On the surface, it sounds like a compelling topic for a café conversation: can it be called cheating if there is no physical intimacy? The question gets at some of the most challenging issues for couples: after the teenage dreamy romance stage is over, to grow with someone into a rich and fully realized relationship means confronting this issue. And for some couples, doing so happens too late, after a boundary has been crossed and feelings are terribly – sometimes irrevocably – hurt.
For most, physical intimacy (including sexual intimacy) is a line in the sand not to be crossed. But what if there is no physical contact, yet all the other trappings of an affair are involved? Is that cheating?
Three Main Types of Emotional Affairs
Emotional intimacy often feels like it just happens – you “click” with another person and in no time at all you’re sharing private thoughts and feelings and feeling heard and held by the new friend you’ve made. The modern techno-intimate world we’ve created has changed how these friendships get created and maintained such that there are three main types of these emotional affairs, categorized based on the role technology plays. Add to the mix the reality that for many people, emotional intimacy is, well, sexy, and you are playing with fire when you strike up an emotionally intimate friendship with someone that is not your partner.
At one extreme there is the face-to-face affair that does not rely upon technology at all. Co-workers, volunteers for the same organization, or any other situation in which people find themselves interacting on a regular basis with the same group of people (first responders such as firefighters, police officers, or paramedics fall into this category) may find that the intimacy of the shared goal or project leads to a deeper sharing at some point. This is also the case with members of self-help groups or those in group therapy – the intensity of the sharing can lead to feelings of love, support and closeness that can, if not properly handled, lead to an emotional affair. Even shared hobbies, especially if a sense of effort or danger is involved, can provide fertile ground for this type of involvement.
At the other end of the spectrum is the “chat room” relationship in which the two people never meet. I know, chat rooms … that’s so 1991. But some people do develop true emotional affairs with people with whom they have never had any face-to-face contact. These relationships often begin in the same way as face-to-face emotional affairs – a shared interest, or taking notice of each other on a forum for a topic of mutual interest. These affairs may have some of the same dynamics as Internet addictions and can be challenging to work through for couples.
The third type of emotional affair is the hybrid, in which there is both face-to-face contact and use of technology to continue and deepen the intimacy. This type may be more common among people who meet at unique events, form a connection, and then use technology to maintain that connection or set up future meetings.
But Is It Cheating?
Sometimes the best way to clarify the issue is with a set of rhetorical questions: if you and your “special friend” email one another, would you be willing to start CCing your husband or wife on every email? If you meet for coffee, can you bring your husband or wife to every meeting? Not will you, or should you, but could you? Would you feel comfortable and get what you need from your interaction with your friend with your partner sitting right there? If the answer is no, that you want your interactions with your friend to be private, it sounds like an affair. If you need to hide any written communication from your partner, that’s an indicator that this is cheating. If your behavior crosses the line in terms of honesty, your partner would most likely consider it cheating.
The bottom line is that you and your partner will need to deal with the larger issue and figure out just how tolerant you are or aren’t of friendships outside the marriage. Forget about whether it can earn the cheating label and focus on how you and your partner are communicating. If you need a certain level of emotional support and intimacy and it is more than your partner can provide, therapy can be an excellent neutral ground for sorting out these issues.