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Understanding affairs


Affairs are a fact of life and common for different reasons. According to a YouGov poll in 2015, 1 in 5 British adults claim to have had an affair. The impact is felt not just on partners but on children, extended family, friends and often colleagues. Research shows that affairs are on the increase. Many couples come to therapy struggling to unpick a sexual encounter outside of their marriage, but others are bowled over by the sudden revelation that their partner or spouse has been emotionally intimate with someone else.


What is emotional intimacy? 


Like many forms of behaviour, a person’s unique interpretation of emotional intimacy is paramount in understanding meaning and impact. However, distinguishable by a lack of sexual intimacy, an emotional affair is likely to include behaviours such as flirting, sharing intimate secrets, sexual conversation or texting – perhaps consistently thinking about the prospect of engaging in a relationship with someone who is not your primary partner. 

However, the boundaries are not always clear between emotional and sexual intimacy; for some sexting might suggest a need for emotional closeness but for others, it highlights and elicits sexual desires.


Why do affairs begin?


A study by Selterman et al (2020, cited Psychology Today), highlighted 8 key motivating factors that were likely to influence the probability of an affair. They were:

Anger, Sexual Desire, Lack of love, Neglect, Low commitment, Situation, Esteem and Variety.

Whilst men are more likely than women to have an affair (Fincham and May 2017, cited in Science Direct) (although that gap is decreasing, possibly due to greater opportunity and increased independence amongst women),  Selterman (2020) found little difference in break-up rates of men and women after an affair – but what he did find was that the women who left their primary relationships were those who had cited a stronger emotional connection to their affair partner; indicating that emotional closeness has a stronger long-term impact on a relationship than a brief physical encounter. 


This is not unexpected. We know that feeling validated and understood in a relationship is imperative for a healthy connection. 

Without authentic connection, humans flounder, reaching out to other sources to get that much-needed fix of affection or attention. Whilst a strong support network can leave people, more likely women, with the connections they crave, they are not a replacement for the intimate sense of belonging that comes from a primary partnership. 


Are emotional affairs still “cheating”?


Because there is an inherent need for emotional connection, engaging in reciprocal, flirtatious behaviour can fire up a great deal of pleasurable responses in the brain. But how do we define “cheating” when we talk about relationships? 


Studies show that women are more likely to engage in emotional affairs and men in sexual infidelity. Buss 2013 (cited in Psychology Today) found that men were more jealous of a physical affair, whereas women felt more jealous if their partner reported an emotional connection.


However, further research conducted on reactions to infidelity for lesbian and heterosexual women and gay and heterosexual men, found that emotional infidelity was more distressing than sexual infidelity for all four groups (Rokach and Chan 2023, cited in Love and Infidelity). 

So, the lines are often blurred when we try to define infidelity, there are differences in gender beliefs as well as other social impacts. But what we do know is that emotional infidelity has a big impact. People can experience a range of psychological symptoms when they find out about a betrayal, including depression, anxiety, insomnia and even PTSD.

Emotional affairs elicit a deep sense of betrayal, they can be harder to forgive than a one-off sexual encounter because they are often less situational and show a connection that goes deeper than physical attraction. Perhaps, Cramer et al have suggested, this is because women believe men may tend to be sexually disloyal but would be expected to remain loyal to their spouses or partners regardless.


Women may also judge emotional infidelity as a precursor to sexual intimacy, making them feel even more vulnerable to the risk of betrayal. 

In short, an emotional affair sidelines the short, intense blast of physical feelings associated with sexual intimacy placing greater value on feelings of validation, understanding and belonging. 


Sexual intimacy without emotion, does it exist?


These feelings impact our ability and decisions about sexual intimacy too. For many, sexual intimacy in long-term relationships requires an emotional connection to give it deeper meaning. This is particularly important when we think about the chaotic and often fraught ways we conduct our lives; making time for sexual intimacy is far more likely when there is a strong emotional bond between partners. 


Without emotional intimacy, sexual intimacy can falter amongst couples in a relationship. Life is busy and stressful, the responsibilities of children, elderly parents, work and financial commitments are just a handful of things that seem to take priority over maintaining a depth of relationship. Great chasms open between couples and there is often an overwhelming sense of each other's needs being misrepresented or misunderstood. The authentic connection, the ability to meet emotional as well as physical needs has been ruptured. 

These ruptures can pave the way for rejection – for men particularly, sexual intimacy equates to validation of worthiness, status, and self-esteem, a lack of it increases the likelihood they will seek third-party involvement in some way.


What does this tell us about the importance of emotional intimacy? 


Affairs cause pain but we are wired to seek out that which will sustain us. We know that true connection is vital for healthy human development and positive mental health. Humans will always seek to gain emotional intimacy, so it is important to identify and address feelings of disconnection in a relationship and acknowledge and resolve them where possible. Once emotional intimacy is restored, the chances of sustaining a healthy and sexually satisfactory relationship are greatly improved. 


Working towards healing


As a couples therapist, I am often presented with evidence that people embark on affairs for a reason. There can be a lot of associated misunderstanding and judgement, but my professional opinion remains that infidelity is primarily about gaining connection and seeking attachment. 


The good news is that for some couples, once the betrayal is acknowledged, parties have healed and trust has been restored, infidelity can lead to positive outcomes.  To rebuild trust can be hard, both parties need to be willing and committed enough to work on the betrayal and what it represented in their primary relationship.  Although this is never easy, with strong enough foundations in place, many couples do choose to embark on this painful journey of healing and discovery.



 

References

Buss, D. M. (2013) as cited in Carter. L (2023) “Emotional Infidelity: A Woman’s

Perspective. Why do women have emotional affairs?” Available at

a-womans-perspective (accessed 13 May 2024).


Carter. L (2023) “Emotional Infidelity: A Woman’s Perspective. Why do women have

emotional affairs?” Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/inside-

intimacy/202308/emotional-infidelity-a-womans-perspective (accessed 13 May 2024).


Cramer et al (2008) cited in Rokach, A.; Chan, S.H.(2023) Love and Infidelity: Causes and

Consequences. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2023, 20, 3904. Available online at https://

doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20053904 (accessed 13 May 2024).


Dylan Selterman, Justin R. Garcia & Irene Tsapelas (2021) What Do People Do, Say, and

Feel When They Have Affairs? Associations between Extradyadic Infidelity Motives with

Behavioral, Emotional, and Sexual Outcomes, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 47:3, 238-252, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2020.185698. Available online at https://doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2020.1856987 (accessed 13 May 2024).


Frank D Fincham and Ross W May 2017 Infidelity in romantic relationships, current Opinion

in Psychology 2017, 13:70–74 available online at

(accessed 13 May 2024).


Fugere.M (2021) “How Men and Women conduct affairs differently”. Available at

women-conduct-affairs-differently (accessed 13 May 2024).


Rokach, A.; Chan, S.H.(2023) Love and Infidelity: Causes and Consequences. Int. J.

Environ. Res. Public Health 2023, 20, 3904.



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