As human beings we all have an overpowering need for human connection. We want to feel as though we matter. It is important that we are affirmed and that our worth is validated. Most of us therefore enter marriage expecting that our spouse will meet our deep need for love and acceptance. In an ideal world where we all came from well-adjusted families, this would probably be true. Since, however, we enter marriage with our own individual, often flawed emotional life-scripts; sometimes we are not exactly poised to meet someone else’s emotional needs. This is especially so, if when growing up ours were not met.
In other words, inadequate parenting or abuse, can affect our ability to reach out to someone else. So while our spouse may have a valid need, we may not be in an emotionally healthy place to either recognize or meet that need. Additionally, unmatched marital expectations, different socialization, poor communication, even gender-influenced ways of relating, can contribute to emotional disconnection in marriage or other committed relationships.
This leads us to the issue of emotional infidelity. In the same way that we pursue extra-marital sex because we need to have specific needs met, we also pursue extra-marital, emotional attachments because a basic need may not be met in our marriage. In the same way that sexual exclusivity defines marriage, there should also be a peculiar or distinctive quality to the emotional intimacy which should characterize our marriage or committed relationship.
Does this mean that we should not have meaningful friendships outside of our primary relationship or marriage? I don’t think so necessarily, but when such friendships are with the opposite sex, we have to exercise clear controls for ensuring that such relationships do not cross the emotional boundaries which could harm our primary relationship.
So what exactly does an inappropriate emotional attachment look like and is it always dangerous? Deep, opposite sex, emotional friendships are indicated and become lethal in a number of scenarios. These include when:
1. The relationship replaces the deep, meaningful communication which should take place between a couple
2. The friendship causes divided loyalty in the marriage or primary relationship, where the partner prefers to spend time sharing with his/her friend as opposed to sharing with his/her spouse or partner
3. The connection fosters sexual attraction. It is known that the more we open up to someone we feel emotionally connected to, the more vulnerable we are to becoming sexually involved with that person; in this way emotional infidelity becomes a precursor to sexual infidelity
4. The spouse feels uncomfortable or threatened by the friendship and perceives that the intimacy of the marriage or relationship is under threat
5. The emotional tie is accompanied by flirting, touching, or sexual innuendo but stops short of actual intercourse. This can encourage the guilty spouse to be misguided into thinking that nothing wrong is being done while the marriage is actually being steadily eroded.
Guarding Against Emotional Infidelity
Preserving the emotional sanctity of the marriage may not be a big deal for couples who have solid relationships and connect regularly. For those with communication challenges, or for relationships with tensions or unmet needs, greater vigilance may be required. Whatever the state of the relationship, however, some thought and discipline is needed if the uniqueness of the marriage or committed relationship is to be preserved. The following tips should be helpful.
1. Be open and honest with your partner about your expectations in the relationship; share your feelings about the issue of your emotional needs and please make them known in detail.
2. Cultivate a close relationship by spending more time together. If you are tending your relationship, then it will be very difficult for your relationship to be intruded upon by any outside source.
3. Set rules with respect to boundaries with friends of the opposite sex. Insist that any close friend also becomes a friend of the couple.
4. As a couple, agree not to have secret liaisons like lunches or after-work dinners with someone either of you feel emotionally attracted to.
5. Practice disclosure when appropriate, if you feel yourself drawn to someone other than your spouse or partner. Being open about extra-marital attraction, dis-empowers it and encourages accountability in the relationship.
6. Don’t expect your partner to meet your every need. Seeking ways to develop yourself or to enjoy your own company lifts some of the responsibility and weight from your partner and makes you less emotionally vulnerable to others.