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Flirtation? Crush? Emotional Affair? Affair?

Why your definition of "just fooling around" matters.

You’re an average-aged person in a committed relationship, but one day, you suddenly discover you’ve got a crush on somebody. You’re infatuated by a co-worker, a client, or even—why now?—an old friend.

Life gets a little fizzy and a little fuzzy. You’re checking electronic devices for cute text messages and searching for nuances in e-mails. You discover flirtatious implications whether or not they’re actually there: That’s the foolish part. Like the flu or a bout of colitis, the best thing to do is to sit tight and hope it passes quickly before too many people notice, and before anybody else is infected.

What you are, of course, is infatuated. The word “infatuated” is derived from the Latin fatuus, meaning “foolish” or, as some linguists argue, “too heavy in the thigh area for an assignation” ( a term, by the way, closely related to the Greek word for “cellulite,” meaning “going heavy on the gravy").

You didn’t think people got crushes at this age? Good luck. I have a 93-year-old friend who is worried that her 88-year-old husband is having an emotional affair with a younger woman in their congregation. The femme fatale in question is 85, making the fatale part of the phrase a little more literal than usual. Yet my friend is as indignant and jealous as a teenager.

“That one is wooing him with cooked meats,” she snarls. “She’s part of the Brisket Brigade. I don’t care; I’m going to outlast her. And I still have better legs.”

To be honest, I have trouble with the term “emotional affair.” Is it the same thing as a passing fancy, a moment of foolishness, a silly crush? Then why dignify it with a term that sounds both romantic and pathological? At least the word “crush” sounds just about as ridiculous as it is, especially when applied to people who have credit lines, laugh lines, and party (or panty) lines.

In contrast to “crush,” “emotional affair” sounds solemn and self-important. It doesn’t want cheap hotels with day-rates; it wants expensive lunches and love songs. It’s got its head in a Nook instead of some nookie. But what, exactly, is it? Let’s look at some popular definitions of the “emotional affair,” shall we?

How about this one: “It’s an emotional affair if you share stuff with someone apart from your partner.” Honey, if you don’t have friendships, relationships, or just somebody else random to talk to about your stuff apart from your partner, you need to get out more—and soon. You probably also need a life with more interesting stuff.

Also, and this is the English professor in me speaking, so please put down your pens and pay attention, stop using the word “share.” “Sharing” is fine for Caesar salads, desserts, and condos in resort areas, but that’s about it. Everything else you should either “tell,” “explain,” or “bellow,” especially in an intimate relationship.

Besides, how can you really expect your mate to be as interested in your friends from high school as, say, your actual friends from high school? That kind of pretend-fascination lasts about three months, tops. After that, any reasonable mate says something like, “Which one is Linda? The one you like, or the one you don’t like?” when you discuss the intricacies of the upcoming reunion but lets it go at that.

How about this definition of an emotional affair? "When you are confronted about the relationship, you say, 'We’re just friends.'" What on earth, then, are you supposed to say when you’re just friends? “No, sweetheart, I simply loathe that particular individual. I hang around with people I can’t stand in order to guarantee that I’ll want to come home to you”? A poke in the eye with a stick would be better.

Look, all of us need reassurance: to love people you don’t trust is something to wish on your enemies. And I’m not trying to diminish the real agony of realizing the person you love can be remotely attracted to somebody else. This is why gun laws are a good idea.

But if it remains a matter of remotely attracted—with the emphasis on distance, both physical and emotional—then maybe the best thing to do with a crush is to laugh it back into perspective.