Working Through Emotional Infidelity

Is Chatting Really Cheating?

Emotional InfidelitySexual infidelity is pretty clear cut; someone steps outside the bounds of a relationship and engages in some form of sexual contact with another person. Although the implications and consequences are similar, emotional infidelity is a bit more murky, since emotional infidelity doesn’t just apply to sexual or romantic interpersonal relationships. Emotional infidelity can also apply to platonic same-gender or cross-gender relationships, as well as activities, work, exs, siblings, extended family, hobbies, kids and even pets.

Emotional infidelity is any situation that creates or causes some degree of emotional unavailability on the part of one partner that interferes with one particular aspect of the relationship, along with the quality of the relationship as a whole.

The most obvious form of emotional infidelity involves another person, and engaging that person in a pseudo-romantic or pseudo-sexual relationship, whether close by or at a distance. More plainly stated, it’s a crush that’s reciprocated, but not actually acted on.

There are two things at play here. The first is that the nature of communication and the ability to communicate with just about anyone, anywhere has greatly increased opportunity. Human nature is such that if the opportunity for a behavior is increased, and the drive to engage in that behavior is relatively unchecked, that opportunity will in all probability be taken advantage of. Infidelity of any sort, whether emotional, sexual or extra-relational, is usually a matter of opportunity.

The second truth is something of a twist on the old “absence makes the heart grow fonder” line; the constancy provided by current communication actually intensifies this type of relationship, also promoting its distortion. Where the absence of a lover increases desire, the constancy of a lover-at-a-distance can turn that person into a drug.

Emotional infidelity is best described as absenting oneself from one’s primary relationship, without actually leaving the relationship.

So, we have means and opportunity; what’s the motive? Aside from some of the more obvious motivations one might have for stepping outside his or her primary relationship, the two that appear most often in situations of emotional infidelity are fear and safety; fear of not wanting to get caught “doing anything” and the perceived safety of ostensibly not really doing anything.

Taken from the perspective of risk management, emotional infidelity makes perfect sense. On the one hand, you’re not going to get caught with the babysitter, a co-worker or the contractor. And on the other, are you really ever going to actually hook up with your cyber-soulmate from Boston when you have a spouse, kids and a job in Cincinnati? Not likely—so, there’s a built in stop gap.

Regardless of the rationalization behind it, emotional infidelity is an expression of either the need or the desire to absent oneself from one’s primary relationship, without actually leaving that relationship. There’s the core of the issue, and it’s what defines emotional infidelity as, if not exactly the same, at least the social equivalent of sexual infidelity.

Whether we are physical engaged with another person or not, when we absent ourselves from our primary relationship we are taking our attention away from that relationship in a way that interferes with it, which comes back to emotional availability. A great cinematic depiction of this is an interchange between Hilary Swank’s character and that of her husband in Freedom Writers. He’s not getting his needs met because she’s focused on her students, so he ends up leaving.

What really complicates matters is that for the “cheating” partner, there is no real sense that he has transgressed because he isn’t “doing anything” that can be demonstrated as “cheating”, i.e. sex. Non-interpersonal “cheating” behavior is rationalized away as a necessity—long hours, relaxation, working out, etc. In the case of interpersonal emotional infidelity, the same holds true.

While there may be a trail of emails or text messages to mark as a smoking gun, in the mind of the “cheater” she isn’t really “doing anything”. That leaves the other partner in the curious position of experiencing all of the hurt, anger and sense of rejection associated with an affair, while the “cheater” shrugs it off and “doesn’t get it.”

We are taught from a very young age that behavior has consequences. Most of us understand that, but, if we are doing something that is not really “doing anything”, how could there be consequences?

Somewhere along the line, the moral gravity associated with this sort of social transgression became transformed into the same moral relativism that allows us to take office supplies from work. Who’s it really going to hurt? Well, no one, but it’s still stealing.

Here’s the thing: in the case of emotional infidelity, you’re stealing from yourself.

© 2015 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved


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