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Opinion: Are you having an emotional affair?

Don’t poo-poo the danger of emotional infidelity – it’s a betrayal that can warrant the break-up of a relationship.

Image: Dragon Images via Shutterstock

“YOU TEXT EACH other a fair bit, like…”

It was a Saturday morning and I had just sent a Facebook reply to a woman I had recently befriended. The tone of my girlfriend’s observation caught me off guard, mid smile.

“Really?” I was deliberately vague, something I was unaware of until later.

“Yeah. I mean, obviously you can have friends – Jesus. It’s just, well… I don’t see why you guys need to message so often.”

Despite having switched my phone off on foot of our conversation, I later found myself drawn back online in order to message my new pal.

Having ‘met’ via Facebook through mutual friends, myself and my new friend clicked instantly, sharing common interests and a similar sense of humour.

But while she was undoubtedly attractive, we had never met in person and had no plans to. With this in mind, I didn’t see anything amiss with the frequency of our communication, or our flirtatious banter. After all, it’s not like myself and my new friend were exchange sexy Snapchats or hot and steamy sexts.

This said, I refrained from communicating with her when my girlfriend was present. I reasoned that this was due to a fear on my behalf that a further misunderstanding would occur – and not, in fact, as a result of guilt.

After all, being in a relationship shouldn’t preclude me from having a close friendship with another gay woman, right?

Turns out, my girlfriend disagreed.

After checking my inbox while I was in the bath one evening, she accused me of having an ‘emotional affair’, expressing disgust at the number of messages stored on my phone between myself and this woman.

My initial reaction was to laugh. An ‘emotional affair?’ What’s that all about?

However, when I researched the term further, I realised that she was right – I had been emotionally unfaithful.

What is an emotional affair?

In David J. Moultrup’s book, Husbands, Wives & Lovers: The Emotional System of the Extramarital Affair, an emotional affair is defined as “a relationship between a person and someone other than [their] spouse [or lover] that has an impact on the level of intimacy, emotional distance and overall dynamic balance in the marriage.” In other words, this type of affair differs from the regular illicit liaison in that it need not be physical in nature.

According to sexpert Tracey Cox, talking negatively about your partner to someone you fancy, fantasying sexually about someone else, and hiding the frequency of your communication with another are all signs that you are being emotionally unfaithful.

Despite having cut ties with the third party in question, the relationship in which I strayed emotionally finished two years ago.

Yes, I was dumped – and rightly so, considering I was guilty on all three accounts.

However, there are some reading this who will not only poo-poo the existence of the emotional affair but deem it too mild of a betrayal to warrant the break-up of a relationship.

It would appear that for many, however, an emotional ‘liaison’ is harder to forgive than a one night stand.

Relationship therapist and author Shirley P Glass states, “Everybody understands a sexual act need not necessarily contain affection or intimacy. It could be literally about a sexual act. Whereas the emotional affair feels like it’s much more about being connected, about loving or liking.”

In fact, two thirds of women said in a new study in the US Journal Evolutionary Psychology that a one-night stand would be less painful to bear than an emotional affair.

It should also be noted that in her book Not Just Friends, Glass found that 82% of emotional affairs progressed to the physical – highlighting their danger.

Digital infidelity  

While each individual must take responsibility for their actions, there would appear to be a common facilitator in the majority of instances where emotional infidelity has occurred. The internet not only provides those tools which enable us to communicate with others, but provides those of us who are coupled up with an untapped potential of suitors.

According to a meta-analysis of The Investment Model, conducted by Benjamin Le and Christopher R Agnew, the strength of a relationship relies on three things: satisfaction, emotional investment and the availability of alternative partners. Furthermore, a study conducted by Pew in 2011 found that those who engage with social media have personal networks that are a third larger than those who who do not.

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Via the medium of social networks and online dating, the internet serves as a temptress to those who are in relationships, and has the ability to cause restlessness and a desire in a partner to find something better.

It should come as no surprise therefore to hear that a new study by researchers at the University of Indiana has found that Facebook users in relationships frequently use social networking sites to maintain contact with “back burners” – exes or platonic friends they know they could connect with romantically, should their relationship go south.

Such communication has been coined ‘digital infidelity.’

Tables turned

Speaking of exes, I recently found myself in the shoes of the ‘other woman’, when I got sucked into another emotional affair – this time with an ex via email.

What began as an innocent catch-up soon became an intense ‘friendship’, in which we spoke online daily for several hours.

However, unwilling to play second fiddle nor be part of any form of sneaking around behind her partner’s back, I told her that our ‘friendship’ had crossed a boundary, and asked her how she felt.

I haven’t heard from her since.

While forcing my ex to examine our friendship in the cold light of day inevitably left me hurt, and without someone I genuinely cared for, I don’t regret my decision.

If you are pining after somebody who is in a relationship and are engaged in an emotional affair with this person, burying your head in the sand will only lead to heartache. If not for you, then for the person who trusts them.

Likewise, if you are a taken girl or guy, and are in constant communication with someone other than your partner, you should cut ties with the third party.

If you don’t, not even Liam Neeson may be able to rescue your relationship.

Christine is 26 and entering her third year of Information Technology at DCU – a part time course funded for those that are unemployed. In between trying to get to grips with JAVA programming and looking for work, she loves nothing better than sitting down at the laptop with a cup of tea, and writing. She has been published in DIVA Magazine, on TheJournal.ie and Gaelick.com. She is also Opinions Editor for the DCU newspaper, thecollegeview. One day she would like to be known as the lesbian version of Carrie Bradshaw. Follow Christine on Twitter @AllenChristine2.

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