Friday, December 01, 2006

Dismaying Story #88: An Emotional Affair

Dear Andrew,

About a year ago I started getting active in on-line forums, which offer private messaging. I became friends with a single man, aged 52, who lives several states away. We talk about our day-to-day lives but never about sex. He means so much to me and has told me I mean so much to him. We have each other's phone numbers but have never spoken on the phone or in person. He sent me some flowers and a book when I was on a short trip by myself. I have sent him cards, just friendship cards.

I told him I was not looking to leave my marriage. My love for my frequent-traveler husband has been gone over the past few years, but I still have to raise my children.

I do love this man. I love him in my life. I feel like I have a friend for life now. I've always been wary of on-line relationships but not anymore. The thing is, I feel guilty for having a friend like this. My husband would never understand.

I am not looking for your approval. I just wanted to confide in someone, on the outside.

Signed, Just Fell Into This Relationship

Dear Just Fell,

I believe your husband would understand exactly what this on-line relationship means, and I think you do too.

Ask yourself a couple of tough questions. Why do you think your husband would react negatively to your friendship with this other man? And why have you hidden it from everyone? The reason is you know you have crossed a line.

Here is a good test for whether an action represents a betrayal of your significant other. Would you do it if they were watching you? If not, you should consider strongly whether you should be doing it.

This is more than a casual friendship with someone of the opposite gender. You have developed an attachment to this man of the sort you feel is missing in your marriage. In short, you are having an emotional affair, and this is definitely a betrayal of the commitment you made to your husband.

I understand that things can get rocky in marriage for all sorts of reasons, including frequent separation like you and your hubby must endure. You may feel like the spark is gone and there is no way to get it back. Your life at home is full of work, kids, stress, and enough hum-drum to fill a dump truck. This is what you share with your husband, which means much of the time you spend together is filled with neutral or even negative experiences.

Your on-line friend, on the other hand, is your escape from the storm. With him everything is always, "Hi! Glad to hear from you!" You are always in mini-vacation mode when talking with him. This is spiced with excitement of newness and the thrill of the forbidden.

If you step back and think about this for a moment, you will realize this is an entirely unfair way to compare the two men in your life. Imagine you could perform this magic experiment. Pretend your online friend is your husband. Now he is the one who is away all the time and has to share the stress of kids and bills with you. What personality characteristics would come out in this man that you have had no opportunity to observe? Your husband, on the other hand, is now the new spark that you only get to glimpse when the two of you have time to have a virtual cup of coffee together. You have nothing but fun experiences with him.

Now which man would be holding your interest? I suspect the shoe would be entirely on the other foot.

Let's take it a step further. Suppose you left your husband and went to live with your on-line friend. Now you would get to run the same experiment for real. All of a sudden life would come crashing into your new relationship, with the same stresses you must deal with now.

I strongly believe that having an affair is never an appropriate response to troubles in your marriage. All you end up doing is hurting your spouse and your children, and feeling guilty about yourself. This is no path to happiness.

It is possible to re-generate sparks in a marriage that has become hum-drum. We all feel good about people with whom we share fun and positive experiences. The problem is that it can be difficult to make room for such experiences in the midst of bills, jobs and kids. Too many of us get out of the habit of having fun with our spouse, and situations like yours are often the result. We become convinced there is no time or no money.

Baloney. It may take some inventiveness and willpower, but it is possible to schedule fun activities with your spouse. The key is to realize how amazingly critical it is to do so, and to elevate the task to project status. Decide you are absolutely going to make it happen and don't let anything stand in your way, including your hubby, who has probably fallen into the same trap of believing it can't be done or isn't worth it.

It is totally worth it. I recommend you give this a shot.

Even with such efforts, however, the sad reality is that not all marriages are destined to succeed. I still don't believe an affair is justified. You made a commitment to your husband. If you wish to back out, then do so first. Getting involved with a third party while you are still married just muddies the water and strips you of your dignity.

You say you are staying for the children. The best thing you can do for them is to restore that lovin' feeling with your spouse. Right now they are witnessing how a marriage works between two people who don't feel much for each other. What a sad role model, and they will view this as normal. You are increasing the chances they will grow up and replicate this model. How much better it would be if they could learn by example that it is normal for husband and wife to beam with happiness at each other and give each other a hug in full view of the world just because they feel like it. And if you can't make that happen, you might want to consider whether your kids would rather be from a broken marriage ... or be living in the midst of one.

All the best,

The backlog of questions is tiny indeed these days. Please help me keep the stories flowing. If you have a question or observation you think would be of interest to readers of this site, please consider sending it in. I appreciate all the support!

Check back tomorrow for the Question of the Week, which will deal with young people and domestic violence.


  1. Anonymous12:15 PM

    nice job -- she does indeed need to look at what she is doing before it all falls down around her...thanks

  2. Andrew,
    Very wise response. The key as you pointed out, it is easy to believe that this person that your having an emotional affair with is better because you do not have the stress of everyday life to share, e.g, paying the bills, doing the laundry, raising the kids, etc, like you do with your spouse. Change the roles of the husband and the other man and your perspective would most likley change.
    Andrew, you are indeed a wise man.

  3. Andrew, once again you impress with your terrific advice!

    She's unhappy. She feels her identity is lost in the family and all the duties. But this isn't the way to find herself - it's a way to destroy all she has.

    Good topic!

  4. There is a great chance also, this guy could be married or in a committed relationship as well. You can't have a relationship with anyone that was never first based on total honesty.

  5. Amen...I wish I had access to your thoughts on this subject when I was going through this troublesome experience when my ex-husband was online, though I knew the information you provided, it would have been great to pass it on to him so he could see his actions I perceived them?

    3 Years Separated, 1 Year Divorced, He's onto Marriage #2 with a different person than his emotional affair (likely still talking to the emotional affair person online)...Is it too late to pass this information to him?

    My first thought was to send this column to him via email to open his eyes before he does the same thing to Wife #2. My second thought, to let it go and allow him to succeed or fail without my input and knowledge.

    Your thoughts?

  6. I think this is brilliant advice, absolutely spot-on. Marriage requires constant upkeep, which can be hard work at times, but is definitely well worth it. While there are certainly marriages which must ultimately be abandoned, I think many fail through lack of effort, understanding and persistence.

    I especially agree with what you said, Andrew, about modelling for your children what a good marital relationship should be like. I believe this is an important part of parenting, too - yet often forgotten.

    Cheating is cheating, emotional or otherwise. That's not to say I don't understand how it happens. I just don't think it is fair on the unsuspecting partner.

  7. azgoddess, mark, lori, margarent & jellyhead: Thank you for your supportive and insightful comments. Much appreciated!

    Misty: Unless you now have a very close, trusting relationship with your ex (which most ex's do not) my instinct would be to leave it alone. There is too good a chance he will see it as meddling and "I told you so" on your part (even though I don't think that is your intention at all). He may simply resent the intrusion.

    Shan: Since I run an online forum (this one) I guess I should stick up for the idea that they can definitely be useful, so I don't see that as her problem. Nor is her online friend necessarily a "loser." We know next to nothing about him, except that he is in an online relationship with a married woman. We all have our failings and he may be desperately lonely, or gregarious and giving. But it doesn't matter -- I addressed the issue from her point of view, not his. (And a small request: Using all caps is the equivalent of online shouting. Call me old fashioned or overly sentimental, but I would prefer people not to shout at each other on my site.)

  8. ...Sorry. I know about SHOUTING, but did it anyway. Emotional affair topic touched a nerve maybe.

    I spend a lot of time on forums myself. But calling Avatar a loser and telling her to get off forums was therapeutic advice.

    Here is the quieter version of my now deleted comment:

    Good response. But I prefer the tougher method

    Get off the forums and do something useful, your husband is a million times better than this loser who only shows one side of himself to you, i.e. the side you like. It is not okay to like-like someone else. Slap yourself and splash yourself with water, you will feel better later. If necessary tell this guy that you think this friendship is bad for your marriage, and so you won't be able to talk to him again. If "Avatar" cares about you, he will not object but quietly step aside. Your marriage is the best thing you have, your emotional affair is a mess. Just cut him out. Trust me because I am an online stranger and online strangers are the best... except Avatar.

    I'd also like to add now, that if your husband was doing this behind your back, you probably would not accept his complicated feelings as justification for cheating. I still stand by the idea of getting out of that 'friendship' no matter what.

    Andrew, I have a question for you though.

    "You made a commitment to your husband. If you wish to back out, then do so first. "

    You seem to present leaving her husband to be with Avatar as an option, albeit an unfavourable one. But isn't the point of marriage (and all related vows) permanence, regardless of our ever-changing feelings?

  9. Shan: Sure, the idea is permanence, which is why the vows say "til death do us part." The reality is, though, that people are imperfect and not everyone lives up to that standard. I can't offer advice if I'm going to ignore reality, like divorce statistics. The best option is to put in the effort and make your relationship work. For people who can't or won't step up to this task, however, being honest about your negative feelings is a much better alternative than having a secretive relationship with a third party.

  10. Anonymous1:34 PM

    I had to step back and think about this for a day.
    I agree with what you said, many married women see what they are not getting and when they meet someone on line that has the time for them and is willing to listent to the problems and console them they get emotionally attracted to that person because they are always there for them.
    With people on line living hundreds if not thousands of miles apart and the time zone differences they other person has probably finished all he/she has to do and is free to waste their time as they please and if they are single then they don;’t have the responsibilities they may have.

    I talk to many people and most of my readers are female.
    I myself have learned from past experiences to be careful what I say to some people.
    I have had problems in the past with women assuming more than what was there.
    On my blog I have a surprise mailing list where I mail something to someone every month without them knowing.
    If there is a married woman who on the list, she has to tell her husband about it and if I am talking to someone on yahoo or msn it’s the same thing, the husband has to know about me and they do.
    In fact I was thanked by one, whos wife shared the chocolates she received from me.
    Honesty is the best policy and it ensures for trust between the couple less problems.
    JFITR did fall into the relationship didn’t fall into it, she lured herself into it because she is bored with what her life has become and found what she is missing, in this case the attention of someone willing to listen.
    Her husband is focused on work and providing for his home and needs to be shown that it’s not all about work to keep his marriage alive by actually spending time in it and not away.

  11. Anonymous3:42 AM

    I can atest to the strength of the Emotional Affair and the impact it can have on ones life. Of course, I feel that if one is already in a weakened state, the emotional affair becomes that much more dangerous.

    I will explain that further. When I was married to my first husband, over 10 years ago, I started an emotional affair online. I was getting little to no respect or companionship at home, but I am not using that as an excuse, only the catalyst. I was also in a state of depression. It was very easy for me to slip into this, along with Internet Addiction. I pulled myself away from my family and friends. The warm fuzzies I was getting from the people online were what I was needing. It definitely caused the rift in my marriage to grow bigger and bigger.

    I am not proud of that, nor am I angry about it anymore. I know the marriage had to end, it was toxic to me. But I still felt the sting of abandonment when it was over, even though it seemed as though that is what I wanted.

  12. This whole post is terribly useful and I think right on track. I was wondering, Andrew, if you would consider collectively life coaching us on line - ie giving us goals for the week for a few weeks to pursue with our mate to improve our relationships. This might be too much to ask but I am sure it would be helpful to a great many people, and perhaps people could even report back on their progress.

  13. Anonymous10:29 AM

    You are so on with this advice! She doesn't see what she is doing as wrong because she has justified it in her own mind as being just a freindly relationship. How very sad for her husband.

  14. Anonymous10:11 AM

    Funny,She doesn't say how her husband treats her.. What if he abuses her?
    I still see people siding with him.. What a shame..The only one that you are considering is the husband..

    So, you're saying, because of a vow,even if it was years ago...A woman should endure.. I have a friend that said her husband would kill her if she left him...

  15. To Andrew, thanks for responding. As noted, that is where I was leaning. I always give such "out there" ideas a second thought (or more) to avoid making stupid mistakes that will only fuel a further rift between my ex and I. Besides, so far any other "good intention" actions, like having my children buy him, his wife, and their sister a XMas present, have only been met with hostilit, so offering "relationship advice" in any way, would be much worse.

    To Anonymous 10:11am...I think you are pointing out a very extreme case. If the woman is that in fear of her husband, she wouldn't likely be looking for love online, because any abusive spouse is likely very controlling and would find a way to track their spouse's activities online, thereby fueling any anger or danger further. There are a lot of agencies that such abused women can turn to for assistance. If you are one, or you know of one, that would be a first step.

    I stand by my opinion that one should finish one relationship before starting a different one (regardless of the forum) as it is the only way to minimize the hurt, disappointment, or in some cases danger that could result from such activities.

    Honestly, if I had caught my ex-husband in bed with a one-night sex affair, it would have hurt less than the words he sent to his online affair, under the guise of "friendship".