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SALT LAKE CITY — The concept of emotional affairs is relatively new.
It’s not that emotional affairs haven’t been as prevalent in the past, but it now seems that as a society we have more awareness about the concept that all affairs do not have to have a physical component.
I have found in my practice that more and more couples are seeking treatment due to the damage done as the result of emotional affairs, and the number of couples I treat who have been through the emotional affairs is actually higher than those who have been through a physical affair.
Emotional affairs are tricky because they often sneak up on all parties involved. Usually, they start as an innocent acquaintance or friendship between two people. Often there are existing problems in the relationship between partners. Sometimes these problems aren’t obvious. They can look like a slight emotional distance, distraction from the relationship due to the busyness of everyday activities, or decrease in intimacy.
Oftentimes, the partner in this situation can feel blindsided by an emotional affair; and I often hear the statement, “I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t realize we had any problems in our relationship.” The partner involved in the emotional affair usually states that they felt that the relationship with the other party started innocently and that they were just a good support person in their lives.
Emotional affairs can be extremely detrimental to a relationship. Sometimes they can do more damage than an affair that is strictly physical because, in an emotional affair, a deeper bond is created, which can be more threatening and hurtful to the partner of the person having the affair.
Emotional affairs do not have to mean the end of the relationship, and there are steps a couple can take to repair the damage from an emotional affair. I will address how to do this in the second and third parts of this series.
The best way to prevent the damage of an emotional affair is to take preventative steps to stop an emotional affair from happening before it begins.
Step 1: Get to know your partner over and over again.
One of the biggest problems I see in the relationships of my clients is that they have neglected to take the time and effort to get to know each other through the course of the relationship.
Life changes people over its course. Our interests, likes and dislikes, goals and dreams can all change. If partners are not making the effort to regularly catch up with each other and get to know each other in the moment, distance begins and puts a couple at risk for being susceptible to the emotional affair. Even if an emotional affair is not a factor, growing apart can be very detrimental to the health of any relationship.
I often recommend to my clients to set aside time every week for a date that facilitates connection and conversation. This can be making dinner together and then enjoying it without distractions such as television, movies or children. It can be even simpler, like taking a walk together at a set time and day each week, picking a location that is relatively peaceful and quiet.
Step 2: Talk about the elephants in the room.
We all have them: things about our partner that bother us. Sometimes I see partners avoid having conversations about these things for fear of stirring up an argument they want to avoid. If you can’t bring up things that are bothering you with your partner because it always ends badly, it means there are deeper problems in the relationship, which need to be addressed with the help of a professional.
Having disagreements and behaviors you find irritating are very normal and healthy in any relationship. ...Not talking about the problems in a relationship creates distance and resentment, which can be the ideal recipe for an emotional affair to begin.
Having disagreements and behaviors you find irritating are very normal and healthy in any relationship. It is when we don’t feel safe enough to bring these things up and have conversations where we feel heard and understood that they become detrimental to the relationship. Not talking about the problems in a relationship creates distance and resentment, which can be the ideal recipe for an emotional affair to begin.
Set a time for communication about issues you are having in the relationship. A word of caution: don’t bring up the “elephants” during your connection and communication time described in step 1. Make it a time that is lower stress and when neither partner is tired or hungry (right before a meal or bed is not an ideal time).
If you find that you have difficulty with communication, a few visits with a licensed therapist can help to repair minor communication problems and help you learn skills to have productive discussions about problems. A therapist can also help you to determine if the therapy room is the best place to have those discussions for a time to address deeper issues that may be preventing effective communication.
Step 3: Do something considerate for your partner each day.
This can be something as simple as sending a text message, letting your partner know you are thinking about them. It can be getting the other a cup of coffee or glass of orange juice in the morning when you are getting your own. These are not time-consuming or costly, but their impact on a relationship can be significant.
The little things you do for each other can be very effective preventative medicine against emotional affairs because they create positive emotions that buffer against problems in a relationship and they tend to draw partners towards each other. I have seen this step change the entire climate of a relationship towards more warmth, affection and connection.
Step 4: Talk to each other as if you like each other.
When we first start dating our partners, we are very mindful of the way we talk to them. This can be lost over time, as partners get more comfortable.
Comfort in a relationship can be positive when it nurtures one’s ability to be him or herself, without fear of rejection or criticism. It becomes negative when partners become so comfortable that they let go of the mental and verbal filter and are not mindful of how they speak to their partner or what they say.
The best way to prevent this is to become aware of your own behaviors and tone when communicating with your partner. The next time you have a conversation, especially one that involves some type of conflict, pay close attention to what you are saying and how you say it. Talk to your partner like you would talk to a close friend who you wouldn’t want to hurt.
When we can talk to each other in a way that makes our partner feel our love and caring for them, they are more likely to hear us and respond similarly, which will strengthen the relationship and will be another preventative step against an emotional affair.
Even if you are not fearful that your relationship is at risk for an emotional affair, the above steps create health in any relationship. I often ask my clients to try each step and to be purposely aware of the changes they see in their relationship. You can do the same and share the changes you see with your partner.