Despite their deep intimacy, emotional affairs can be some of the most toxic, fragile relationships you?ll ever have.
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Definitions of infidelity vary from person to person, but most will agree that cheating has one important requirement: breaking the agreed upon rules of the relationship.
It doesn?t matter if you?re monogamous or non-monogamous. Honouring the boundaries we agree upon in our relationships plays a fundamental role in maintaining trust and security, even if those boundaries might be radically different from person to person.
However, this doesn?t mean that someone who has more conservative boundaries will necessarily suffer more when struck by infidelity. Conversely, someone with more flexible boundaries, or someone who prefers non-monogamy, won?t necessarily suffer any less when struck by infidelity.
This is because the nature of the infidelity isn?t what causes harm. It doesn?t matter if you?ve visited an adult chat room behind your partner?s back, made out with a stranger at a bar, or had a one-night stand with them. What matters is the betrayal of trust, the disregard for the rules, and the lack of consideration for your partner?s feelings.
What this implies, then, is that no relationship style can save us from cheating. Non-monogamy doesn?t give us immunity against infidelity, and monogamy is not a staling death trap that breeds infidelity. Rather, infidelity is born from a lack of honesty first and foremost with ourselves, and subsequently with our partners.
In the Arms of Another
Given that the key to infidelity is the absence of self-reflexive honesty, we might say that the exchange of bodily fluids isn?t the only way to cheat. Equally devastating and perhaps more insidious is the sustained emotional affair ? one that is often minimized as a harmless platonic friendship.
Some will say that the concept of the emotional affair is fraught with the baggage of toxic monogamy. However, it?s important to establish here that an emotional affair is not merely a friendship or close emotional bond; after all, friendships are necessary to a person?s well-being. We need other people who are not our significant other(s) to fulfill our emotional needs.
But what, then, differentiates a close friendship from an emotional affair?
The fundamental difference, I think, is that friendships are unequivocally fulfilling and bring joy to both parties. In a friendship, we don?t feel insecure or as though something is left wanting. Emotional affairs, on the other hand, compensate for a lack, but they do not actually fulfill us in any lasting or sustainable way. Where friendships are invigorating, emotional affairs are draining. Where friendships enrich our romantic relationships, emotional affairs strain and deplete them.
If a friendship must be kept secret and requires enough emotional energy to negatively affect your other relationships, it is either toxic, or possibly a form of infidelity. However, based on my own experiences and observations, emotional affairs are by necessity toxic, and the reason I would encourage a person to end an emotional affair is not dissimilar to why I would encourage them to end a toxic friendship.
Here are four reasons why emotional affairs can be toxic, and why they are better removed from your life:
1. Emotional Affairs are Rooted in Mistrust
When people think of emotional affairs, they think of extra-relational bonds that form because some form of intimacy or connection is lacking in the primary relationship(s). Because the foundation of emotional affairs is non-sexual intimacy, we often assume that there is trust and rapport between the people conducting the affair. In my experience, however, this couldn?t be further from the truth.
All emotional affairs are deeply rooted in mistrust, precisely because the people involved know that they are in the business of betrayal. Moreover, people in emotional affairs are riddled with doubts and insecurity. One party is deeply insecure in the relationship they are betraying, and the other is deeply insecure with themselves ? else they wouldn?t voluntarily act as another person?s emotional crutch. This is, again, another important difference between friendships and emotional affairs.
What this means is that despite the deep intimacy of an emotional affair, people in such arrangements rarely communicate how they really feel. The entire relationship is built on an avoidance of the truth: that one person has no desire to take accountability for the problems in their primary relationship, and the other yearns to be fully embraced by someone who has no intention of accepting responsibility.
Talking about the relationship while in the relationship becomes a kind of taboo; the implications and meaning of the emotional affair remain unaddressed, or at the very least, relegated to seemingly harmless categories ? just friends, perhaps. Jealous significant others are dismissed as overbearing, but nowhere in this arrangement does anyone wish to acknowledge the reality: emotional affairs are built on mud.
2. Emotional Affairs are Compensatory for Both People
Whenever there?s an affair, we tend to think that the person already in a relationship is somehow getting the better deal; they get to have their cake and eat it too, even if they are compensating for something that is lacking in their own lives.
But I?ve come to believe that emotional affairs are compensatory for both parties. We might ask, what is it about the secrecy and the constant sting of unfulfilled desire that appeals to someone in an emotional affair? What are they getting out of the experience that makes it worthwhile? Why don?t they find someone who is fully dedicated to them?
What, exactly, is the affair compensating for?
The answer, I think, is power.
People who get into emotional affairs often feel powerless in their own lives. It?s strange to think that being a ?side piece? would make anyone feel powerful, but I think this misguided sense of empowerment arises from the belief that the affair itself wouldn?t exist if the primary relationship was adequate.
The logic from the secondary partner?s perspective is this: ?I have something you don?t, and that gives me power that you don?t have.?
This is a common rationalization for staying in the affair, even though sometimes, people have affairs despite perfectly satisfying relationships. Yet the other person might still believe they are providing something essential, that they are needed, and that this need translates to a kind of power.
But this power is fragile; it?s belied by the fact that in emotional affairs, no one ever feels safe enough to speak their truth. After all, power that is perceived as a way of compensating for a lack of control is not meaningful, sustainable, or healthy. It?s a security blanket or a band aid used to disguise deep-seated feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness.
3. Emotional Affairs Often End With a Whimper
Yes, sometimes affairs have happy endings. Sometimes, an affair is precisely what someone wants or needs. But a lot of the time, affairs end in disappointment that goes uncommunicated. Even though we think of affairs as fiery, passionate, and exciting, they can often fizzle out. Their end is a soft whimper, drowned in the silence of unspoken expectations and unmet desires.
This is especially true of emotional affairs where those involved relish in new-found intimacy, but fail to acknowledge the deeper implications or the future direction of the relationship. These kinds of connections go unacknowledged for so long that the silence becomes a kind of attrition, until trust is battered and the connection loses its authenticity.
Wounds remain unspoken precisely because they result from an absence of something wanted, rather than an imposition of something unwanted. When all is said and done, disappointment gives way to hostility and bitterness, yet distrust stonewalls any possibility of catharsis.
People often leave emotional affairs entirely unaware of what, exactly, the relationship was supposed to be. They often feel they?ve expended an embarrassing amount of energy, and yet achieved nothing of import. The lack of clarity is both maddening and draining, until one party cuts their losses and simply moves on.
4. Emotional Affairs are Gum on Your Shoe
Because emotional affairs are so ill-defined, with murky boundaries and unspoken expectations, it can be difficult to end them ? sometimes more so than consummated affairs. Heteronormativity makes it incredibly easy to disavow intimate connection when it occurs between people who do not make their relationship sexual.
I remember a friend, M, who had strong feelings for a co-worker she got on well with. They went out for drinks and flirted often, but when M discovered that her coworker had a partner, she was genuinely confused and distraught by his flirtatious behavior towards her. However, because he never made any explicit attempts to start a sexual affair, M struggled with how to respond, and how to establish boundaries.
Was her coworker simply a flirtatious individual? Did he enjoy the attention? He had expressed on several occasions that his relationship was on the rocks. Was he testing the waters for a potential rebound? Would it be too extreme or presumptive to ask him to back off? Would their otherwise pleasant friendship become strained if she was forthright about her feelings?
In the end, M did what most people do: she tried to play it cool and carry on a collegial friendship, all the while taking an emotional beating. M?s coworker seemed to demand more emotional intimacy and engagement from her than he did from his own partner. And yet, even when M finally expressed her feelings, her coworker did little to modify his behavior; he didn?t see a problem, because they were just friends.
M feared she was being dramatic when she entertained the idea of cutting ties. On the surface, their relationship was warm, emotionally intimate, and enjoyable. Yet underpinning that fragile intimacy was a bottomless pit of deflections and dishonest semantics, and this was difficult to communicate.
Because there was nothing obviously wrong, nothing tangible that could be used to illustrate the problem, M struggled to assert herself. Yet perhaps most infuriatingly, when M?s coworker finally ended his already floundering relationship with his partner, he didn?t ask M if she was still interested in him, but started dating someone else ? a different coworker he?d barely had any contact with. And yet, he continued to pursue M?s emotional intimacy, until she began to avoid him entirely.
In the end, he grew hostile, feeling that M had inexplicably turned her back on him even though he?d continuously dismissed her attempts to draw attention to their emotional affair and establish boundaries that would end it.
M?s experience is by no means unique, and it illustrates how difficult emotional affairs can be to navigate. They can feel like a lose-lose situation, and they often drag out until one or both parties move on to better things, but not without residual trauma and resentment.
As a rule of thumb, emotional affairs are an irresistibly bad idea. Of course, that might be common sense, but rarely do we stop to think about what it is about these encounters and experiences that makes them so damaging. At the end of the day, what can make some emotional affairs traumatic are the same factors that make any toxic relationship bad: lack of honesty, mistrust, fear, manipulation, and poor boundaries. These are the realm of both toxic relationships and emotional affairs, and subterfuge in either creates nothing but harm to everyone involved.