Question: My marriage is good on the whole, but recently my husband has developed an emotional relationship with another woman, which almost seems like an affair, except that it is not sexual. I’m not sure what’s worse – a sexual affair or an emotional affair. It’s making me very jealous and I’m not sure what I should do.
Attractions and Friendships
While it’s healthy and normal for people to have friendships outside the marriage, the fact that this relationship feels like an emotional “affair” suggests that it’s supplanting the emotional bond between the two of you, or that there is some sort of betrayal implied by its secrecy.
Friendships are based on attraction, in that we are drawn to various qualities of our friends. Healthy friendships and attractions don’t need to threaten a marriage at all, but often add richness and enjoyment to life. When an attraction turns into an obsession or into an affair, it can become harmful to everyone involved.
When is it an affair?
The question as to whether an emotional or a sexual affair is worse varies from person to person. A sexual affair, except for very unusual circumstances, is a betrayal of the intimacy of the primary relationship. An emotional affair can be as painful for some if the energy or time spent and the intimacy of that relationship are inordinate and thus damage the primary relationship.
The feeling of jealousy, unless you’re easily jealous, is often an indicator to alert you to pay attention to what’s going on. Use jealousy as a warning, but not as a reason to become antagonistic and possessive. Jealousy can be a wakeup call to put more effort into the relationship and to explore why it is that your partner is attracted to that particular person. Of course, it can also indicate that there is something more serious going on.
Using attraction to indicate what’s missing
Often, attraction to another person indicates what is missing in our life or relationship. No relationship can embody every possibility in life, because every relationship is limited by the experiences and capacities of the two people involved. Nor can we expect to satisfy every need and desire of each other.
Attractions point out the qualities we are ready to bring into our lives and possibly also into the relationship. For example, a couple might have a financially stable situation, a secure family life, and an active social life. Yet, there might be a lot of potential for growth in the area of sensuality, adventure, or spirituality. The husband may find himself repeatedly drawn to sensuous women, or the wife might be drawn to rugged adventurers.
Someone who lives primarily from the passions with his partner might be drawn to calm, stable types, and so forth. Specific efforts could be taken to become more sensual, take adventurous trips, or work on being more grounded, for example.
Speaking to one’s partner
It is surprisingly helpful to communicate openly about such matters, despite taboos against doing so. Ask yourself or ask him without hostility what it is that draws him to the other woman. For example, is it her ability to listen to him without criticizing him? Is it her carefree attitude? Is it the freedom from household and family concerns? Is it her interest in intellectual matters? Is it her nonchalance about social climbing? If he doesn’t know, you may need to speculate how this woman differs from you in a way that might be attractive to him.
You may also ask your husband to spend less time with the other person, while suggesting to him that you do some specific enjoyable things together, but make sure you speak in an open, self-empowered way, not in a whiney, vulnerable, or angry way. He will be amazed and respect you for it. “Hey, I’d love to go on a hike with you after work.” If he’s uninterested in anything you suggest, make sure you still go out and pursue your passions.
How to respond in a self-empowered way
The point is not to become like the other man or woman. The point is to become aware of the way in which your relationship may have become one sided to the point that there is an opportunity for growth. It’s important not to become overly threatened and defensive, which makes you constricted and unattractive, but to respond with an open and positive attitude. Your power comes from the choice you have in how to respond to your partner’s attraction to the other person; it may also come from responding positively to your own attractions to others. Rather than asking “What’s wrong with me?” ask “How can our relationship grow to be better?”
If the other woman seems to be truly interested in what your husband says, for example, you may notice that over the years you have paid less attention to what he says. No one likes to be treated as though he or she isn’t worthy of interest. This may be the time to refocus.
If the other man seems to be a Bohemian artist type, ask yourself if your life together has become too conventional. This could be an opportunity to loosen up and allow some of your wild and creative sparks to seek expression in your own way.
If the other woman is very alluring, perhaps this is an area that has been ignored amidst the practicalities of family life. Desire begins within each of us and is not the responsibility of the other person. How could you feel more desirable again and allow that part of yourself to smolder once more?
Avoiding destructive affairs
These attractions indicate that we are ready to develop certain parts of ourselves within the relationship that are underdeveloped. The sooner we consider what specific attractions mean for us and our partners, the less likely they will turn into destructive affairs. Cultivating qualities that have been dormant enhances your own life and relationship. Moreover, by cultivating lost or missing qualities that the other man or woman embodies in your own authentic way will often weaken the the strength of the outside attraction.
For example, a man wonders why his wife is drawn to a self-indulgent man. Fortunately, he realizes that frugality pervasive in their marriage, which has led to financial security, is now constricting the marriage. If they loosen up and start to enjoy some of the fruits of their work together, the outside attraction is likely to diminish and it will add another dimension to their relationship. Note that in overly indulgent relationships a partner could become drawn toward somebody with foresight and self-restraint.
The trouble with having an affair, in addition to the pain it inflicts on all involved, is that we devalue primary parts of ourselves, which have significant value. Real integration of new qualities occurs without casting aside one’s primary parts of the personality and can often occur within the existing relationship. Real transformation can occur organically, without the dramatic swings that are painful to everyone involved.
It is quite exciting, particularly later in life, to discover your inner athlete when you’ve been in the office most of the time, or to discover your inner Aphrodite when you’ve been tending the hearth. If we are more open about what attracts us and what we desire in our lives, we can help each other to develop a more multifaceted intimacy than we had ever dared imagine.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD