What Does Emotional Infidelity Consist of?

You tell yourself you are faithful. You love your spouse. You pray every day, attend religious services once a week. You believe in the strength of your will — the ability to resist temptation, the perfumed heat emanating from a delicate hand.

Ah, how we fool ourselves. All around are enticements. They are the banana peels you don’t notice, the black ice waiting to skid the vehicle of your soul into dyscontrol, the quicksand but a step ahead. Springtime and flowers and a glass of wine. A comely presence attached to a sympathetic listener (a therapist, maybe) when you are unhappy about something.

There can be so much in a smile and a tilted head. And those eyes!

How do you know when you are unfaithful, even a little? Or heading for it?

A few questions:

  • Do you sometimes think about the “other” when talking to your spouse?
  • Do you, even a bit, wish your mate were more like someone else?
  • Do you imagine what you’d do if free to pursue something elsewhere?
  • Does your present lover know the stranger exists?

The ice is getting thin, no?

  • What do you imagine your mate would think if he/she overheard you talking with this special person or read your email?
  • Does the arrival of a new message give you a rush?
  • Can you sense the “sex of things” even if you haven’t acted on it?
  • Do you lie to disguise any aspect of the new relationship?
  • Is the mental and emotional space devoted to the stranger enlarging?

None of the above necessarily includes any sexual contact, not even a kiss.

  • Do you engage in secret phone calls with the other?
  • Have you arranged meetings in a park, coffee shop, restaurant or the like?
  • Do you share confidences not offered to your spouse?
  • Is your sexual desire for your mate now much smaller or larger than before you became otherwise preoccupied?
  • Are photo exchanges part of your new, hidden life?

Many of these actions can be rationalized. The new friend perhaps is a co-worker or someone you met on a commuter train. Each step seems small enough and might be something you minimize. Flirtation is enlivening. Sympathetic listeners are necessary in any life. A new person is fresh by definition and the glare from the unwrapped cellophane hides whatever imperfections reside in the package.

At some point the frail self is caught in a wave, swept away, young again. The experience moves you from underneath a pedestal to the top of one. Routine breaks. Your spouse knows you too well, but the fresh friend is dazzled. Your life goes from static to ecstatic. You assume your mate will not find out. You don’t face what your friends or kids or parents might think. No one will be hurt, you say to yourself. STDs? You laugh thinking they can’t happen to you and nothing will pass to your mate.

You are a fool in love. The early stages of love make us all fools. I do not disparage amour here, but surely you recall muttering (in the past, of course), “What was I thinking?” The question comes too late.

Some argue you should simply enjoy the ride, ignoring that you are not encased in protective bubble wrap. Better, ask yourself what is of ultimate importance in your life. What are the reasons you chose your spouse? Consider the gratitude you feel still toward him or her; all you share and have shared. How can you enliven the relationship to make it better? Who are you really, your best self? Who do you want to be?

An emotional affair is still an affair of sorts, even if not yet so dreadfully complicated. The new romance will almost make you believe the other is Christopher Columbus and you are the America he discovered. And vice versa. All this while you are upside down and so much the plaything of your emotions that you will not even recognize you are drowning. Your stable life was built of blocks made of prose (and prose is essential to sustain any lasting relationship), but the weights pulling you under are full of poetry.

Perhaps you can find some of the old poetry back at home, too.

You have my best wishes and deepest condolences. No judgement here: these things happen even without seeking them. Friends and therapists are waiting to help.

Just remember:

The brakes on your being are balky. The steering wheel is unresponsive. You’re heading for a cliff at high-speed.

Think about it.

Oh, but wait!

I forgot your brain no longer works.

21 thoughts on “What Does Emotional Infidelity Consist of?

  1. Emotional infidelity is a normal part of life among a species forced into monogamy that naturally isn’t! After three “failed” marriages, if I were of the advice giving kind, I’d encourage all and sundry, particularly before they “tie the knot” to agree that they will experience “emotional infidelity” and that each should pursue it to satisfy the heart’s longing. If the primary relationship collapses as a result, so be it. Who wants to live in emotionally constraining conditions? Not I, hence why I’ve lived alone and happy for some time now. Vive la liberté!

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    • drgeraldstein

      I love the comments you and Suzuki offered, Sha’Tara, because they are so different. Yes, “before” tying the knot, assuming no pledge of fidelity, would be quite different than after. Of course, other human lives are involved in such things, especially if there are children. I probably could have written much more; from several different angles, too. Thanks again.

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  2. I agree dr S.! Commiting adultery is not only the act itself, but also impure acts, gestures, words, thoughts and desires, even anything enticing us. Just like murdering another starts off by dishonouring, hating and injuring the other by thoughts, words and gestures. Only by the grace of God can we fight this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. drgeraldstein

    Thanks for your agreement, Suzuki. Sometimes I don’t even agree with myself! As I wrote in response to Sha’Tara, the two of you have taken rather different positions. As you say, by God’s grace or good luck or good advice from a friend or therapist, we are sometimes saved from ourselves.

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  4. bpd2know1amworthy

    Do therapists realize the long-term impact their words may possibly have on a person suffering from mental illness? I know we are all imperfect human beings and that my responses are my responsibility – but….you are correct…my brain is no longer working…perhaps never was….in the way it should, or in the way I want….many times causing me to want to literally go over the cliff so I can stop hurting my high school sweetheart/husband (since 1985) – and finally get my therapist of only 11 sessions (five years ago) out of my head.

    I have been totally honest and transparent with my husband (and the therapist) about how his seemingly innocent comments to help me see myself in a different way and to reassure and validate me from all my self-defacating comments, sent confusing and mixed messages to my “yearning to be accepted and loved” undiagnosed at the time borderline heart and mind.

    An explosion of fixation, obsession, desire, irrational attachment and longing has ensued ever since – despite my rational brain and heart knowing it will never happen and is unethical on every level, and not what I “really” want even though I want.

    I initially went to therapy to get help so that I could live healthier as my own person, and as a healthier wife and mother. I did not go to therapy to “fall in love” with my therapist and “out of love” with the only man I had ever loved or been with.

    I am sure that my husband, friends, and therapists therafter are sick of hearing me trying to “get over it” and understand and process this emotional infidelity I commit.

    Mindfulness training. ACT workbook. Two years of weekly DBT group therapy. Two weeks of residential codependency rehab. Radical acceptance.

    Unfortunately Knowing and Believing…doesn’t always = Feeling.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Thank you for this. With respect to the misfortune you have suffered, you have my condolences, but also my hope things will change for you. I’ve had a few similar comments on a post or two I’ve written on erotic transference, and a few suggestions of what might be helpful. You’ve identified a risk therapists might do better to consider. I wish I could provide you with a fool-proof method of addressing the problem. In any case, good luck.

      Liked by 1 person

      • bpd2know1amworthy

        thank you so much – I’ve read lots of your blogs, especially those related to this topic….any direct suggestion or advice that may possibly give me a different perspective or help to finally shut this part of my brain off (this is where black and white thinking may work in my favour) would be greatly appreciated! thanks again!

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      • drgeraldstein

        I suspect, based on what you’ve written, that you’ve considered the range of remedies via therapy. Since I don’t know you and haven’t evaluated you, I can only offer some generic considerations. Assuming you are not seeing the counselor in question now, one might think in terms of an obsessive condition and examine empirically validated treatments used for OCD. If, for example a person were rereading emails from a lost love, that tends to fix (embed) the ex-love in the mind and, in a metaphorical sense, carve out a groove for the mind to stay stuck in and repeat the obsessive thoughts. Talk about your feelings about the therapist with others might have the paradoxical effect of fueling the preoccupation, unless there is something yet unsaid in such conversations that might lead to a catharsis. Having a “funeral service” for the person has been used by therapists helping patients deal with someone who has been lost. Counselors also have been known to recommend the destruction/trashing of old mail and email and any other memento of the relationship. Keeping all this in mind, the website or office of the doc would be off-limits, as would unnecessary trips to his office neighborhood. Finally, investing in some activity or cause to occupy and intensify life apart from thoughts of the therapist might be useful. Not to mention investing in the relationships still at hand. Good luck.

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      • bpd2know1amworthy

        thank you so much for this – much appreciated!!!

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  5. Well done, Dr. Stein, and done with your usual humorous touch. Love the punchline 🙂

    During the early years of adjusting to life in Brazil, my marital relationship suffered all the blows you describe so well. While I stayed at home with our sons, my then-husband’s job as a private English teacher gave him lots of opportunities to stray. As I realized when doing a course on Anthropology as an undergraduate, the male of our species did not evolve to be monogamous. In that regard, I agree with Sha’Tara.

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  6. drgeraldstein

    Thank you, Rosaliene. Glad you appreciated the humor. In defense of the male of our species (I’m in trouble already), for the majority who are heterosexual as well as unfaithful, they find females. I wouldn’t therefore say the females are not evolved. Indeed I treated more than a few who found themselves in the situation I described without really looking for an extra-marital companion, as the men I described did also. We are all the descendants of people who had lots of sex. Complications are inevitable, though not for every individual, certainly. I should add that in marriages already dead and abusive, for example, I’d be hard pressed to pass judgement on those who stray with intent. Therapists, in any case, must be careful of judgement. On the other hand, I encountered quite a few people whose inconstancy was simply a matter of choice and lifestyle, a kind of entitlement, not something they could easily justify as anything else. Nor did they try very hard to justify it.

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  7. For an incest survivor like me, I think of my abusers when I am in a relationship and having sex, and that alone messed my mind up. I did not intend to commit emotional infidelity, but I felt guilty nonetheless. I decided to be asexual later, and have felt at least more relieved ever since. I know this experience of mine is not the same as what you have described, but, to put it bluntly, climax triggers intrusive thoughts about my abusers, and there is no therapist that I have met who could help me. Their solution, which I inevitably took years later, was to be single until I was healed enough to enjoy sex and have something more concrete to offer a mate. I am sure there are happy couples who struggle with this when one or both parties have a history of sexual trauma. I only know how to be single, however. Sex is a challenging topic for me, though I had to learn about it in two undergrad courses years ago, and I managed to do well. In everyday conversation, not so much. I am like the kid who gets embarrassed, and then I am like the survivor who feels guilt and shame. Somewhere between those tensions, I get turned on. It is this last part that brings about more shame and guilt. I do not like to feel aroused when thinking about past abuses. It feels wrong of me to do so, and some therapists are simply not comfortable discussing that either. I never act on my arousal, however. Rather, I go through the day feeling ashamed and alone. I suppose that I have been robbed of the opportunity to feel what normal people in cases you have described in your post. Thus, another angle is this: At least emotional infidelity is relatively normative when compared to the sexually damaged, like me.

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  8. Sex seems to be like a magnet, accumulating so many extraneous attachments, as does the magnet if iron filings are nearby. Your arousal is what it is, not right or wrong. Yes, you have been robbed. Perhaps there is some restitution yet ahead. I hope so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not sure what restitution entails, but I am happy being asexual, and I doubt that I will ever try sex therapy. It all grosses me out, and my arousals are not pleasurable to me, even though the pleasure centers of my brain react that way. I understand how others can feel pleasure, as I have once tried and succeeded in feeling pleasure, but those feelings were long before what happened to me in the Marines and then later in Cali. When I thought the worst trauma type was just a one-time occurrence, I became the magnet to perps. Although victims should not be blamed or responsible, my ultimate focus, from 2004 forward, has been to avoid being an easy magnet for perps. It does not mean I do not have feelings, or that I miss real relationships, but healthy relationships require more than what I could ever offer, that is, unless there are more asexual partnerships that emerge as part of the LGBTQ community. But even alternative orientations within the LGBTQ population find asexual persons unhealthy, as do studies on the psychology of women. I am alone in this journey. Even other sex abuse survivors have been able to find reprieve where I could not.

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  9. Thanks for this, Multinomial. I think your various comments about the impact of different forms of abuse, would inform most anyone on the subject. You have much knowledge, which came at an enormous cost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Dr. S. I think when it comes to sex therapy (or therapy for sexual aversion disorder, or sexual repulsion), it feels as though I’m being pressured into “liking” sex, or learning how to cognitively restructure a distortion that iatrogenically feels like pressuring, even if the tone, approach, and intent are not pressuring at all. Polyvictimization of the *same* kind of victimization (in this case, sexual victimization) will exact lasting damages to a person’s physiological, biological, and cognitive reactions to triggers. I think Freud and many Neo-Freudians tried to get at why any sexual orientation outside of monogamous heterosexuality are “disorders” that stem from some form of early childhood abuse, or even abuses throughout the lifespan. Even those with physiological disorders (e.g., cancer, Parkinson’s disease, medication-induced impotence, and perhaps even fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome) have difficulties with sexuality, or perhaps sexual identity. I’m sure emotional infidelity was among one of Freud’s or Neo-Freudian’s topics.

      In two very different courses, I had to endure lessons on why certain women go into the porn industry, why certain women and men enjoy BSDM or S&M, why certain people have paraphilic disorders, how sex crimes and paraphilic disorders intersect, and how rape victims write a “victim impact statement.” One of our classroom homework assignments for a criminal justice course (which, by nature, will not offer trigger warnings like some more gentler psychology courses do) was to write a “victim impact statement from the perspective of you being the rape victim.” Both men and women in the course had to write this letter. I wrote the letter as a rape victim for real, and I informed the professor (a graduate student professor teaching a criminology course on victimology) that I will hand in the assignment, but it was tough for me because I am a rape victim. I asked for “possible” accommodations for me to not attend the class the next time we met, which she agreed to. I then told myself to just attend the class anyway and see what happens. I did, and I made it through.

      Then, in a clinical psychology lab I had volunteered in, the PI was trying to find variables concerning dominance and submission, but he kept running into porn-like websites, which were displayed on the screen – where all lab members could see. I didn’t find that funny at all, even though everyone else did. Perhaps I am repulsed or too sensitive, but when we’re talking about relationship variables, or even childhood sexual abuse variables, I find it distasteful when graduate students and PI’s could joke about young survivors’ symptoms to such abuses, or speak negatively about “the depressed” or “the anxious” or “the borderlines – the undesirable client.” Of course I spoke up about how youth (minors under the age of 18, at least in this country) should not be diagnosed with a personality disorder, though researchers are trying to argue against that and are able to test such variables against the clinical ranges of such personality disorders, especially when it comes to self-esteem variables. It’s one thing to scientifically approach phenomena, but another to joke about it, spread stigma, talk about previous graduate students, or negatively influence current graduate students toward spreading such stigmas. –If that’s the attitude of clinical psychology training, at least from what I had personally experienced in a psych lab, then I don’t believe in the training, and I have a hard time trusting the training of my current therapists. I would hope that this isn’t pervasive, but after reading countless rants on various sites for educators, victims, students, and grad students in various clinical programs (not just PhD programs), I found out that this is pervasive. It’s no wonder that people avoid seeking treatment! Trust is hard to establish when stigma is widespread, and when counter-transference can be disastrous.

      I do try, on my part, to trust therapists. I may admit a lot of things – even things that aren’t really pervasive in my life – but I know that there are areas that simply haven’t been researched enough, or areas that remain poorly understood. And when such research lacks, so, too, do its connected intervention and treatment paradigms. It’s sad how people laugh about the people with those disorders more than the symptoms of those disorders themselves; it becomes a personal attack that is felt unconsciously in the therapy room and read in the whites on the page of many articles.

      I’d give anything to feel “normative emotional infidelity,” and then, as a person who would rather be monogamous, learn to (1) understand where those attractions come from and (2) regulate my behaviors to remain faithful to the person I’m with or break up with the person if the relationship warrants a breakup.

      But you’re right: My arousal is neither good nor bad; it just “is.” It’s there, and the only thing I can do with it is manage those feelings. Those feelings have not weakened. If anything, transference or counter-transference in the therapy room intensifies it, and more often than not, my feelings never get processed. It’s always the “just write it down in a journal” kind of speech, or “let’s change the subject.” I could sense right there the therapist feeling uncomfortable and confused as to how to handle that. And, in the distal past, between 2004 and 2006, nearly all of my therapists between that time had said my case was “too complex.” At least that was ethical for them to say. What wasn’t ethical was their lack of referring me to a different therapist, for which none of them were able to since they had no referrals. One psychiatrist who only doled out meds told me that in talk therapy I’d be a challenging client; even he didn’t have a referral, though he was eager to prescribe 2mg of Ativan and then send me on my way.

      From that point forward, and even recently, I’ve succumbed to the fact that I’m just “complex and difficult.” Any therapist who would say otherwise is either lying to me (so as to placate me) or they have not paid enough attention to all of my laments. For these reasons, I despise the label “complex PTSD.” Many veterans also despise the “D” in “PTSD.” So, on our charts, PTS is sometimes said or written, sometimes preceding “injury” in place of “disorder.” In other times, such as in my case, “Chronic PTSD” is written, which indicates that I’ve had untreated PTSD for a very, very long time and, according to them, this will never “go away.” The reality: I just have to learn to manage it. So, I approach my PTSD-related sexual dysfunction (and therefore psychosexual dysfunction) the same way; I manage it. I won’t change my sexual aversion disorder, but I can find peace in being asexual, even though some non-repulsive, non-aversive asexuals would beg to differ on a cultural level. I can be intimate and cuddle, but it’s the norm for non-asexuals to follow through with sex when they feel attracted to someone they are interested in (in the legal sense, that is). For non-repulsive asexuals, they prefer to not have sex, and they choose to not “cheat” on their partners. For asexuals to date non-asexuals, the non-asexual will almost always have issues with sexual infidelity because that is something that their relationship is lacking. For sex abuse victims, such betrayals trigger what happened to us; it’s not a fear of abandonment like most would like to think (though that does occur among some, not all, sex abuse victims), but rather (for some sex abuse survivors), it’s feeling and reliving the same pain and arousal that happened to us in the past, and how we were used for a brief moment – from strangers or from parents. Sexual repulsion is felt because sex was not only physically painful, it meant that orgasms are triggering reminders of that sexual abuse – sometimes even in the form of flashbacks. Sexual repulsion is also felt when the betrayal involved in one situation triggers the betrayal layer of past sexual abuse. That’s much different than longing or needing a loving parental figure in one’s life; that’s being unable to long or need a loving parental figure WITHOUT ALSO feeling sexually abused during such feelings. When our feelings are simplified and minimized by therapists who ironically tell us to not minimize ourselves, without realizing that we’re having a difficult time with therapists even believing us (which is why we state what is minimal without actually believing in the minimalizing words we just stated). We minimize because it is the language that therapists want to hear, not something that we truly believe, though in some aspects we do minimalize the pain. Nevertheless, the totality of the pain involved in polyvictimization is poorly understood, as evidenced by the language used in peer-reviewed journals and online articles.

      Sex SHOULD be a GOOD thing, a HUMAN thing. Some people have perverted that and their victims. I can see now why it is easier to side with the “unknown” perpetrators, as Judith Herman eluded to in her first book. I can see now why it is easier to blame sex-abuse victims for their culpability in allowing sex crimes to happen to them, or in “thinking like a victim” or in having a “victim mentality.” It’s easier to brush off their “erratic” reactions and triggers, especially when comparing their overreactive triggers to 9-1-1 victims; the former was unseen and hidden, the latter was seen and felt by those across the world. Just because “unsubstantiated” claims of sexual abuse victimization are spoken about and felt, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t happen, nor should those triggers be considered less “welcoming” by therapists than the triggers involved with 9-1-1. Trauma victims react to triggers of their past traumas, and all trauma survivors should be afforded some level of understanding, patience, and validation.

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      • There are some typos and lots of grammatical errors: 9-1-1 should read 9/11 or 9-11, I think. Also, I meant minimizing or minimize (not sure how minimal… got in there). LOL. Anyway, I think anyone reading this would get the gist of what I said.

        It’s a painful topic. I think emotional infidelity has a sexual component to it, or at least the potential. I think emotional infidelity shouldn’t be considered cheating IFF (if and only if) two monogamous partners are able to have open conversations about their lives and their day and work on focusing on the love each partner has for the other and how these feelings come up from time to time, but does not get to the point of emotionally cheating or losing focus on their partner. There is or should be an exception in cases of “confidential” or “security clearance” matters (which should NOT affect their significant relationships to the point of harming their partner; their jobs should be professional enough to where they can manage and find adequate support for their confidential or security-clearance-related incidents/reactions while in the field or otherwise, which is why such jobs should require a certain level of emotion regulation and social intelligence, above other forms of intelligence). Emotional infidelity becomes problematic when a different person is “liked” or “appreciated” more than a partner, especially in monogamous relationships, though more complex in polyamorous relationships.

        I’ve always wondered about Abraham and Hagar’s relationship; was it purely instrumental, or were emotions involved? It was supposed to be for Sarah’s benefit, though didn’t Abraham “lack faith” by not waiting for Sarah to give birth in her elder years, as opposed to forcing a child by way of agreed-upon sexual infidelity. Maybe no emotional infidelity had occurred during the time of Abraham and Hagar’s “get together(s),” but it seems that Hagar felt emotional about it afterward. I also wondered what Sarah felt before, during, and after Abraham and Hagar’s time together. I wonder if there are clues within the scriptures.

        As a sex-abuse victim, I don’t know if my questions for the above are “appropriate,” but that is precisely what I mean when I say that my life has had lasting cognitive changes. My thinking feels twisted, though I think these are important questions for theologians to consider. Hmm.

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      • It may be that theologians have considered them. I am not well-read on the subject.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You are right: Theologians have debated this, from different angles. I am not well read, in general, but it is interesting how the bible is not only filled with hopeful stories, but also tragic ones as well. Like I tell any Christian who asserts that they should not watch R-Rated movies, if the bible, in its entirety, were to be turned into a movie, it would be rated “R.” I am considering stories like the incest one, which can be found somewhere in the NT. I forgot that particular story, but there are many stories that involve some hard core violence, including the death of Jesus, or Yahweh.

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      • Thank you, again, for this. Among many other things, your story underlines how much we therapists have yet to learn, how self-protective and inadequate some of us can be, and how some experiences (sexual violence, war time, etc.) stretch the limits of human endurance.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for understanding. I really do appreciate therapists and the field of psychology. And professionals do know more than I do. But thank you for understanding my pain.

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