Emotional Affairs Are Not a Real Problem
(Here Are Five Real Problems)
I’ve been coming across a lot of articles about emotional affairs, and they give me the heeby-jeebies. I find the “emotional affair” to be a vague and unhelpful concept, whose primary function seems to be introducing an extra helping of paranoia and guilt into our relationships.
Articles like this one (and this one) remind me of articles on fad diets: they start by convincing you that there’s a problem (“Are you having an emotional affair?”), and then they offer you a solution that is vague, unscientific, and likely to create more problems (“You need to work on your marriage!’”).
So, no. I don’t think emotional affairs are a real problem. If they seem like a problem, I’d wager that you probably have bigger problems – and probably not the problems you’d expect.
What’s It To Me
Let me start by offering some fun facts about my life. I’m married, and have been with my husband for nine years. We’ve gone through periods of monogamy and periods of non-monogamy (the explicit and consensual kind). I’ve had previous long-term relationships too, mostly monogamous.
I’ve been cheated on, and I’ve cheated. Both were revealed, and both hurt like hell. I don’t take infidelity lightly, and I don’t recommend it.
That said, it should be mentioned that I am something of a libertine. I love sex, I fall in love easily and often, and I find both experiences to be major sources of inspiration. I am a professional writer (of songs as well as prose), and I make inspiration a pretty high priority.
None of this is news to my husband.
Real Problem #1: You can’t ask Vogue whether you’re cheating, you have to ask your partner.
I know, nobody wants to hear this. It’s a lot more comfortable to read articles about relationships than it is to actually have one. But in case you do want to have an adult human relationship, you’ll need to rip the band-aid off and have an uncomfortable conversation. (Helpful tip: you’ll need to do this again later, so you might as well start practicing.)
You need to have this conversation with your partner because there is no universal definition of cheating. Nothing is cheating unless you and your partner agree that it’s cheating.
For example: if I have sex with a man who is not my husband, it’s not cheating, unless I keep it a secret from my husband. Those are the agreements we’ve made, so that’s what cheating is to us.
On the other hand, I’ve heard of relationships in which emailing with a person of the opposite sex was considered cheating. I wouldn’t agree to that definition of cheating (and don’t recommend it), but presumably they did, so that was cheating for them.
It’s important to make these agreements with your partner not only because you don’t want to accidentally betray their trust (or vice versa), but also because you need to be sure that you can consent to playing by each other’s rules. If you can’t come to a mutually satisfying agreement, you should break up.
For example: if I want to be sexually monogamous, but still want to be able to cuddle with my friends, I need to be explicit about that with my partner (ideally before it becomes an issue). Ditto if I have a definition of monogamy that excludes opposite-sex emails.
And if I want “emotional monogamy”; I need to define those terms with my partner. What do I do if I find myself attracted to someone else? Can we meet in groups? Can we meet alone? Can we hug? Can we text?
If you consider emotional affairs to be a form of infidelity, their parameters need to be defined and agreed upon by both partners (just like physical infidelity). If you can’t define it and ask for it explicitly, you shouldn’t expect it from your partner.
I realize that most people don’t carry around a bulleted list of their needs and desires. That’s why it’s important to have this conversation early and often. Talk about it when you first start dating, again when you feel jealous, and again when you find yourself attracted to someone other than your partner (yep, that was a when, not an if). Negotiate the terms, and when you get new information, re-negotiate them. That’s your best shot at avoiding betrayal.
But before you get too comfy, take note…
Real Problem #2: You can’t avoid betrayal.
Here’s the stone-cold fact: if you’re in a committed relationship, no matter how compatible and loving and communicative, you are going to hurt each other. You may be able to avoid sexual infidelity (if you’re one of the lucky 25-50%), but there are many kinds of betrayal, and you can’t avoid them all.
You’ll expect something that your partner can’t or won’t provide, you’ll disagree about something that feels like a fundamental value, you’ll leave the milk out (which your partner, apparently, interprets as proof of your black and callous heart). In the best case scenario, you’ll get along famously, until one of you dies, leaving the other cold and alone in the big, scary world.
This is one of those grown-up truths that rom coms don’t like to acknowledge: like condoms, and cellulite, betrayal is part of being an adult person. There’s no escaping it. We are all, at bottom, alone. So let’s all put on our big-kid pants, take a deep breath, and move on to the next problem.
Real Problem #3: You are separate, autonomous people.
Here’s my biggest beef of all with the “emotional affair” narrative. It seems to me that as two grown-ass people, with two distinct sets of feelings and desires, it’s very likely that you will both be happier if you allow each other to seek some intimacy, inspiration, and satisfaction outside of the relationship.
I can almost feel you rolling your eyes, saying, “sure, the nonmonogamist thinks we should be intimate with other people!”, and I’ll admit it, I am probably biased. But bear with me for one more minute.
I have a studio in our backyard. It’s about 8x10’, it’s painted pink, and I call it “The Watermelon”. It’s where I do all of my writing, most of my reading, and a large percentage of my thinking and feeling. If you asked me to name the #1 source of joy in my life – the thing that makes me feel connected and whole and at peace- I wouldn’t choose my husband. I also wouldn’t choose any of my lovers, or friends, or family members. I would choose my watermelon.
Is that a betrayal?
Clearly not. My watermelon makes me happy, and without it I would be a more miserable person and a worse partner. Also, my husband built it for me, so I’m pretty sure he’s OK with it (not just OK, actually, but delighted to support my happiness and well-being. More on that later).
But that’s an easy one, because The Watermelon is not a person.
So how about this: I have several close male friends who are musicians. We spend hours upon hours together talking about music in great detail, listening to records, and going to live shows. These sorts of activities aren’t generally much fun for my husband, and he doesn’t have the kind of musical background that makes them so much fun for me. So, I’m getting something from these male friends, to whom I may sometimes be attracted, that I don’t get from my husband.
Is that a betrayal?
For us, it’s not, because those are the terms we’ve agreed upon. I’m grateful that we’ve come to these terms, because, again, these friendships make me happy, and without them I would be a more miserable person and a worse partner.
But for many couples, I think this is just the sort of relationship that might constitute an “emotional affair”, to one or more of the couple-ees. If you’re part of a couple like that, and you’re down with it, I commend you.
But if you aren’t sure about it, the question is not “are you having an emotional affair?”. That is a stupid, beside-the-point, crazy-making question. Here are some better questions:
- Are you sacrificing something that makes you really happy in order to be partnered?
- Are you willing to keep making that sacrifice?
- Is your partner asking you to make that sacrifice? If so, are they willing to reconsider?
Again, these are not things that Vogue can tell you. They are things that you’ll need to ask yourself, and your partner.
Real Problem #4: Love is not about control.
I think a lot of us could benefit from a more realistic and compassionate view of our partners, and of what we can (and should try to) provide for each other.
In my book, love means looking at a person, understanding who they are, and being willing to support them in becoming the fullest, happiest, and most inspired version of themselves, even if it hurts your feelings.
It’s up to you to decide how much hurt is too much, and whether to renegotiate, or end the partnership. There’s no magic formula. Being partnered means continually trying to balance your own needs with those of your partner. You can’t take too much, and you can’t give too much away.
For my husband and I, getting some of our needs met outside the relationship takes some of the pressure off, so that we can spend less time making demands of each other, and more time enjoying each other’s company.
But in case that sounds scary, let us return to that even scarier fact: you are going to hurt each other. The question is not whether you will be hurt, but how. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we agreed to hurt each other by admitting to our needs, even the scary ones, and negotiating a way to get them met? It’s that, or the usual methods of hurting each other: lying, controlling, martyring ourselves, and resenting each other, slowly and over many years, until we are both hollow shells of our former glory.
Imagine turning to your partner and saying some version of this: “Darling, I love you, and I know you love playing tennis. Because I hate tennis, I hereby grant you permission to have a wonderful time playing tennis with other people.”
For you, “tennis” might be talking about music; or learning to dance; or flirting; or reading historical fiction; or climbing mountains; or yes, having sex. And “hate” might be “don’t have time for”, or “prefer doubles”. And “with other people” might be “by yourself”, or “on the internet”.
Although “tennis” is an excellent euphemism for sex, I’m not advocating for any particular activity, tennis or otherwise. I’m advocating that we acknowledge who we are, and acknowledge who our partners are, and approach our relationships with clarity, candor, and compassion.
Real Problem #5: Your misery will not protect you (so you might as well cut it out)
As you may suspect, there is an inherent danger in these kinds of relationships. There is a danger that I’ll fall in love with one of my music-geekout-partners (not to mention one of my sex partners), and leave my husband for them. Or that I’ll be so happy out here in The Watermelon that I decide never to go back in the house. And, like in any relationship: no matter how careful we are about having scary conversations and making conscious agreements, we might still break them.
But the alternative, if you ask me, is much more dangerous. In so many partnerships, we see two people agreeing - implicitly - to live as a more-miserable versions of themselves, by abnegating needs and desires that they imagine might make their partner uncomfortable.
And the worst part? The people who make that sacrifice are still not protected from betrayal. Plenty of miserable marriages also end in infidelity. So let’s stop building our relationships on mutual misery, under the false pretense that our misery will protect us.
I don’t know your story, but here’s mine: my husband and I did not become partners to control each other, or to protect each other, or ourselves. We became partners to be accomplices in each other’s pursuit of joy.
It takes courage to find out what that pursuit requires, and to confront it. And as far as I can tell, it takes a continual re-assessment, and a summoning of more courage, over and over, forever.
This kind of partnership is dangerous, and scary, and sometimes hurts. But the alternative is all of those things, too.
And a lot less fun.
This post is inspired by the work of Dan Savage, Esther Perel, and Chris Ryan. Special thanks to my awesome husband. Above photo by Bobby Bonsey.
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