Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Understanding Emotional Infidelity

The paradox of intimacy

Our social need to be loved comes out of our primal need to belong. It is the natural evolution of a basic survival instinct. A feeling of disconnection - the sense that we lack a certain intimacy in our primary relationship - can often prompt us to seek out the false intimacy of fantasy relationships that are the bread and butter of emotional infidelity.

The Buddhist wisdom teachings talk about the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, a place where beings of great desire remain forever unsatisfied because they are burdened with little, tiny mouths. This is a pointed metaphor for the paradox of intimacy that underlies emotional infidelity because, while intimacy is something that we desire, that same desire is something we can find difficult to satisfy. Part of intimacy's paradox is that we do this to ourselves.

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True intimacy comes out of a willingness to make ourselves vulnerable, but if we are unwilling or unable to allow that vulnerability, then we will be unable to create true intimacy in our relationships. That's where the paradox of intimacy begins.

Our need to belong -- or, for this conversation, our need to be loved -- drives us toward a desire for intimacy. If we can't -- or won't -- create intimacy by allowing vulnerability, but also remain at the sufferance of the primal need to belong, we will, inevitably, somehow seek to fill the gap. Nature abhors a vacuum -- and that applies to social and emotional vacuums, as well as physical ones.

Filling the gap can come in all shapes and sizes, from the book club, to the country club, to the phenomenon of the "work spouse". If, with our attendant need to belong, the specific drive toward intimacy afforded by social love is strong enough, we are apt to seek out a shadow relationship of the sort that will -- in form, if not reality -- provide us with the perceived sense of connection that we feel we are lacking. Where does the initial sense of lack of intimacy that prompts this shadow relationship begin? It begins with us.

There are always three people in a relationship - you, your partner and the relationship. What we bring to the table is what we offer up in creating the relationship with our partner. Since we are also the creators and architects of our experience, if we are experiencing a lack of intimacy it is not wholly a failure in the relationship or in our partner - ultimately, it is a failure in us. Our unwillingness to make ourselves vulnerable is the very seat of our own undoing because that unwillingness gets in the way of our desire for intimacy being satisfied.

Rather than doing the inner work necessary to access our vulnerability and gather to us the intimacy that we so desire, it's often easier to seek out the false intimacy of a shadow relationship. Taking this path of least resistance is informed by any number of different things like fear, timidity, narcissism, avoidance and, in large measure, a poorly evolved self-relationship.

The quality of our relationship with others is directly related to the quality of relationship that we have with ourselves. An unexamined life is an inauthentic life, and if we are in an inauthentic relationship with ourselves, there is little possibility for us to be in an authentic relationship with another. By skirting self-examination we create ourselves to be two-dimensional, rather than fully formed.

Coincidentally, social media and electronic communication amplify the potential for emotional infidelity because in cyberspace, everyone is two-dimensional. Not only can we put our best foot forward in terms of the way we present and represent ourselves both visually and verbally, but we are also apt to say things in a text, email or instant message that we wouldn't say to someone directly.

There's that pesky false intimacy again, and right there is one of the fundamental elements of emotional infidelity prompted by the intimacy gap - we get to be in a relationship that we don't actually have to show up for.

Ultimately, the motivation for emotional infidelity really doesn't matter. It's the container of that motivation that's important and, in general, that container is a breakdown or avoidance of authentic communication within the primary relationship based on an unwillingness to expose ourselves -- or, going back to our original premise, to be vulnerable.

The whole thing comes around full circle when we consider that one of the prime reasons that we are reluctant to be vulnerable is the fear of rejection based on that primal need to belong. We are often afraid that if we show our true colors, then the person that we are in relationship with will reject us.

Here's a bit of food for thought - if you are genuinely yourself and you expect the person who professes to love you to reject you because you're a little damaged or have a little baggage or are harboring an idiosyncrasy or two, you probably shouldn't be there in the first place, should you?

People cheat, we know that. Getting in front of the potential for that happening or deflecting it as it is happening is ultimately about being responsible to yourself by working on your relationship with yourself and bringing that to the table of the larger relationship, fostering authenticity, allowing vulnerability and getting you the intimate connection that you seek.

Leap and the net will appear - really.

© 2011 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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