We all know men and women who really are "just friends," and there's usually some romantic frisson, even if neither party admits it. But a healthy male-female friendship isn't clandestine.
Once a man and woman avoid telling their partners how much time they're spending on the friendship, make sure they look great anytime they're going to be together, or confide more in each other, including marital dissatisfactions, than in their spouses, they're involved in an emotional affair.
Often I'm told of a friendship that hasn't gone that far…yet. But if the possibilities are tempting, I believe that's the moment to look more closely at the marriage. What is each spouse missing that he or she needs? My prescription is for them to ask directly and answer frankly, because from everything I've seen, when a couple can't express their feelings, concerns, and dreams, they're both at risk for betrayal. I frequently talk to couples in this vulnerable state, not only about how to reclaim closeness but also how to protect their relationship from third parties. Even when a marriage can't be salvaged, I'd rather see it end amicably before either person starts up with someone new. Three habits strike me as playing with fire: (1) flirting with others, which can become too intoxicating to give up, (2) "innocently" spending time alone with old lovers, and (3) hanging out with emotional cheaters who make what they're doing seem like no big deal.
Increasingly, I find people are already enmeshed in an affair of the heart by the time they contact me, and they are terribly torn. They have a very hurt spouse but can't bear to lose their "friend." Marital implosion is close at hand. My approach seems like tough love, but I'm convinced it saves a lot of grief. The first and most important task, from which all the other things these clients must do will follow, is to take responsibility for the affair—same as if they'd had a sexual liaison. Denying it or blaming their partner's inattentiveness prevents the couple from reengaging. The only cases where it might not be best to fess up are the rare ones where the partner has no suspicions: Revealing hidden feelings just to absolve guilt is not a great idea.
Second, the affair must end. Yes, it hurts. And no, it's not possible to disengage partway and still be pals. Things get trickier if the infidelity began in the workplace, but all future interaction must be purely professional and kept to an absolute minimum.
Third, I try to help clients unearth the reasons they got overinvolved. Was their marriage failing? Did they need to build their self-esteem? Were they repeating the pattern of a parent who cheated? To prevent an encore, they must be brutally honest with themselves.
Finally, they have to build back the trust, which is the biggest obstacle to saving the marriage. I'm constantly telling people that it requires a lot of time, openness, and accountability (for example, being clear about whereabouts and coming home right after work).