Your marriage has been blindsided by an emotional affair. One of you is struggling with thoughts and feelings of betrayal, shock, and hurt. One of you is struggling with thoughts and feelings of confusion, guilt, and sadness. How can your marriage move past this? The good news is, your marriage can not only move past this emotional affair; it can grow stronger because of this difficult circumstance—but both spouses need to be willing to to navigate the aftermath well, both individually and together.
The Spouse Who Had The Emotional Affair
Maybe you weren’t even sure you were having an emotional affair. You might have slid down the slippery slope of innocent friendship to emotional dependency and intimacy with someone who’s not your spouse. Maybe there were issues in your marriage that made it easier for you to begin to disconnect from your spouse and build a relationship with someone else. Maybe this is all about you and the little spark you got from the novelty of someone new and the secrecy of your interaction with them.
Bottom Line: You were doing marital work with someone who wasn’t your marriage partner. You crossed the boundary of faithfulness, exclusivity, deception, and betrayal.
Please read this account of how this individual was able to move past an emotional affair and how their marriage survived and grew stronger. ★ Note the steps that were taken.[Information in brackets is mine.]
- I admitted it: Shame can only exist in secret. When I was able to voice what was really going on, all the complexities of why I allowed it to go as far as it did and how I had realized the line had been crossed, the shame that surrounded the entire situation dissipated. [This is the first step. Friendships that are innocent don’t have to be kept a secret from your spouse and are nothing to be ashamed of. Come all the way clean with your spouse.]
- I stopped it: I wrote my ex co-worker a lengthy email telling him our friendship had crossed a line and that I felt it was unfair to ourselves and our spouses to continue it. I let him know that I had told my husband and encouraged him to tell his wife and take time refocusing on his marriage too. [Inform this person that your relationship is over. Full stop. Your spouse might want to read your email or listen via conference call. This is one of the first steps in rebuilding trust with your spouse.]
- I set personal boundaries: Hindsight is 20/20, so I was able to look at my mistakes and create a guide for boundaries in future opposite-sex friendships. Such as, I will never write another man something that I wouldn’t want my husband to read. [Your spouse will likely have input for the boundaries to protect your marriage. Be willing to do whatever it takes.]
- I reinvested in my marriage: Obviously no marriage is perfect. There is always work that needs to be done. With my energy and attention refocused on my husband, we grew stronger, together. [This is the key. Your marriage is in the ICU. The “what came first” question doesn’t matter. It’s time to reconnect with your spouse and pour your energy and attention into your marriage.]
I would only add to that excellent advice that you need to apologize to your spouse, ask for their forgiveness and express your commitment to them and your marriage.
If you want to move past the emotional affair, communicate your willingness to do whatever it takes to rebuild trust and your relationship. ☆ You may need professional help to break out of the fantasy world you created and to deal with the addiction-like dynamics of your experience. You may also need professional help to reconnect with your spouse and to pour yourself into your marriage.
Emotional affairs can be just as shocking and damaging to a spouse as a sexual affair. Your spouse might bounce back and forth between hurt, anger, and normalcy. Be open to their needs, whether it is to answer questions or be alone. Understand it will take more than words and it will take time.
You need to be open to and compliant with any accountability related to your phone or other devices as you begin to rebuild trust. You need to accept any other accountability that your spouse deems necessary, including whatever else they need to feel secure, heal, and continue to rebuild trust (even if you think they’re going overboard or being unreasonable). They are probably navigating severe anxiety and hypervigilance. This is not the time to try to negotiate; it’s the time to live out true self-sacrificial love.
This is when you need good friends who are for your marriage and accountability.
The Spouse Who Was Betrayed By The Emotional Affair
You didn’t make your spouse have an emotional affair. Know this, believe this, feel this, but it is also true that affairs do not happen in a vacuum. There is always a context to infidelity and betrayal. The marriage and the affair are usually connected.
Often, the marital context allows for a better understanding of the emotional affair. As marriage therapist Esther Perel points out, “The victim of the affair is not always the victim of the marriage.” As the therapist puts it, “The betrayed spouse, to one degree or another, can be one dimension of the infidelity—just like narcissism, low self-esteem, addiction, or a mid-life crisis can be a key for understanding your spouse’s [emotional] infidelity.”
But make no mistake, your spouse chose to have an emotional affair. Probably in a series of little choices. It all could have been avoided by choosing to ignore a text, to not eat lunch with a coworker, to unfollow someone on social media, to not divulge things to someone that only a spouse should hear. They could have chosen to work on your marriage.
At a minimum, you should know the following:
- Who the emotional affair partner was.
- How long the affair lasted.
- How often they met.
- Where they met.
- How they communicated. (Email, secret texting apps, phone or burner phone, etc.)
If the marriage survives, this information is essential to avoid future affairs and for appropriate accountability and to put boundaries in place. Take time to think about what would be most helpful for you to know. Sometimes when affairs are uncovered, the betrayed spouse says they want to know every single detail of the relationship, only later to discover that all that information wasn’t really helpful.
Understand that men and women generally view emotional affairs differently. In fact, according to a survey by VictoriaMilan.com, an online affair dating site (the U.K.’s AshleyMadison.com) for people who are already married or in relationships, there are some clear distinctions between how men and women view emotional affairs.
Here’s what they discovered:
- 72% of men said sexual affairs were worse than emotional affairs.
- 69% of women said emotional affairs were worse than sexual affairs.
- 76% of women said they would forgive their partner for a strictly sexual affair
- Only 35% of men said they would forgive their partner for a strictly sexual affair.
- 80% of men said they would forgive an emotional affair.
- Only 30% of women indicated they would forgive an emotional affair.
According to this and other research, women are much more unforgiving of emotional connections while men are much more unforgiving of physical ones. Again, understand that, in general, men and women look at emotional affairs very differently.
This is important to acknowledge as you work toward understanding what happened, heal, rebuild trust, grow in security, and strengthen your marriage. Take care of yourself so that you are physically and emotionally healthy and whole.
When you’re ready, you need to offer and communicate true forgiveness. Be open and willing to change as an individual and in how you relate to your spouse. You can’t “dance the same dance” anymore. This is your new, second marriage even though it is with the same spouse. Be intentional about making it strong and healthy!
Expect good and bad days, ups and downs, three steps forward and two steps back. Healing as an individual, healing for your spouse, and healing as a couple is a process. Don’t be discouraged by bad days or setbacks. Have a friend who is for your marriage who can keep you accountable, and you can be honest with and vent to.
Don’t blame and focus on their affair partner. This is understandable but completely counter-productive, can re-traumatize you, fuel intrusive thoughts, and impede healing.
Find resources that work for you. Don’t hesitate to seek out professional counseling for yourself and marriage counseling for you both.
★ Only about 15% of marriages break up directly because of infidelity and end in divorce. According to counselors, couple’s therapists, and marriage coaches, whether the marriage will survive is based on how each spouse responds to the emotional affair.
Some Other Helpful Resources:
- How To Rebuild Trust In Marriage
- Will My Spouse Ever Forgive Me
- How To Save A Marriage That Is Falling Apart
- I Can’t Forgive My Spouse
- Infidelity And Forgiveness
- How Fear Impacts Your Marriage
- Does Your Marriage have Backbone
- How To Find A Good Marriage Counselor
- 5 Ways To Protect Your Marriage
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***