In recent decades, there has been the birth of the “cyber affair,” the connection that occurs when a person engages in an intimate relationship over the internet or a mobile device. This may be conducted through social media, email, texting and phone calls, but it is generally defined by a lack of face-to-face contact.
An emotional affair can start out seeming like a harmless friendship, but to the violated spouse, it may be grounds for divorce. In a blog published in Psych Central, author and love addiction specialist Dr. Athena Staik details some of the central characteristics of emotional affairs. To understand the intensity that comes with emotional affairs, Dr. Staik says, the relationship must be viewed through the lens of addiction.
Much like any other type of addiction, toxic relationships are charged by the reward system, or the neurochemicals that are activated when in contact with the other person. Dr. Staik says that this helps to explain why individuals with alcohol or other types of substance dependence are more likely to get involved in an emotional affair.
Dr. Staik provides a list of warning signs that can indicate that a friendship has crossed over into an emotional affair. The first warning sign is that a person believes that the relationship consists of two opposite-sex people who are “just friends.” Dr. Staik says those words are dangerous to marriage. Despite flourishing opposite-sex friendships portrayed on television, the reality is that this “just friends” label allows those involved in an emotional affair to make excuses, or, as Dr. Staik says, to tell lies.
Conversation topics are encompassed in several of the warning signs listed. Talking about intimate issues with an opposite-sex friend tends to deepen the emotional attachment between the two people. Giving away this intimacy to someone other than the marriage partner is a betrayal of trust.
Conversation that centers on the failings of a marriage or spouse is also dangerous. This type of talk sends a message that the person is looking for another option, a way for someone else to fill what the spouse or the marriage lacks.
Dr. Staik also warns individuals to guard their thinking when forming a friendship with another person. Any time that an individual begins mentally comparing the friend to their spouse, they are breaking trust with the spouse. This type of thinking associates pleasure with the friend and pain with the spouse.
Obsessive thinking and daydreaming about the friend is another red flag. Anticipating the next time the friend will be around, planning what to tell them in the next encounter and excitement about sharing news all fire up the reward center in the brain. This, too, indicates that trust has been violated with the marriage partner.
Other warning signs enforce the idea that there is a “we” between the individual and the friend. Mentally shopping for the other person, buying thoughtful gifts or a gift related to a private joke, or believing that the person “gets” them in a way that their spouse and their friends do not are all ways that the relationship becomes an emotional affair.
One telltale sign that a friendship has become an emotional affair is the level of secrecy associated with the relationship. If the individual feels any need to cover their tracks, to change their behavior when their spouse is around or to downplay interactions with the friend, they are likely involved in an emotional affair.