The lowdown on emotional infidelity


Infidelity isn’t necessarily only sexual – it can be emotional too. And yes, this can make a relationship suffer.

Your husband’s friend Angela has just phoned again. For the third time this week. And while you’re slaving away in the kitchen, you hear them laughing on the telephone and your hackles rise. Are you being unreasonable and petty, as you know they’re only friends and nothing more?

“Not necessarily,” says psychologist Ilse Terblanche. “When much of the social attention that’s usually present in a marriage is diverted elsewhere, it’s perfectly normal to feel betrayed in some way. Infidelity isn’t necessarily only sexual – it can be emotional too. And yes, this can make a marriage suffer.”

“People’s insecurities are brought to the fore by a situation where someone else is receiving an enormous amount of their spouse’s attention. But there’s a big difference between being a bit jealous and jealously obsessing about your partner. If your partner goes out once in a blue moon for an hour to have a drink with an old school friend, you’re overreacting if you go into jealousy overdrive. But if it’s the fourth time this week, you have every reason to be unhappy.”

“A strong emotional connection between your spouse and a friend/colleague, with whom lots of emotional intimacies are shared, will eventually drive a wedge between spouses, whether there’s a sexual relationship between them or not. And very strong emotional attachments elsewhere could be very dangerous for your relationship or marriage. But both partners should also be allowed to see friends, obviously within reasonable limits. If you don’t allow your partner any outside contact, you’ve already signed the death warrant for your marriage. No-one likes being made to feel that they’re in a prison.”

“Similar feelings of betrayal can be brought on by emotional infidelity than by sexual infidelity. The spouse who sits at home wonders whether the other man or woman is more compatible with their partner than they are, why they weren’t invited along and why their spouse no longer makes them feel special.”

“However, it must be guarded against that all friendships are suddenly seen as emotional infidelity,” says Terblanche. “Married people do need friends, sometimes of both sexes, as no one person can fulfil all your social needs. The question just remains where you draw the line and whether your first priority is still with your partner.”

So when does the line get crossed between normal friendship and emotional infidelity?

Time factor. When you realise that your spouse spends more time with this friend than with you, there’s a problem. If the friend is only here for three days from Europe, obviously that’s different. Your spouse’s first responsibility lies with you and your relationship, not with an outsider. We all need time out from our partners every now and then to watch sport, to go shopping, to go fishing, or whatever. But the majority of free time should still be spent with you.

Spouse not invited. If things get planned to which you’re specifically not invited, there could be a problem. If you suspect that work-related activities could be merely a guise, investigate. But remember that there are things such as genuine work-related things, so don’t get too suspicious. It’s not good for your blood pressure. But if your spouse and his/her friend start doing things like going to the movies or eating out on a regular basis and you get the feeling that your presence will not be welcome and you’re made to feel like an outsider, you have every reason to complain. One or the other of them could have ulterior motives.

Too much involvement elsewhere. There’s a big difference between helping a friend who’s just had a burglary or helping a brother buy curtains for a new flat and spending weeks helping a friend who’s looking for a house to buy. Or getting overly involved in helping them buy a car. Or lending them lots of money – possibly without telling you. Or if your spouse is spending time fixing things at the friend’s house when there are millions of things waiting to be done at home. Your spouse’s main focus should be at home with you and the children – for most of the time anyway.

Didn’t I tell you? When you feel that you’re no longer the main confidant of your spouse, alarm bells should start ringing. When your spouse’s friend knows about a promotion or an illness or a winning lottery ticket before you do, there’s a problem. Or if little everyday things are no longer shared with you, because they have already been shared with the friend, you’re being systematically excluded. Or if you get the feeling that your spouse is discussing your relationship with this friend, you have every reason to complain.

Duty vs. pleasure. When paying the bills, going to the supermarket and the PTA evenings are the only things you do with your spouse, you should be getting worried. Especially if all the fun things are being done with one or more other people and you just are around when the boring stuff happens. Relationships should consist of a mixture between duty and pleasure. And what’s more, if your partner starts associating you only with boring duties, the writing could be on the wall.

Always part of the equation. Your spouse somehow feels responsibility for the well-being of this person – to the point where you feel that no plans of yours are made without considering this friend and his or her needs and wants. You feel you have to explain why he or she cannot accompany you on some family outing or holiday, whereas no explanation is really needed.

Friend takes priority. You get the feeling if both you and the friend were to have a crisis at the same time, your spouse might just go to the friend first. You’re beginning to feel like you’re being taken for granted and that you and your needs and your relationship are becoming of secondary importance.

The friend is pitted against you. When you feel the friend is starting the one-upmanship game, such as lording it over you when he/she knows something before you, red lights should be flashing. This friend is competing for your spouse and his/her attention and is certainly no friend to you. On the contrary. It’s also quite possible that your spouse is enjoying having two people fight over his/her attention and is pitting the two of you against each other. If this friend were really a friend to both of you, you would often be included in invitations and gatherings. And the two of you would do things on your own sometimes as well.

What should you do?
This is a difficult one as you don’t want to provoke the kind of situation where a huge fight takes place and your spouse goes to find solace elsewhere. It’s important to share your feelings calmly in a non-accusatory manner. An example of this would be, “When you go out for the third time in a week with Gary and leave me here, I feel rejected and unwanted.”

Tell your spouse how you feel, but try not to explode or shout and scream. You’ll only look jealous, possessive and unattractive. And this will make the company of the friend look all the more attractive. If your spouse’s friend indeed does have ulterior motives, you’re playing right into their hands by fighting with your partner.

Ask to be included in some future activities – this isn’t unreasonable.

Image via Thinkstock.

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