“Am I Having an Affair?”

Question from a reader:

Hi. I am the other woman in a relationship that has been going on for more than a few years. It is (quite) emotional but has never been physical. He flirts incessantly but never once crossed the line. He’s married, with grown children who are out of the house for good. I am single with none.

I know it is an affair and not just a friendship because he keeps it all a secret. His wife knows I exist, but we have never met. He and I worked together for several years, and she knew about me then. I don’t know what she knows of me now.

He talks to me about everything (except their sex life) including a lot about his wife…her (many) problems with family and friends, her therapy…his kids…and a lot about work. Politics (we vehemently disagree!) and sports and pretty much everything under the sun. His friends are their couple friends and he feels no connection to the men, and he really seems to have no other male friends. Which is a puzzle…people at work love him…he is very warm and caring and friendly to them. Oh and very attractive physically. And professionally successful, though not a Master of the Universe.

There have been several points through these years when I was certain it would end, most especially when he went through some life changing medical issues. But we go on. And on. Texting daily, talking about everything under the sun and then some, flirting madly (90% of the time initiated by him, but I jump right in!), seeing each other at every possible opportunity, at least once a week. There have been times I have tried to push him away, but he fights for me. We have virtually no contact most weekends. Not “none”, but very little.

So I am reading through your blog, trying to understand the degree of “wrong” of this relationship, and the risks and possible outcomes. I realize the absence of a physical relationship makes it a little strange, since there is an obvious attraction, and I guess I secretly hope it really isn’t that “bad” for that reason. What is your opinion of the wrongness and risks of emotional affairs? I should say I am extremely independent in every aspect of my life and really don’t know what I would do if one day he said he was free. And that I love him and believe he loves me.

———————————————-

MY ANSWER:

This is a frequent question and it I agree it can be a bit confusing in some situations.  Many people convince themselves that as long as there’s no sex, it’s not an affair.  But it certainly can be.  An affair really has to do with secrecy, deception of the partner and betrayal. It also has to do with the amount of emotional energy that you put into the other person and are no longer giving your partner. Most people are more disturbed by the breaking of trust than by the sex—it’s what’s most difficult to recover from when a partner has an affair.

Emotional affairs are certainly easier to rationalize than emotional/physical affairs — and easier to explain away (“We are just friends!”), but they can be every bit as dangerous and devastating. In some ways, even more so because of the strong emotional bond present (as compared to let’s say just a one-night stand). I wrote a blog about the different types of affairs and emotional ones are certainly a type.

But I don’t want to confuse things. A true, close friendship between a man and a woman isn’t necessarily an emotional affair.  I truly believe that men and women CAN be friends (my two closest friends are women and there is nothing inappropriate at all going on with either of them).  And sometimes I share private thoughts with my friends that I might not with my wife. However, this doesn’t mean I’m having an affair with them or wish to (I’m not and I don’t).  It just means they are trusted confidentes who happen to be women.  Most people tell something to their “BFF” that they might not to their spouse.  I don’t think it’s inherently a wrong thing to do or a sign of an affair (although it could be).

You seem to be asking me whether you are having an affair or not.  I can’t tell from what you’ve written whether you are actually having an affair or not, although I think you might very well be on the cusp on one.  You haven’t given me enough information to really determine that except to say that you are flirting madly — which is beyond friendship, although sometimes even friends “get their flirt on” without intention (although I don’t think it’s appropriate, but it’s not having an affair either) — find him attractive, and think you love him.   So I have questions to see if we can nail it down:

Have you actually kissed when you see each other? Do you tell each other you love each other (in a romantic way)? Do you discuss “only if we weren’t married, we would be together” sorts of things? Do your discussions become sexualized? Have you told each other that you fantasize about each other? Have you traded nude or semi-nude photos of each other? Is there romantic-type jealousies involved with each other? Have you discussed the possibility of having sex with each other? Has he discussed feeling guilty for his contact with you? Are you not dating anyone else because of him?

If two or more of them are “yes”, you are most definitely having an affair. Even if you answered no to all these questions, you’re still in a grey area and on dangerous ground based on everything else you told me. It has all the earmarks of an emotional affair. And since you see each other all the time, the opportunity for it become physical is ever-present.

You do however say you love him and believes he loves you (so I guess that means you haven’t told each other?).  That to me says that at least your feelings are beyond a friendship.  But it takes two to tango.  You believe that he feels romantically towards you as well.  That’s a good indication that this isn’t merely a friendship.  The fact that you mentioned that you found him “very physically attractive” is also an indication that your feelings for him go beyond the boundaries of friendship.  You are on very very dangerous ground.

But I think the biggest indicator that this is an affair, that this is “wrong”, that your relationship is kept a secret from his wife. That you are having clandestine contact and clandestine meetings. It’s the biggest indication to me that an affair is going on, even if only in HIS mind. It’s a bell-weather — if you can’t tell your spouse about something important going on in your life, it’s a red flag that what’s going on is “wrong.” I’ve never kept my female friends a secret from my wife. She knows them. She likes them. She’s not threatened. If I had a secret friend, she would assume that something was going on. I wouldn’t blame her.

So while you say he hasn’t “crossed any lines”, I would beg to differ.  Some lines have been crossed.  You’re not exactly in a friendship even if not in a full blown affair. But appear to be on the cusp of one

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18 thoughts on ““Am I Having an Affair?”

  1. Thanks for this post! I would be devastated if my husband would have an (and to me it is!) emotional affair. His (2 months) physical/emotional affair was horrible, but years of this would (again) break my heart.

  2. I received a followup comment from the reader who asked the question. She posted it to another blog, but I’m sure some of you will be interested in her reply to my answer:

    “Thanks for your thoughtful reply! It is fascinating in that I think, intentionally or not, you went straight to the heart of a significant difference between men and women, because all (ok most) of your followup questions are centered on the sexual issues. My thinking as a woman, my questions, are about the emotional intimacy and secrecy and how they do or don’t define “what it is”.

    The answer to all the questions about sex is no. Yes, we do hug, no we do not kiss (occasionally on the cheek), yes we say “I love you”, again very occasionally. No, we don’t fantasize (openly, I cannot read his mind of course) about the “what ifs”. He does get stupidly jealous when I talk about other men, but it is annoying so I usually don’t say anything.

    One thing is certain, we both work pretty hard at this friendship. I’d bet a lot that I get a lot more of that from him than his wife. I think she is deeply disappointed in a lot of things about him and he has given up trying. I adore him and I am not shy at all about saying it in every way possible but sexually.”

  3. ” the amount of emotional energy that you put into the other person and are no longer giving your partner”…
    many people are driven to search for an emotional connection, either consciously or not, BECAUSE they feel disassociated from their partners after years of trying to engage them. It is a basic human need to want affection and emotional intimacy as well as touch. When either are withheld,then it opens the marriage up to extreme vulnerability, created BY the dis-associative partner. Simply put: Newton’s 3rd law of motion ” for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.

    • My question would be then, why do some people deal with this in a healthy, straight-forward fashion and others turn to cheating? It’s a question that really doesn’t have an answer. I knew shortly before my husband’s affair started that life pressures were pulling us both down. I could see he was depressed and we were both having a hard time with a crappy hand we had been dealt. I suggested we go to counseling to help us cope, tried to discuss things with him. He was really (his words) in denial about a lot of things at that time.

      • There is no one answer to that. And any answer would be complicated. Why do people do ANYTHING, even if they know it’s wrong? Because they think they can get away with it. Or because they aren’t really thinking and go instead on impulse. Or because a sense of entitlement. But I would say that, after reading so many books and blogs etc on the topic of affairs that people turn to cheating usually because it’s a confluence of things related to themselves and their relationship, the circumstances, etc., that all intersect and this is what occurs. I also know this, in the majority of cases, people don’t start out looking for an affair, but instead, make one small compromise after another and find themselves involved with someone else. Why? Because something is critically lacking – in themselves and in their marriages — that make them vulnerable to it. And perhaps they don’t even realize how unhappy they are until later. Or maybe there are too many complications to dealing directly with their spouse on the subject. Or they can’t face the consequences of leaving (familial, societal, financial) and think that somehow they can get their itch scratched without facing those consequences. In many cases, the decision to pursue an affair doesn’t occur until a spouse has all but given up on their marriage. The emotional chasm is too wide to close but they complications and fears of divorce are too many. You get caught in between two sets of impulses. You try and straddle the fence — to get your needs met without blowing up your life and that of your spouse and kids. I know in my case, the chasm was wide and grew very slowly. Our communication was simply abysmal. I wouldn’t even have known how to bring up my unhappiness to her verbally. I think she should have noticed. It seemed to me that she didn’t. Or did, but didn’t care. I wasn’t a priority to her and hadn’t been for years. Or so it seemed.

        This of course is all 20/20 hindsight.

        I like the analogy of the empty wine glass. Desperately unhappy/unsatisfied people are like wine lovers who no longer get enough wine. Or any. And their spouse doesn’t have any. Or won’t give them much or any. And they are wandering through a party with an empty glass and someone walks up and pours a little into the glass. And they get a sip. And it tastes pretty good. So they want another sip. Delicious. Now they want a whole glass. And so on.

        It’s easy to just say that cheaters are horrid, self-indulgent, selfish people of low character and THAT’S why. but as with many things in life, it’s not that simple. Are there serial cheaters without a conscience. Yup. I’ve seen them. Not just men either. But most cheaters i’ve talked to are very remorseful, guilty and feel incredible shame and self-loathing. They are basically good people who did a bad thing. Made a bad choice. Even if they haven’t been caught, they aren’t happy with themselves and the choice. But they can’t take it back either.

        sorry for the rambling answer. I think this could be a decent topic for a blog entry, although I think in a way, I’ve already addressed it in a blog. hate to be redundant.

      • Very good points. For my husband it was very gradual. He liked the attention, the admiration. He wasn’t looking for an affair, he just let it all slide too far. I like your analogy. I can look back over our thirty years and see that when one of us had an empty glass, the other was always able to refill it. During this awful time in our lives, we were both wandering around with empty glasses. Or with the glasses knocked out of our hands. I just sat quietly in the corner waiting to see if my glass would fill up again or he would be able refill it at some point. He looked elsewhere. And one of the main things people don’t “get”? It was not physical attraction that drew him in. It was the constant stream of positive affirmation and adoration. he was always right, the best, etc. He didn’t get “no” wine at home, I just couldn’t afford the flashier expensive brand she pretended to offer. And so goes life in the affair bubble!

      • These things are usually more complicated than people realize — why they happen. Who they happen with. How they proceed. How long they last. Multiple complex factors of what’s going on in life, the personalities of the people involved, and just plain life circumstances. Affairs are rarely about merely being presented with sexual opportunity. And yes, they are prone to rash decisions, falling for illusions, etc.

  4. Great answer! I wonder how the lady who wrote the question would feel if the shoe were on the other foot…….if she were he wife and the wife were her……..not sure if she’d view the situation the same way…….hhhhhhmmmm……:)

    • To be fair, she is in a very “gray” area. It’s why she asked me on a public blog. It’s not quite an affair, but it’s not an innocent friendship either. I think a lot of people find themselves in this predicament. You meet someone of the opposite sex and you totally click. And you slowly transition from a friendship into something inappropriate. It happens. She doesn’t sound like a predator to me at all. I think she needs to understand that she is kind of in an emotional affair already, and on the cusp of a physical one too. That perhaps it’s time to get out before another line is crossed. That would be my advice to her.

      • It’s not ever going to be physical. I don’t want that complication, and will never make the first move. And given all the time and opportunities that have gone by, I can say with as much certainty as possible he will not either.

        That said, it is still very grey. I am not hurting anyone in my life and feel no reason to walk away from a great intimate friendship to protect or spare anyone in my life. Whether or not he is, is one of the reasons I asked the question in the first place. And even if the answer is yes, it is still not clear to me what my responsibility is. Unlike your situation WS, I truly believe I love him enough to let him go if I had to. It would be a huge loss but I have no reason to think that fighting for him would result in anything good.

      • I agree that the responsibility for his marriage is his own. And that really it’s up to him to make a decision. But also understand the risk that he is running and that your presence in his life IS the risk. And that if you really cared for him, you wouldn’t let him run such a risk. Even if it’s not physical, you ARE in an emotional affair, which can be every bit as devastating as a physical one. So while I appreciate that you aren’t responsible for his choices, you’re not exactly separate from them either.

        You’re in real dangerous territory — especially for him. But understand that if this EA you have is revealed, more than likely, you will lose his friendship too. Permanently. I would assume that would hurt you.

        You’re both taking a big risk here, although in different ways.

      • Yeah, I know.

        He is also risking his job. Which he hates. But it is lucrative, easy, and manageable, and would be a lot of work to walk away from. Hmmmmm…perhaps an epiphany here…

      • “And that if you really cared for him, you wouldn’t let him run such a risk.”

        A friend said to me this weekend, “if he cared for you, he would let you go”.

        I have not been on the receiving end of the kind of adoration, etc. that I have given him; an honest question is whether that kind of attention is really so hard to let go of in the interest of caring, love, etc…

      • Honestly, if you cared for each other, you’d both walk way from something as dangerous as this. However, he is the one with the most to lose. He’s the married one. If he’s not strong enough to end this thing with you before it blows up in his face, then perhaps you can. Never said it was easy, but most people I know who have affairs eventually got caught. And few of them come back and say it was worth it.

  5. I do not believe she is a predator either…..sorry if my comment made it seem that way. It seems like a “textbook” emotional affair birthed out of innocence and insufficient knowledge about the danger and potential devastation that lurks in such interaction……..and I agree with your advice.

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