“While my wife was in the shower, I checked her work phone,” Jim confessed. “I’ve never done that before, but lately she’s been getting a lot of text messages, the phone buzzing evenings and weekends. Something told me the increase wasn’t work-related, because she hadn’t mentioned any specific work issues going on. When I checked her messages, the same man’s name appeared, over and over. And then I read a few of the messages: they were anything but work-related. I confronted her, and she first tried to blame me for looking at her phone! Then, she broke down in tears and said this guy was just someone who listened to her, something she said I didn’t do anymore. She swears there’s been nothing physical, but I don’t know . His messages showed he had more than a friendly interest, and if they haven’t already, it’s probably a matter of time.”

Jim is not the first spouse to be tempted to check up on his spouse’s messages, whether it’s texting, phone records, or emails. With new technologies come new challenges-and opportunities for a spouse to be unfaithful. But “ease” doesn’t make it “right.”

When you find out that your husband or wife has developed a close tie with someone, and their relationship has seemingly crossed a line from friendship or a working relationship to one of a more intimate nature, you may experience a range of reactions:

1. Guilt-You may feel you’ve broken your husband’s or wife’s trust by crossing a line of privacy and “snooping” into a personal account.
2. Sadness-Your partner is sharing a connection with someone other than you.
3. Anger-Your husband or wife is putting effort into a relationship when it’s your marriage that needs work.
4. Neglect-It can highlight the fact that you and your partner now share only banal news, such as what the kids did or what to put on the grocery list.
5. Defensive-You go into protective mode because your husband or wife has pounced on you for going through his or her “private business.”

When I work with couples where one spouse spends emotional energy with someone else, they are often in conflict over the definition of what a close, intimate connection with someone outside of the marriage is called. In this blog, I’m going to help you understand what to call that extra-marital relationship, and how it relates to the state of your marriage.

What You Should Call It

If your husband or wife has a truly personal relationship with some intensity, the relationship has probably crossed over to an emotional affair.

When your husband or wife has an emotionally intimate connection with someone other than yourself, the intimacy that rightfully belongs in your marriage is diluted. To share your innermost thoughts with someone other than your partner means you are developing an emotional connection.

Generally, the response from the person who has been “caught” is to argue, “What, you mean I can’t have a friend of the opposite sex?” And, sometimes the hurting spouse will agree with this position.

Marriage is built on an emotional connection between two people who have shared marriage vows and their lives. When one partner goes outside of marriage to seek fulfillment, whether that fulfillment is sexual or emotional in nature, I consider that cheating on the marital relationship.

Many people struggle with how to define such a relationship. To help define whether or not your spouse is involved in an emotional affair, ask yourself the following .

Is the extent of the side relationship concealed from you, or transparent to you? Does your spouse announce when a text message comes in? For example, your wife says, “There’s Steve-he really understands me, listens to me.” Then, she reads the message to you? The odds are highly against such a scenario. Another indication is if your spouse feels “special” with the other person, but not with you.

In most cases the cheater knows that the behavior is wrong. It usually feels wrong to communicate with someone outside the marriage on an intimate level, and that’s why there is an effort to hide the truth. When you happen to stumble upon or snoop and find the truth, the cheating spouse is likely to go on the attack and accuse you of being unfair, or defend that it should be alright to have a best friend of the opposite sex.

Is Your Spouse Having a Physical Relationship with the Other Person?

Sometimes I am asked if I think the relationship in question is physical, despite the partner’s denial. I respond that I do not know, which is the only true answer I can give. Anything is possible, considering that your husband or wife went to some pains to hide the relationship, or at least hide the extent of the relationship.

I cannot answer whether or not your partner has taken the relationship with the other person to a sexual level. I can, however, point out that, more than likely, you’ve experienced an intimacy breakdown in your marriage, and that is where you can begin to focus your attention. If your husband or wife “comes clean” and admits to having at least an emotional affair, this is at least a step toward repairing your marriage bond and putting the work into building up your own relationship intimacy once again, beginning with the following steps:

Step 1: Assess Your Emotional Connection

There is no excuse for a husband or wife to cheat, whether emotionally, sexually or some combination of the two.

Many of you want to know why it happened. There’s rarely a clear answer. It happened because the cheater made poor choices, stepped over a line, and began being unfaithful to you. This typically begins with thoughts of dissatisfaction in the marriage and as time goes on, the cheater begins to nurse those feelings of dissatisfaction and resentment. At some point, the cheater might unwittingly precipitate arguments or other problems in order to strengthen the rationale for cheating.

Examine your own relationship. Do you see signs of wear, or some neglect issues? Is communication healthy, or non-existent?

An honest examination of your marriage will show you where you could make your partner feel special, and where you could be more communicative. Both of you need to be working toward a good relationship, otherwise you’re likely to find areas where your emotional connection has eroded.

Step 2: Understand the Types of Communication

When you read or hear the word “communication,” is the first thought that springs to mind the idea of a lot of talking?

Understand that there is more to communication, though talking with your husband or wife is a very important component. There is verbal communication, and there is also non-verbal communication. Both contribute to a deepened intimacy between you.

For example, non-verbal communication could include sharing time with your husband or wife, sitting together and watching a movie, flirting with your partner while out to dinner, or leaving a card on the table to say “thinking of you.”

Your partner went outside of the marriage to communicate with someone other than you, and usually to find the feeling of being “special” in someone’s eyes if you’re not providing that.

If you wish to save your marriage, you will need to strengthen your communication bonds, both verbal and non-verbal, by experimenting with new ways to connect on a more intimate level. For example, if you can’t remember the last time you and your spouse sat down together to sip a cup of tea and watch the sunset, or play a board game, or go for a walk together, this would be a good time to initiate or re-initiate an activity like that.

If your verbal communication has eroded to the point of being non-existent, maybe your first step will be to think about topics to discuss such as a book you’re reading, a story you heard from your neighbor, or a trip you’d like to share together. You could ask about your spouse’s work and future plans. If you’re feeling up to it, you could discuss your desires for your relationship, or aspirations for the future.

If you’re both out of practice in communicating in this way, it may take some time to develop the habit of more intimate communication than you have right now. You will need to be persistent in a friendly way because your partner may even resent your attempts.

Or you could try some non-verbal communication techniques, such as the ones I gave in Step 2. Commit to trying one new way to communicate with your partner.

These steps are a beginning as you work toward a deeper emotional connection. There are other elements to work on to expand intimacy in your relationship. There is more relationship “work” to do to create a more fulfilling marriage as you move beyond your partner’s emotional affair.

In my program Saving Your Marriage today, I provide more communication techniques for you to incorporate in your marriage, and more steps for rebuilding that all-important emotional connection.

My best wishes for you as you rebuild the emotional connection with your partner.

Frank Gunzburg, Ph.D.

P.S. For more step-by-step information on working through the problems that could potentially destroy your marriage, please see my program Saving Your Marriage today today. Inside you will find crucial exercises that help you strengthen your marriage bond and provide you with a guide to building your emotional connection. The program gives you a workable, realistic plan to support your efforts as you take the steps necessary to heal yourself and your marriage.

P.P.S. Now, I’d like to hear from you. Have you suspected, or caught, your husband or wife investing himself or herself in an emotional affair? Simply scroll down and click the comment link at the bottom of this page.

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