No one means to get entangled in an emotional affair. Leading relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman, author of What Makes Love Last, says that, in fact, many times, it’s these well-intended habits — such as avoiding “burdening” your partner with your needs — that actually become the first steps taken towards having an emotional affair. Or, many of us simply might be naïve about the potential negative impact oversharing with our new “office friend” can have on our relationships. While emotional affairs don’t always morph into sexual trysts, they can erode the intimacy in both people’s primary relationship; exchanging disclosures both big and small in a new “friendship” simultaneously cements a new bond and alleviates the urgency to share day-to-day concerns with each person’s romantic partner.
So when is a friendship just that and nothing more — and when might it become a threat? “One of the test questions,” says Gottman, “is: ‘How would my partner feel if he or she were sitting here, listening to me have this conversation?’ If your answer is, ‘My partner would be kind of uncomfortable with this,’ then it’s not just friendship.”
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Eight habits that make relationships vulnerable to emotional affairs:
1. Negative “comps” between another person and your partner — Feeling rejected by his wife who rushed out the door without kissing him goodbye, George* can’t help but notice the attractive woman at the bus stop who smiles at him while thinking to himself that she would be more considerate of him than his spouse. These negative comparisons (or “comps”) made between a current romantic partner and imagined (or real) alternate relationship with another person might seem harmless, but once it becomes a habit, it wears down the connection within a relationship, thereby making it susceptible to an emotional affair. “By focusing on what’s missing in the relationship and nurturing resentment for what they don’t have,” Gottman says, “these couples can forget to feel gratitude for what they do have.”
2. Falling prey to a substitution mentality — “It’s a mentality that says, ‘Well, not every relationship can meet all of your needs, so let’s get some of my needs met in other relationships’… and to some extent, that’s healthy,” says Gottman, offering as an example: “one person who is a rock climber and is with someone who likes to hike, but doesn’t want to climb rocks. Gottman warns that going beyond that scope is where the real danger lies: “But if you start to have that mentality about everything in the relationship that isn’t working very well and you think, ‘I don’t want to burden my partner, so let’s just get my needs met elsewhere,’ that’s different. If you notice that’s going on, it’s a telltale sign of an emotional affair — or the beginnings of one, at least.”
“I’ve seen a lot of cases in which people are saying ‘I didn’t want to burden the relationship. Oh, he was so busy, or she was so busy. I don’t feel entitled to these complaints.’ That feeling of not feeling entitled to complaints is what leads the person to go elsewhere and not bring the issue to their partner,” explains Gottman.
3. Practicing conflict avoidance — “One thing that makes people avoid conflict is if they try to bring up an issue and their partner gets incredibly defensive, or gets triggered by something. The conflict becomes just a nightmare, and they don’t want to have another one of those,” says Gottman. “So instead of saying, ‘Since the baby came, we haven’t really done anything romantic’ or ‘I’m feeling kind of lonely,’ they think to themselves, If I bring this up, my partner is going to say, ‘Grow up. We have a baby. I don’t want two babies. I’ve only got so much energy.’ This creates a feeling of hopelessness and creates the temptation to complain to other people.”
4. Avoiding acts of self-disclosure — Self-disclosure avoidance involves not bringing complaints to one’s partner, but instead choosing to talk with others about their complaints with that partner. “When one partner keeps their needs to himself or herself, it erodes trust in the relationship. One partner is going along thinking everything is fine, and then all of a sudden, that person finds out that his or her partner has been unhappy for a long time,” explains Gottman.
5. A decline in shared passion and/or romance — When a couple starts behaving more like “pals” or roommates instead of lovers, it becomes easier for one of them to fall into an emotional affair. “A lot of times, this starts so innocently,” asserts Gottman. “The couple is too busy. They feel like they’re broke, so they don’t go out on dates. But it’s not about money; rather, it’s about making romance a priority.”
6. Living parallel lives — This is what happens when a couple begins living their lives in tandem, gradually having less and less to do with each other over time. “Again, parallel lives can begin rather innocently with the idea being, ‘Let’s be one of those tag teams. You do the laundry, and I’ll make the dinner,’ instead of being in the kitchen together, asking each other questions like: ‘How was your day?’” explains Gottman.
7. Death of mutual play and adventure with your partner — The bond between two partners becomes more fragile when they stop having fun, trying out new things, playing with each other, having new adventures, or learning together as a couple.
8. Life becomes an infinite “to-do list” — Be wary if errand talk replaces real conversation on a daily basis. Whenever the couple does talk, the main topic’s about what needs doing around the household, or how the partner isn’t carrying his or her weight in the relationship.
How to nip an emotional affair in the bud
“If you’re feeling lonely or you see your partner feeling bad,” says Gottman, “You want to ask the question, ‘How are you doing, babe? You don’t seem very happy.’ Don’t let the pain you see in your partner just lie there unattended. Ask questions like, ‘What’s going on in your life?’ and ‘What’s important to you?’ If you’re not asking those kinds of questions, your partner is going to feel loneliness and cut off from intimacy,” says Gottman. “People we see coming into my office have left one another in pain for years; they’re just ignoring that pain and going on to focus on their work or children.”
So, what recommendations does Gottman have for couples heading down the slippery slope of conducting an emotional affair? “Raise your concerns,” he advises. “Talk about it, saying ‘I feel uncomfortable with how close you’re getting to this person, especially given that our lives don’t have this kind of closeness. I’ve been missing you a lot.’” Can people still have innocent, platonic friendships that don’t negatively impact their relationships? “Absolutely,” says Gottman. “But I think you have to create a very wide fence, especially in the beginning of a relationship when you’re building trust. You want to avoid touching another person, or being in a room together with the door closed. You want to create enormous transparency.”
* Name changed to protect the individual’s privacy.