Many of us have experienced an emotional affair. We may have even been guilty of indulging in one. Consider that coworker with whom you often flirt, the barista at the coffee bar with whom you have “a regular thing” when you show up, always at about the same time, to ensure he/she is there, or any other common scenario where you enjoy a private pleasure with little guilt.
Let’s just jump right into a litmus test for the innocence or guilt that’s appropriate here: Would you feel awkward if your partner knew everything about these encounters? Not just the surface communication, the actual words you and that other person actually exchange. But also the way that person winks at you, the way you offer something extra (or they do you), the body language you both exhibit, and even the illicit thoughts you have about the exchange. Now how innocent do you feel?
“I never actually had sex with her!” That’s the argument we often hear when we confront an emotional affair that we observe. As though the only qualification of intimacy is actual intercourse. Intimacy comes in many forms, and for couples in a relationship, it’s wonderful to explore and to utilize as many of these forms with which they’re comfortable. But that also means that just because you haven’t slept with your coworker, the barista, or the clerk at the store, you may very well be soliciting some form of intimacy with them. They may actually be doing the same. If you indulge it, on some level you are being erotically intimate with them. If your “primary” intimate relationship is exclusive (and we admit that we are biased toward that), then you are cheating when you share erotic intimacy with someone other than your partner.
Learning from the above paragraph, assuming you have and honor your committed relationship, is powerful. Because even if you are not guilty of soliciting or conducting an emotional affair, if you would argue against the accusation on the basis of not having slept with the other person, you do need to begin learning what constitutes an emotional affair. The first step is learning that intimacy comes in many forms. We’ve known couples that are faithful to one another, yet one or both does not appreciate the complexity of intimacy – as though it strictly means sexual intercourse. This robs the relationship of precious experiences, support, and nurturing. Intimacy is the water on your flower garden. Without it, you can have the best soil, excellent fertilizer, but your flowers, your relationship, will not survive. People often require or desire different types and degrees of intimacy, hence some people not even understanding it. Likewise, someone who doesn’t value or notice intimacy may be oblivious to the fact that their coworker always brings them their coffee just perfectly as a sign of erotic affection. Such a person may unwittingly return that request for intimacy by reinforcing the behavior in an unprofessional manner.
Emotional affairs can, however, develop into something that even the most obtuse among us couldn’t miss. You and a coworker may go on a business trip together. Staying in different rooms doesn’t neutralize this – if you spend all your social time together, the sex is not the issue. You are potentially building an intimate relationship with everything but the sex. Sex is of course wonderful, but that’s clearly not the only great thing about an intimate relationship! If you’re in a committed, exclusive intimate relationship, your partner, not the coworker, waitress, barista, clerk or anyone else, should be the sole recipient of that intimacy. Period.
“What’s the harm, as long as you don’t sleep with these other people?” Plenty. Our intimate relationship is a complex matrix of shared experiences, adventures, challenges, and triumphs, hence our calling the product a Relationship Map. When we divert experiences and shared jokes, tender words, even something as seemingly innocent as a flirtatious phrase, from our primary relationship, we weaken it. We instead begin building a Relationship Map with the other person. Now look at the long term effects of this. Do we really see any benefit to a partly-constructed relationship with a stranger? Do we at least get how stealing from our partner to build that partial construction is wrong? What about slowing the progress of building our own ideal relationship with our partner because we are taking those resources and giving them instead to someone else?
We’ve heard the argument that such emotional affairs can increase the “spice”of the primary relationship.
If you find you are lacking spice, try some habanero sauce.
You might, in that giddy moment, where you’re excited by the risk and damage you’re doing to your relationship, actually believe that you’re somehow benefiting your primary relationship. That’s an illusion. Further, the mature person with a balanced life learns that a relationship is at its best when you devote all your erotic love, all your intimate attention, to it. Diluting these by sharing them with others lessens the value that relationship can provide. But look at the other side of it – your emotional affairs are left with even less – so they can offer even less value. This generally winds up a confused mess, robbing us of time, energy, and life.
As we bring our lives into focus, we find that we not only enjoy more, but GET more. One intimate relationship. One career. One spirituality. One ___ (fill in the blank with whatever matters most to you). You will find that as you devote more to each single pursuit, you are able to get more from it.
The whole problem is often that we don’t commit enough to each thing that matters to us, just expecting it to run fine on “autopilot”. It won’t.
It’s up to you how much joy, how much success, how much love, how much intimacy, how much prosperity, you can receive in life. And it starts by deciding how much energy and attention you will give that one thing.
Commit to getting more from your relationship, and begin by committing to give your all to it. The only affairs you want are those you enjoy exclusively with your partner.