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Emotional affairs

Gold heartAn emotional affair is just what it says on the tin: an affair of the heart, rather than the loins, where one partner in a relationship, though not be being physically unfaithful, is definitely committing more emotional energy to an outside 'friendship' than to his or her primary relationship.

As one Mumsnetter explains: "Things started to go wrong between my ex-boyfriend and me when he formed a very close friendship with another woman. I don't think they ever had a physical relationship but she definitely became his 'replacement' for me in terms of being the person he confided in and relied on most."

According to Relate, what separates a normal friendship from an emotional affair is chiefly:

  • Secrecy, either about the existence of the friendship or about the interactions that take place
  • Physical chemistry and attraction
  • That the 'friend' knows more about your relationship than you know about this friendship (or if you're the one having the emotional affair, that you know more about your 'friend's' relationship that his/her partner knows about your friendship)

While those who haven't been there may believe an emotional affair is betrayal-and-hurt peanuts compared with the fallout of a physical affair, most of those who have 'been there' would vehemently disagree.

"Does it really matter if knickers stay on? He is disrespecting you by continuing to choose the friendship with her over your relationship." HappyWoman

As guinealady puts it: "It didn't matter to me whether they had even held hands or kissed on the cheek; she had taken my place as his closest female companion and confidante, and somehow that was just as bad as adultery."

Then, of course, there's always the very real possibility that the emotional affair could tip over into a physical one, anyway - one that's likely to be all the more intense and serious because that deep emotional connection has already been established.

Warning signs that your partner may be having an emotional affair

  1. They withdraw from you, subtly.
  2. They seem to be thinking about their friend a lot, and spend more time talking to him/her than to you - in the early days, they might even crop up in conversation quite a lot.
  3. They says things like, "You really don't understand me at all"; subtext, "Only my friend can really understand me".
  4. You seem to have less time on your own together than in the past.
  5. They're coming home later than usual after work, and may be spending a lot of time on their phone, calling or texting.
  6. You discover that your partner has spent a significant amount of time with this friend that they haven't told you about.

What to do if you suspect your partner is having an emotional affair

Talk to your partner about your concerns. Try to explain why you're so worried about the friendship.

Mumsnetter ChitChattingWithKids says (she's talking about a man's brewing emotional affair here): "The problem is when he just doesn't see it. You need to explain that part of staying faithful is avoiding putting yourself into situations where you might be tempted to stray. He may not be intending to have an affair, but he is putting himself in a position where he can really become tempted and he needs to remove himself sharpish!"

Don't put up with any accusations of irrational jealousy - your reaction is normal, so don't allow your partner to make you feel as if you're the one being unreasonable. 

"I don't think men are that dozy to have relationships 'creep up on them'. Would he be receiving texts from a 60-year-old grandma who works in the office? I don't think so!" newgirl

Try asking your partner if they'd be happy for you to overhear their conversations with their friend. It's the kind of question that can be an eye-opener for a partner who's not facing up to the very real dangers of an emotional affair.

Alternatively, turn the situation on its head and ask how they would feel if you were texting a colleague 25 times in the early hours of the morning.

How to move on from an emotional affair

It may be that your relationship can't survive this - that's something only you and your partner can know for sure - but, if you both think you can move on together, rather than apart, it's wise to make sure you:

  • Keep talking it through, and make sure you air with each other any intimacies that were shared with the 'friend'. It's the only way you can both start afresh.
  • Agree reasonable boundaries together on key issues such as texting colleagues out of hours. In these days when the workplace so easily encroaches on family life, you both need to make sure you make - and keep - plans to spend uninterrupted time together.
  • Learn (if you're the wronged partner) from the oh-so-wise curlywurly: "Being livid at him now may blow off steam - and he really does need to know what an arse he's been - but it's not going to solve anything long term. Lots of talking while you're calmer and rational is the way to go. You need to re-establish the walls around you as a couple and as a family."

If you need to vent about any aspect of your relationship, head to Mumsnet Talk. You'll find plenty of Mumsnetters there who'll recognise what you're going through and who'll be only to happy to help you find ways to work it all out.

Last updated: over 3 years ago