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6 Signs That Your Spouse Is Having an Emotional Affair

5. They suddenly change their appearance.

When you think of an affair, the first thing that comes to mind is sexual intimacy with another person outside of the marriage. That, for many, is the epitome of infidelity. Often, these sexual encounters are highly emotionally charged. But sometimes, they're just a series of sexual encounters that often don’t add up to much. Yet, just one of these may be enough to end a marriage, although some people will put up with infidelity throughout a marriage for many personal reasons.

What happens then, when there has been no sexual intimacy, but a spouse or committed partner is emotionally attached to someone outside of their marriage? Let me first make the distinction between a platonic relationship — one you might have with a friend of the opposite sex — and an emotional affair. They initially may look the same, but over time, there are really big differences between these two kinds of relationships.

A platonic relationship is really just a friend whom you may like or even love, who you admire and trust, and who you want to keep in your life. It’s often someone you’ve known for a long time, is not a sexually-charged relationship, and is someone you want to share with your spouse. This last part is especially important because in an emotional affair, the “other person” is someone you don't want to share with your spouse and probably don't even want them to know about!

An emotional affair describes a relationship where the level of emotional intimacy is excessive and where the level of emotion invested in someone outside of the marriage infringes upon the intimacy between spouses or committed partners. This extramarital emotional involvement replaces a couples’ intimacy and obviously, may drive a wedge between partners. This in turn, may very well create distance and a feeling of separation, alienation, and loneliness.

There are many reasons why emotional affairs happen. Perhaps, your work has you spending a lot of time with a co-worker or colleague. So what starts out as a necessity, say working on a project that keeps you at the office for hours and days on end, becomes much more. Sometimes, a spouse is left alone a lot and meets someone at a social function, at the gym, or even picking up the kids at school. Maybe, your marriage has hit a rocky patch and you don’t feel the inclination to deal with your partner so a sympathetic ear, someone who listens and pays attention to you is a welcome relief. Sometimes, people simply don’t have the skills to fix what is wrong or broken in their marriage. They may withdraw or shut down and won’t go for professional help, and so their spouse is left to fill their needs emotionally elsewhere.

To many people, then, an emotional affair is just as bad as a sexual affair. There’s infidelity and ultimately, a betrayal of commitment and trust.

So, here are some of the signs that might help you identify an emotional affair.

Something feels “off.” When an emotional affair is going on, it’s no surprise that a person who has shared a certain degree of connection and intimacy with their spouse suddenly realizes that something just doesn’t feel right any longer. They may literally feel their partner pulling away from them, feel a partner’s preoccupation with something (someone) else, and may find it hard or impossible to connect intimately in the same way they once did. Don’t ignore your gut feeling. You’re not just being jealous—you’re probably right.

Your spouse is being secretive. Once upon a time, you and your partner shared everything. Now they may make excuses to get out of the house, away from you for periods of time. They may guard their cell phone, keeping it in sight all of the time so you can’t see who they’ve been speaking to or texting.

Likewise, time spent on the computer may increase many times over. During one year of my practice, I saw two people who were having long-distance intimate relationships online while in a real-time relationship, and a spouse of someone having an emotional affair. In the latter situation, secrecy went out the window with the spouse openly communicating online with their “emotional other” against their spouse’s protestations and distress. The emotional affair cost the couple their marriage.

There is a growing distance between you and your spouse. The intimacy gap is widening emotionally and physically. Your spouse is often missing in action, either too busy or too tired to make time for you. They may seem distracted, far away, cold, or disinterested. Having an emotional affair takes a lot of time and energy, in addition to the effort it takes to cover all your bases so you won’t be discovered. And then again, they may not need you because their needs are being met by someone else.

Your spouse is spending more time at work or work-related functions. This seems like a reasonably good excuse to spend less time with you. After all, it’s often necessary to be on the job longer hours for a specific project and/or for a certain period of time. When this is coupled with a certain co-worker or colleague who is mentioned often and who also is working those same hours it’s reasonable to be a bit suspicious.

Your spouse suddenly changes their appearance. Losing weight, changing hair and make-up, becoming more interested in one’s wardrobe may be signs that a spouse may be trying to please someone else. While taking the time to improve the way you look and feel about yourself is generally beneficial, the sudden change or preoccupation with appearance in conjunction with some of the other signs may be a tip-off. Likewise, when a spouse suddenly, out of the blue, develops an interest in something new (unless, of course, that’s how they’ve always been) that neither of you has expressed an interest in before.

Your spouse becomes critical of you. Your spouse’s behavior toward you changes. They may be irritated or annoyed, angry, blaming, judgmental and critical of many things you do. It’s almost a defensive posture: they’re doing something they may feel terribly guilty about while enjoying the emotional high they’re getting from another and so they somehow have to make you the one at fault, the one that provoked it all.

What can you do when you suspect or have evidence of an emotional affair?

Try to nip it in the bud. This means you need to start talking to your spouse about what you think is happening, what you’re observing, as soon as you suspect something. Be very specific about instances where things have seemed “off" to you. Describe to your spouse what is so different about how they’re behaving toward you and toward the relationship you have together. Be prepared for denial, defensiveness, anger, and resistance to changing the situation. But be persistent—it just may make the difference in whether you keep your marriage/relationship or not.

Make rules and set boundaries. Even if your spouse refuses to change what they’re doing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make decisions for yourself, for what’s best for you. Don’t stand by passively playing the victim. Decide what your expectations for your marriage/relationship are. If your spouse continues along their own path what will you do—leave the marriage, live within the relationship the way it is, or something else. Only you can decide for yourself. Every relationship goes through changes. That’s to be expected. But if having a third party in your most intimate relationship is not for you, then you need to decide what’s best for you for your future.

Sometimes emotional affairs are “cries for help,” a way through a difficult period, and a means for getting attention that may be lacking. Going through and getting through an emotional affair may help a couple to draw closer once the troublesome dynamics are exposed and worked through.

Get professional help. Aside from having a close friend or family member in whom you can confide and who may help you sort through this difficult experience, a therapist for both couples and individual therapy may lend essential insights and strategies for getting your relationship back on track. Sometimes, couples talk past each other and can’t get beyond their differences and here’s where a therapist’s help may be of great value.

Sometimes, however, by the time spouses go for couple’s therapy, it’s too late. In their heart of hearts, a spouse has made up their mind that the marriage/relationship is over; that working to keep it is out of the question. Sometimes an emotional affair is not the answer either: the marriage may end and maybe the emotional affair may end as well. Sometimes, emotional affairs are catalysts for change.

The bottom line is to be attentive to your spouse, to be open to changing what doesn’t work in the relationship, to honor your feelings and intuition as well as theirs, and to be willing to work on saving your marriage if you feel your relationship is the most important thing to you.

Facebook image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock

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