As couples therapists, we’ve previously expressed our concern about the concept of emotional infidelity’s overreach. Although culturally there is an expectation that your spouse or partner should be enough, we encourage couples to cultivate close, meaningful relationships outside of their marriages or romantic partnerships. However, there are instances when boundaries are crossed that couples have to navigate. In order to shed light on emotional affairs, our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist spoke to Brides on what the term emotional infidelity means and how couples can talk about emotional intimacy outside the relationship.
In “Emotional Infidelity: What It Is and How to Address It,” Matt defines emotional infidelity as “relationships that break the boundaries of marriage or other monogamous relationships but that don’t become, or at least initially are not, sexual.” However, identifying emotional infidelity isn’t exactly that clear-cut. A relatively new concept, emotional infidelity, as Matt notes, “is applied too broadly, often maligning healthy friendships, particularly those with the opposite sex, or the same sex for same-sex dating individuals.”
Above all, couples need to decide together what constitutes breaking a boundary since limits can vary from couple to couple. “Couples need to talk openly about what features of those outside relationships are okay and continually examine those boundaries,” Matt says.
Why do people seek out emotional affairs? The article provides several causes from unmet needs to insular relationships without any meaningful outside social connections. Matt describes, “Too often emotional affairs are a consequence of constructing marriage and family that are far too cut off from rich social connections outside of marriage…Couples that actively work to build friendships with neighbors and within communities are less likely to see problematic relationships emerge in secret.”
Rather than simply providing strategies to address an emotional affair, Matt urges couples to try to prevent them in the first place by continually checking in with each other about the relationship’s closeness. “Couples always go through periods of closeness and not being so close,” he observes. “The answer is noting and responding when the distance emerges, so it can be dealt with directly.”
For couples dealing with emotional infidelity, though, Matt reveals that what often gets missed is examining what is happening in the relationship that caused a partner to seek intimacy elsewhere. “Infidelity of any kind is an indication that something is broken in the relationship. So, too, for emotional affairs,” he says. Admittedly, this can be tough for couples to do on their own so Matt suggests couples seek couples counseling to “address what’s happened to the marriage itself—how has the marriage failed to meet everyone’s needs?”