Cheating or having an affair — two terms that are typically pretty easy to define. You’re in a committed monogamous relationship with one person, then share physical intimacy with another– that’s cheating. End of story; case closed.
But what if physical intimacy isn’t involved? Can cheating happen?
Author, speaker, and gender studies professor Hugo Schwyzer defines an emotional affair as “a non-physically sexual relationship characterized by mutually intense psychological intimacy, accompanied by words or gestures that traditionally are reserved for one’s romantic partner.” In simpler terms, an emotional affair involves fostering a connection with another person that mimics that of a romantic relationship – without the sex.
Sound gray and confusing? Well, it is. Just as some people have varying definitions for what a physical affair is (e.g. some people don’t consider kissing cheating, while others do), we all have our own boundary lines when it comes to emotional intimacy.
If you haven’t experienced this or known someone who has been involved in anything like this, emotional affairs may seem like the jealous imaginings of those with low self-esteem. I can tell you from firsthand experience, however, that emotional affairs are a very real phenomenon.
I once found myself the “other woman” in what I considered to be an emotional affair. A couple years ago I met a man who got my heart racing at the very thought of him. He was everything I was looking for in a partner: emotionally perceptive, physically fit, artistic, the list went on. We could talk for hours, and he flirted endlessly with me. I was euphoric; I thought I’d finally found “the one.” Then I found out he was in a long-distance, long-term relationship.
The relationship wasn’t going very well. They didn’t see or talk to each other very often, and he couldn’t see a future for them. He told me he was unhappy and sexually frustrated, but he couldn’t bring himself to break her heart. He strung me along for awhile by telling me he was working his way up to breaking things off with her, and I kept telling him I didn’t want to be the “other woman.” We never did more than hug, and I held on to hope until he sent me a text message that snapped me out of my “love stupor” like a bucket of cold water over the head. It said, “Was thinking about you all day. How are you?”
Innocuous on the surface, but I realized quite quickly that I would never, ever tell any of my male friends that I had been thinking about them all day. It had too intimate of a quality to it, like a finger trailing over the wrist after a handshake. I felt dirty, and I immediately thought of his girlfriend and wondered what she would think and feel if she saw that message. After all, shouldn’t he be telling her he’d been thinking about her all day?
I broke things off with him that day, or broke off as much as I could of the non-relationship relationship we shared.
Intimacy can be a fragile little thing, but it’s worth nurturing in order to grow a deep bond with another human being. The key is to remember that intimacy is different for everyone and that love requires finding a way to reconcile our intimate differences. If you feel the urge to create romantic, intimate connections with other people outside of your relationship, maybe it’s time to reevaluate if your needs are being met. If they’re not, don’t take the easy way out by having affairs — emotional or physical. If your partner expects monogamy, respect those terms until you agree to new terms, which may even include parting ways. After all, the hurt of a break up is nothing compared to the hurt of being betrayed by someone you trusted enough to love.