Illustration: Jeffery Smith
Flirtatious e-mails. Cell phone heart-to-hearts. Perfectly harmless working lunches. It's a new kind of adultery. There's no sex, but psychiatrist Gail Saltz knows trouble when she sees it.
A client I'll call Sharon knew that something was missing in her marriage. She and Robert used to be passionate about each other, she said, but after 12 years and two children, she felt removed. Robert never asked her about work or what she was worried about or felt like doing. She was no longer attracted to him, and they rarely spent time alone together. Instead, she threw her energy into raising the children and her job as a paralegal. Life had become bland.
Then there was Todd. He'd been at the law firm longer than Sharon and showed her the ropes. They would discuss complicated cases, and Sharon found his enthusiasm engaging. They'd grab coffee together, and soon coffee became lunch, and lunch led to phone calls and e-mails as their conversations went from professional to deeply personal.
Sharon thought about Todd all the time, and told me she hadn't felt this alive since she and Robert had started dating. While she recognized a crush—her excitement about seeing him, her pleasure in his jokes, her relief in confiding in someone who got her—she told herself there was nothing wrong with what she was doing because they weren't having sex.
Robert, however, started to notice his wife's coming home later. She was on her cell phone a lot on the weekends, and when he asked who she was talking to, she became evasive. At one point, he complained that they never had sex anymore, that he felt lonely in the marriage, and that he wondered if there was someone else.
Sharon assured Robert—and herself—that she wasn't having an affair. While she felt a little guilty, the thought of giving up Todd, the way he made her feel beautiful and funny and fantastic, was unbearable.
Emotional cheating (with an "office husband," a chat room lover, or a newly appealing ex) steers clear of physical intimacy, but it does involve secrecy, deception, and therefore betrayal. People enmeshed in nonsexual affairs preserve their "deniability," convincing themselves they don't have to change anything. That's where they're wrong. If you think about it, it's the breach of trust, more than the sex, that's the most painful aspect of an affair and, I can tell you from my work as a psychiatrist, the most difficult to recover from.
Few people go looking for an extramarital entanglement. But like Sharon, they might hit a patch where their relationship isn't fun anymore, and they feel isolated and frustrated. Rather than making a collaborative effort with their partner—and perhaps a couples therapist—to improve it, women in particular often accept that "this is just the way the marriage is." So while they aren't consciously in the market, they are ripe for an affair of the heart: hungry for attention, craving excitement, and eager for someone to fill the emptiness they feel inside.
Sharon came to depend on Todd for emotional highs. The flirting, the accolades, the sympathetic ear all made her feel special. She escaped into this new involvement in a scenario that's increasingly common. Though emotional affairs have always been around, I'm seeing more of them among my clients than ever before. We've all grown so used to watching, reading, and hearing sexually suggestive material that there's no longer an obvious verbal or physical line we think we're crossing. And the exponential growth of e-mail, instant messaging, and cell phones gives us a wealth of private ways to connect. It's a snap to Google an old flame: What would have been idle fantasy a decade ago can, with the click of a mouse, grow into emotional (or sexual) infidelity.
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