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The Number-One Bad Habit That Leads to Affairs

Instyle logo Instyle 9/6/2018
a close up of a logo: Eva Hill © Eva Hill Eva Hill

DEAR DR. JENN,

I’m a straight, married woman, and my best friend at work is a straight, attractive man. I’d never cheat on my husband — with my “work husband” or anyone else — but my work friend and I do share intimate concerns about our romantic relationships, late-night texts, career dilemmas, and innocently flirtatious comments over post-work drinks. Where’s the line? —Work Wife

DEAR WORK WIFE,

I hate to break it — you are having an emotional affair. Yes, you can justify it by saying that you’re not sexually intimate with your friend, but the emotional intimacy that you are experiencing dilutes the connection you share with your husband.

This is far from uncommon. In fact, it’s the single most common gateway-to-cheating scenario I see among clients in my therapy practice. Here’s the dangerous recipe: You platonically befriend a person you find attractive, or come to find attractive. They become a confidante. And the key ingredient? You talk to them about shortcomings or problems in your relationship with your partner. This kind of connection always creates an emotional distance between you and your spouse.

Think about it: When something exciting happens and you can’t wait to tell your work friend about it, you’re sharing and connecting less with your husband. Your work friend becomes “your person,” when your spouse should be “your person.”

Keep in mind, in the case, your partner has an unfair disadvantage. Your work husband sees you through rose-colored glasses. He doesn't have to share bills or deal with you leaving toothpaste in the sink. The unavailability of the relationship adds a lot of excitement. Plus, he gets what you’re going through in your career in a way that your partner can’t. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to find a way to make your spouse understand what you’re experiencing, through your own perspective.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have friends outside of your marriage. Go on! But the close confidante whom you just so happen to find hot? It’s a slippery slope to a sexual affair. Of course, don’t just drop out of your cute friend's life. But maintaining clearly defined boundaries with such friends so that you — and they — don’t confuse romantic and platonic intimacy is key to protecting your marriage. A few suggestions to help you draw them up:

1. Don't play down your relationship. Make it clear to those you work and socialize with that you are in a committed relationship and it is a top priority for you.

2. Invite your spouse if you are going to have out-of-office dinner or drinks with your work friend. Bringing your partner into the friendship is not just a litmus test for whether the friendship is really just that; it also demonstrates your intentions to your friend.

3. Never share private information about your spouse, and don't talk through problems in your relationship with your hot work friend. That’s how you open the door for him to erode the intimacy of your marriage. Having trouble? It’s natural to want to seek counsel. Look to a therapist, trusted friend with whom there’s no complication like attraction on either side, or — best of all — your spouse. Talking to him about the problem is the best way to solve it.

4. Do not discuss your sex life with others. Be careful when discussing your relationship with your partner altogether.

5. Do not text message with a friend you’re attracted to late at night.

6. Be transparent with your spouse about the nature of your friendships, and let your spouse know if you start to have an attraction to or feelings for someone. This may seem awkward, but an open flow of communication is way better than secrecy.

7. Never use secret apps or private messages that are hidden from your spouse to communicate with your friend. Do not erase communications between you and your friend. If you have to erase it, you probably should not have said it.

8. Work on your connection with your spouse. Time and time again, the thing I hear most with regard to emotional affairs is “s/he understands me in a way that my spouse doesn’t.” Most often, these kinds of affairs are symptoms of a bigger problem in a relationship. And typically that problem is a lack of connection with your partner.

In a groundbreaking study of people who cheat, researcher M. Gary Neuman found that only 7 percent of women who cheat and 8 percent of men who cheat do so for purely sexual reasons. More than 90 percent of the time, regardless of gender, cheaters are unfaithful because they feel a lack of emotional connection with their partner, or a combination of a lack of emotional and sexual connections. But typically, emotional affairs are the gas pedals that propel you down the sexual affair highway.

The most essential thing? Being honest about what your friendships mean to you — not just to your spouse but to yourself. If you’re thinking about your work friend all the time, text messaging flirtatiously, sharing inside jokes, or feeling sexual chemistry, you’re unlikely to be putting the same kind of energy into your marriage. So if you find yourself seeking solace in a friend with whom you feel an attraction growing, it’s time to take a look at what's really lacking in your marriage that's urging you to stray — and take action to change that.

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