Go Ahead, Find Emotional Closeness Outside Your Relationship
As an NYC therapist, I hate the concept of emotional affairs. I think there is likely a very narrow slice of emotional infidelity that is disrespectful to a spouse, but in those cases, these relationships aren’t problematic because of “closeness” or “being too close.” It’s interesting that if you bounce around the Internet, there are more challenges to the principle of sexual fidelity than emotional fidelity. Why is that? Emotional intimacy outside of your marriage or romantic relationship isn’t just okay, it’s important.
Your Significant Other Isn’t Enough People
Kurt Vonnegut said, “When a couple has an argument, they may think it’s about money or power or sex or how to raise the kids or whatever. What they’re really saying to each other, though without realizing it, is this: ‘You are not enough people!’” While this isn’t altogether true, it does make a key point.
We have an expectation that a marriage, romantic partnership and/or the nuclear family ought to be enough. But, that’s not the way human beings lived up until the last hundred years or so, and it’s still not how most of the world lives. Because of a shift from an agrarian economy, and because we leave our jobs more frequently and have lives that are much less organized around communities, middle class America conflates security with privacy and is suspicious of intimacy outside the marriage or romantic relationship. And so we’re starving for relationships, for closeness and yes, for more people!
We Need To Connect Emotionally And To Talk About Our Partner With Other People
One person isn’t enough, or more specifically, one person isn’t qualitatively enough. Most of us have lots of people in our lives, but not many we’d consider very close. As a result, we’ve come to relate to the emotional intimacy that comes with marriage or a romantic partnership as unique to that kind of relationship. But, this is a value created out of a very problematic norm. We need community and it seems, at least to me, entirely obvious that humans are social mammals. We need one another. We need to connect to different minds and points of view.
We also need to talk about our partner with other people. We need to talk to others about how much we love our partner, how much they drive us nuts, our fears with them, that crazy fight we had last week, the struggle to have a baby, not having enough sex, resentments around him spending too much or how she never empties the dishwasher. However, we’ve constructed this relationship as private.
It’s also true that if we only have one person as our only really close person, we’re inclined to be all the more frightened that we might lose that person. The solution? Many more people. I know some readers might say that what I’m talking about isn’t an emotional affair, but I’d challenge anyone to define an emotional affair in a way that holds philosophically–it’s another disease invented out of nonsense and is emotional policing under the auspices of fidelity.
But, What About Emotional Infidelity With A Person Of The Opposite Sex?
The arguments against emotional infidelity are also a form of gender policing. How many relationships outside of intimate partner relationships (straight relationships mainly, since this is often where this policing occurs) that are same-sex get called out in this way? We’re generally not concerned with Sally and Gemma’s too intimate work friendship or whether Steve and Victor are hanging out too much.
There’s this premise (or lie) that grown-ups can’t be close to the people of the same gender they’re into without having sex with them–that there’s this dangerous slope between caring and sex. But more than that, it promotes the idea that the sort of intimacy we allow men to have and the sort of intimacy we allow women to have can’t be mixed. Men can’t be close in the ways women are close and women can’t be close in the ways men are close (but mostly the former).
The truth is men do get particular emotional needs met in their relationships with women. Either within or outside the primary partnership, women’s emotional labor in this capacity often goes unrecognized. Men need these things, often rather badly. Rather than relating to these relationships as violations of the terms of marriage or placing emphasis on their rightness or wrongness, maybe we should talk more about compensating women for providing this for men and celebrating the value of these relationships. Closeness with people of the opposite sex (or the gender to which you are attracted) matters, has value and is a life-affirming need that because of how we’ve organized our middle class American society, doesn’t happen often enough.