly lied about.

A 49-year-old mother of two teenagers fell into an emotional affair with a man who flirted with her online a few years ago. He was romantic and a great communicator, everything her then-husband was not. As it turns out, the man initially said he was not married. She quickly figured this out but continued to communicate with him after he apologized and revealed that he, too, was unhappily married. She found the real him even more attractive and romantic. The woman has no intention of trying to woo the man away from his wife and daughter, she said, and they have met about four times. "It is safe," said the woman. "He knows I wouldn't interfere with his marriage and that I wouldn't put him through that emotional trauma."

"We are like best friends," she said, adding that her marriage was over before the cyber affair. "There is a kind of desperate romantic thing to it that is appealing. The last couple of years I have had more romance with him than I had in 25 years of marriage."

Unzipping the heart with someone outside a primary relationship can be motivated by fear that revealing oneself to a spouse or primary partner will invite humiliation, rejection and pain. "Maybe your partner is a prude and you can't explore your sexual fantasies or express parts of yourself with him," said Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist and author of many relationship books. "So as not to deny parts of yourself and so as not to try to make your partner into something he is not, you go outside your main relationship to explore."

One woman in her 50s exchanges sexual fantasies online with men anonymously and secretly, telling the men she is married and doesn't want to pursue anything. The woman argued in a message board posting on the Web site ( that her fantasy swapping has benefited her marriage by reinvigorating her sex life with her husband.

For people determined not to leave their existing relationships, Schwartz said, an emotional affair is an attempt to reconcile conflicting needs. But some people engage in emotional affairs for the extra zing. "Some people have these emotional affairs, and they are doing the same kind of flirtation and seduction as in a physical affair and are taking themselves out of the primary relationship," Schwartz said. "It might as well be sex."

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