An emotional affair is an emotional connection between two people who agree to keep their relationship secret due to one or both of them being in a committed relationship or marriage with another person. Most emotional affairs are not physically sexual, but rather emotionally provocative and intimate, which actually makes them more challenging for couples to overcome and forgive. The rate of divorce due to emotional affairs is significant and rising – in part due to accessibility, which includes advances in wireless technology and the popularity of social networking websites designed to encourage connection between people.
The seven stages of emotional affairs illustrated below are written from a male point of view, based on my understanding from men who have sought out counseling to explore the occurrence of how their emotional affair took place. This is not to suggest that men engage in emotional affairs and women don’t; of course, women have emotional affairs as well. I have also included my advice for couples on how to deal with each stage – and maybe save their marriages.
The 7 Stages of an Emotional Affair and the Eventual Path to Divorce
1. He Felt Inadequate and Unappreciated
He feels inadequate and experiences fear that leads to resentment toward his wife. He is drawn to the emotional affair who validates him by reassuring him he is good and adequate. She understands his frustrations with his wife and comforts him by listening and complimenting him. The Emotional Affair provides suggestions on how to help his marriage, such as flowers, gifts, guiding him on what to say or not say to help make things better. As a result, he feels heard, understood and calmer and correlates these good feelings with the Emotional Affair. The Emotional Affair sets the stage for emotional intimacy that he lacks with his wife.
Missing Link in the Marriage: The ability to validate and attentively listen to your spouse and the importance of identifying and verbalizing positive aspects in the relationship is lacking. It is helpful to also identify the difference between emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy and how they are connected and important in relationships.
2. He Wanted More Sex and Felt Sexually Deprived
He feels rejected by his wife and does not feel desired. The Emotional Affair makes him feel sexy by flirting, alluding to his sexuality combined with engaging his senses, for example by touching his arm as she tells him his wife is lucky to have him. As a result, he wants more attention from the emotional affair to feel sexually attractive which leads him to focus on his appearance. When he is with his spouse, he becomes confused as he fantasizes about having sex with his emotional affair partner. He begins to create reasons to have more contact with the Emotional Affair by texting her, calling her from his number that is blocked, looking at her social media photos, creating fake profiles and friending her.
The Emotional Affair knows he is susceptible to her and enjoys the attention and desire he is demonstrating toward her. She continues to encourage him by flirting more, luring him in with innuendos of sex. She will coyly touch his arm, wear a fragrance, bring him coffee or food as he becomes more mesmerized by her. She enjoys the feeling of being in control of his desire for her. It is important to note, that the Emotional Affair has unresolved rage due to the manipulative aspect of needing control, which is played out in an alluring sexualized manner.
Missing Link in the Marriage: The value of how intimacy and sexual desire need to be consistently worked on in a relationship and couples need to know the difference. Intimacy is the connective and emotional exchange between people, in other words, “chemistry.” The sexual act of intercourse, kissing, oral sex and other physical interactions in the context of the sexual act can be thought of as one of the primary physical functions of the human body. Ideally, both intimacy and sex are combined to create a healthy connection between people.
3. He Felt Bored: “My Wife and I Are Like Roommates”
He feels alive when around the Emotional Affair, but bored in the relationship with his wife. The Emotional Affair creates stories that enhance his visual experience of fantasy, fun, and play. She does this to get more control over the connection between his mind and body. She uses other tactics such as coordinating an event that she will be present to have an opportunity to check out her competition, his wife. He will arrive at this social gathering with his wife, eager to have fun and to see the emotional affair. His wife feels brushed off, noticing his preoccupation with the emotional affair and she will question him, and he will respond defensively saying “we are just friends.” When he corresponds with the Emotional Affair after the event, innuendos occur between both of them, suggesting they could have had fun together if the spouses were not involved. This further creates the fantasy of being alone together as the emotional and sexual tension increases between them.
Missing Link in the Marriage: It is essential for couples to practice enjoying pleasant activities and having fun together on a regular basis. Although it sounds like a cliché, consistently setting time aside for a “date night” is an essential nurturing tool for the relationship.
4. He Wants to Talk but His Wife Is Unavailable
When he calls his wife, she is busy with the children, work, commitments, and can’t talk – or she is resentful for doing the lion’s share of housekeeping and child-rearing and does not want to talk to him. The Emotional Affair is available and provides him the company he is seeking, as a result, she becomes his companion on the phone, computer, or face to face whether at lunch, travel, or the gym. The Emotional Affair deliberately does not make demands on him because she feels in control and desired by him already.
Missing Link in the Marriage: It is important to be mindful of when you are both drifting apart and disconnecting. It takes active participation to notice and to listen to your gut instincts when you feel this and to understand the difference between healthy autonomy versus emotional distancing. Healthy autonomy is a sense of self-identity that strengthens the relationship; emotional distancing can be thought of as living separate lives and emotionally disconnected from your spouse.
5. His Wife Is Making Too Many Demands
He feels controlled and not trusted due to his wife’s questioning and checking on him, by looking at his phone or other devices. He chooses to avoid his wife’s suspicions and regain control by using “burner numbers” or other methods of communication to maintain contact with the emotional affair. He starts to lie more frequently and makes excuses to be further apart from his wife and be closer to the EA. He now feels alive with adrenaline, the rush of secrecy combined with fear excites him and he becomes more addicted to the emotional affair because he no longer feels bored, undesired, or inadequate. He now wants to have sex with the EA, which she may or may not have with him, however, if she does she begins to make demands or conditions on him to leave his wife.
Missing Link in the Marriage: Attending therapy each week is making a commitment to the marriage. He may need his own therapist to explore his susceptibility to having an emotional affair. In most cases, there is a family history of affairs, addiction, and divorce. Individuals and couples may not resolve issues right away, but the fact that they show up, commit regularly, and protect that time for therapy can have a positive effect on their relationship to themselves and to the marriage.
6. He Felt Guilty and Does Not Want to Hurt His Wife
He now feels conflicted having the emotional affair and not wanting to hurt his wife. He shares his guilt with the Emotional Affair, making statements like, “I don’t want to hurt her, I should not be doing this.” The EA in her mind is no longer his emotional affair, but he looks to her as he did before to be there for him, however, she is now in competition to be his wife and has invested her time in him, making her attached.
The Emotional Affair seeks to maintain control of him realizing she cannot make demands that are too strong or he may return to his wife emotionally and sexually. The emotional affair ironically informs him “we should stop talking.” He agrees with her suggestion to relieve his guilt and redirects his energy toward his marriage; meanwhile, the emotional affair feels angry and out of control exacerbating her rage and desire to manipulate. The emotional affair regenerates contact with him generally about 2-3 weeks after they agree to not correspond. She sends him random messages or makes an unnecessary excuse, which starts their interaction pattern again.
However, this time the Emotional Affair becomes more strategic with her connection, knowing he is susceptible to break it off with her, she may resort to more aggressive means by having sex with him or enticing him with sexting, trying to get pregnant by him, contacting his wife and becoming friends with her, or expressing her love for him. His guilty feelings increase and his obsessive yearning for the emotional affair generates the adrenaline rush of addictive behaviors to relieve his anxiety. He either gets caught and breaks down and tells his wife the truth or he unconsciously becomes more sloppy with his strategies of keeping the emotional affair a secret. He wants to be found out as does the emotional affair due to the tension between all of them being too high to contain. He may resort to going to therapy, talk to a trusted friend or family member to gain clarity on what to do.
Missing Link in the Marriage: Delaying ultimatums and reconsidering divorce as the only option for the occurrence of emotional affairs is advised. The importance of individual and couples counseling helps explore feelings, morality, and values that are important to each spouse which may or may not mean divorce or breakup.
7. He Leaves His Wife for the Emotional Affair
He eventually moves away from his wife either by her request or on his own volition, with the Emotional Affair’s prompting and encouraging him. Once he leaves his wife, the EA becomes more assertive since she has greater access to him. He generally will stay with a friend, relative, or live alone rather than stay with the emotional affair. He is generally not divorced at this point but estranged from his wife and children. The Emotional Affair works on recreating the fantasy of being with her as she did in the beginning of their relationship, however, there is tension between them due to his intensified guilt over his distraught wife, which ironically makes him feel more emotionally connected to his wife. The EA senses this and is even more diligent and focused working with him to divorce his wife and be to be with her. He tries to find ways to make his wife leave him first to relieve the guilt of wanting to be with the EA. Ultimately, the tension between him and his wife and the strategies by the emotional affair break and he leaves his wife for the emotional affair and divorces his wife.
Missing Link in the Marriage: The value of self-care for him and his wife, including counseling and taking time to explore feelings and have personal reflection is of great importance. If possible, delay making a decision on the relationship and urgently getting divorced. It’s important to slow down, find meaning and explore feelings of what you both have learned from this experience. Ironically, the emotional affair serves to bring him and his wife closer although initially, in an unhealthy manner, couples can recover and stay married. Those that can stick it out can work it out. Or the couple may divorce, leaving both individuals distrusting, guilty, angry, and despondent. Ironically, these qualities are at the very core of how the Emotional Affair feels: feelings she is trying to resolve through the process of having emotional affairs with married men.