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Emotional Infidelity

Emotional infidelity: When is cheating really cheating?

Aaron Ben-Zeév's recent article entitled Is Chatting Cheating?prompted me to do some thinking about emotional infidelity. Although not a new phenomenon, emotional infidelity is a notion that, in recent years, has come to some prominence at least as language, due mainly to the inescapable juggernaut of media convergence. It is also, to some degree, a reflection on the generalized loosening of social mores that once would have kept button-down dads buttoned up and soccer moms carpooling, instead of "Seeking Friends" at or blogging on Facebook.

Sexual 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 as a construct is a bit more murky, as it does not simply apply to sexual or romantic interpersonal relationships.

The notion of emotional infidelity can also apply to platonic same- or trans-gender relationships, as well as activities, work, exs, siblings, extended family, hobbies and even kids. Many women in the part of the country where I live and work ruefully refer to themselves as Wall Street Widows—non-interpersonal emotional infidelity in full flower.

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.

Obviously, and speaking to the thesis of Aaron's article, the most salient form of emotional infidelity is that which involves another person, and engages that person in a pseudo-romantic or pseudo-sexual relationship, whether proximal or at a distance. Stated plainly, it's a crush that's reciprocated, but not demonstrably acted upon.

Two things are true here. One 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 for whatever reason unchecked, that opportunity will in all probability be exploited. Infidelity, whether extra-relational (see I Wasn't Looking for an Affair; It Just Happened), or emotional, 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 of current communication actually intensifies this type of relationship and promotes its distortion. Whereas the absence of a lover increases desire, the constancy of a lover-at-a-distance can turn that person into a drug.

So, we have means and opportunity; what's the motive? Aside from the obvious motivations that one may harbor for stepping outside of his/her primary relationship, the two that seem to avail themselves most prominently to situations of emotional infidelity are fear and safety; fear of not wanting to get caught "doing anything" couched in the perceived safety of ostensibly not 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, your secretary 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. Therein lies the core of the issue, and it is what defines emotional infidelity as if not exactly the same at least the social equivalent of sexual infidelity.

Whether you are physical engaged with another person or not, when you absent yourself from your primary relationship you are taking your attention away from that relationship in a way that interferes with it. It 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 s/he has transgressed because s/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 sensibility holds true.

While there may indeed be a trail of emails or text messages to mark as a smoking gun, in the mind of the "cheater" s/he 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 trained from a very young age that behavior begets consequences. Most of us understand that, but if you are doing something that is not really "doing anything", then why should there be consequences?

Somewhere along the line, the moral gravity associated with this sort of social transgression became transformed into the 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 rub: In the case of emotional infidelity, you're stealing from yourself.

© 2008 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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