Gwen Fellows, 53, was already struggling in her marriage when her college friend, Tom, re-entered her life.
After reconnecting over e-mail, Gwen—who lived in New Jersey—soon began confiding in Tom (who lived in Florida, with a girlfriend) about her troubles, including her husband’s alcoholism. A recovering alcoholic himself, Tom lent a sympathetic ear, and threw out some flirty comments.
Rather than get offended, Gwen flirted back, thinking the dalliance would help her lighten up, and take the stress out of trying to work things out with her husband.
"It was a nice, little romantic flirtation," she recalls. "I thought maybe it could help my marriage recover."
But the secret e-mails and phone chats grew more intense, and Tom began telling Gwen to leave her husband so that he could be with her. She moved out the following summer, having never admitted the emotional affair to her husband, whom she later divorced.
Tom kept telling Gwen he cared about her, and even visited her for Thanksgiving, though the two weren’t physically intimate. Gwen says she was scared of how she’d be in bed, since she hadn’t slept with anyone since her ex-husband. She was also afraid of getting too attached to Tom after sex.
Still, it came as a shock when Tom returned to Florida and married his girlfriend. He claimed that he still wanted a relationship with Gwen, but said that, since losing his job, he the health insurance this other woman could provide. "I was flabbergasted," Gwen says. "I felt like someone had died. This so permeated every part of my life… He knew what buttons to push."
About 35 percent of wives and 45 percent of husbands report having emotional affairs, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, a statistic higher than those for physical affairs, which are committed by 15 percent of wives and 25 percent of husbands. Another statistic on American sexual behavior by the National Opinion Research Center cites that 22 percent of men and 13 percent of women have cheated in their lifetimes. Though infidelity statistics are notoriously unreliable, since people are reluctant to admit any kind of affair, it seems safe to say that emotional cheating is more common than a physical affair.
What Is An Emotional Affair?
Part of the problem with emotional infidelity is that it’s hard to pin down. The line between harmless flirtation with a member of the opposite sex and actual infidelity is blurry, especially for women, who are typically more open with their emotions.
An emotional affair differs from a flirtation in that the latter typically involves behavior—such as smiling, eyelash-batting and flattery—that carries no actual meaning. You veer into dangerous territory when you begin sharing serious issues in your life with someone who is not your partner, says Dr. Ron Potter-Efron who, with his wife Pat, wrote the book The Emotional Affair: How to Recognize Emotional Infidelity and What to Do About It. There is usually an "explicit understanding that this is stuff we’re going to talk about that I’m not going to share with my partner," he says. The info-sharing may start out innocently enough. But many people who wind up in emotional affairs also simultaneously start distancing themselves from their significant others while fueling intimacy with this new person. That’s what leads to trouble.
An emotional affair can be as detrimental as a physical one, because it strips the intimacy from your primary partnership. When most emotional needs are being met by someone other than your partner, the foundation of the relationship starts to crack, says Dr. Potter-Efron.
Anyone can get sucked into an emotional affair. Some people are vulnerable because they’re going through a hard time and feel they can’t turn to their partner. Others connect with someone who is struggling with a similar problem. Dr. Potter-Efron recalls a client who cheated with someone who also had a special needs child. Needy people may tend toward emotional infidelity because they’re not receiving enough attention from one person.