The term emotional affair is used in the media to categorise or explain a certain type of relationship.
High levels of non-sexual emotional intimacy in adults may occur without the participants being bound by other intimate relationships or may occur between people in other relationships. "Attachment Theory" research reflects both constructs.
The term often describes a bond between two people that mimics the closeness and emotional intimacy of a romantic relationship while never being physically consummated. An emotional affair is sometimes referred to as an affair of the heart. An emotional affair may emerge from a friendship, and progress toward greater levels of personal intimacy and attachment. What distinguishes an emotional affair from a friendship is the assumption of emotional roles between the two participants that mimic of those of an actual relationship - with regards to confiding personal information and turning to the other person during moments of vulnerability or need.
The intimacy between the people involved usually stems from a friendship with confidence to tell each other intimate aspects of themselves, their relationships, or even subjects they wouldn't talk with their partners. While not physical, this relationship can quickly pass that barrier, and while the first physical contact can take a long time to happen (e.g. a kiss), what follows next is usually followed quickly due to the such high levels of intimacy already existent between the two.
An emotional affair can be defined as:
"A relationship between a person and someone other than (their) spouse that affects the level of intimacy, emotional distance and overall dynamic balance in the marriage. The role of an affair is to create emotional distance in the marriage."
In this view, neither sexual intercourse nor physical affection is necessary to affect the committed relationship(s) of those involved in the affair. It is theorized that an emotional affair can injure a committed relationship more than a one night stand or other casual sexual encounters.
Incidence and prevalence
Research by Glass & Wright found that men's extramarital relationships were more sexual and women's more emotional. For both genders, sexual and emotional extramarital involvement occurred in those with the greatest marital dissatisfaction.
Chaste and emotionally intimate affairs tend to be more common than sexually intimate affairs. Shirley Glass reported in Not "Just Friends" that 44% of husbands and 57% of wives indicated that in their affair they had a strong emotional involvement to the other person without intercourse.
In University of Chicago surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) between 1990 and 2002, 27% of people who reported being happy in marriage admitted to having an extramarital affair. The meaning and definition of what infidelity constitutes often varies depending on the person asked. Sexual feelings in an emotional affair are necessarily denied to maintain the illusion that it is just a special friendship. Affair surveys are unlikely to explore what is denied. Many people in affair surveys are not honest with themselves nor with the interviewer.
This type of affair is often characterized by:
- Unexpected emotional intimacy. The partner being unfaithful may spend inappropriate or excessive time with someone of the opposite or same gender (time not shared with the other partner). He or she may confide more in their new "friend" than in their partner and may share more intimate emotional feelings and secrets with their new partner than with their existing spouse. Any time that an individual invests more emotionally into a relationship with someone besides their partner the existing partnership may suffer.
- Deception and secrecy. Those involved may not tell their partners about the amount of time they spend with each other. An individual involved in this type of affair may, for example, tell his or her spouse that they are doing other activities when they are really meeting with someone else. Or the unfaithful spouse may exclude any mention of the other person while discussing the day’s activities to conceal the rendezvous. Even if no physical intimacy occurs, the deception shows that those involved believe they are doing something wrong that undermines the existing relationship. In other words, if there was really no harm in meeting with a friend, both parties would feel comfortable telling their partners the truth about where they are meeting and what they are discussing.
- Increased fighting. When a person becomes emotionally involved with someone and do not recognize it as a valid feeling, they may begin to channel their anger and disgust to diverse relationships, or to interpret different relationships in a dichotomized manner. This person may also rationalize a cause to something or someone, which can lead to increased fighting and strain on the relationships.
- Sexual and emotional chemistry. Sexual and emotional chemistry can present itself based on a physical attraction one might feel for another person. In addition, it can also be related to an increase in dopamine, a hormone that produces feelings of pleasure, and norepinephrine, which is similar to adrenaline and causes an increase in excitement. This may or may not lead to physical intimacy, however, if nurtured it may present itself. The time between the first meeting and a first kiss can often be very lengthy, but the time between the first kiss and sexual intercourse may be very short. In most of these affairs, however, an unspoken attraction exists. A partner may spend extra time getting ready before seeing this "friend" or may buy new clothing or change their appearance to seem attractive to them. They may obsess anticipating phone calls, emails or text messages and there may be a decrease or stop in sexual activity with their spouse.
- Denial. Denial of the attraction and limerence felt may be exhibited by the cheating partner, but a similar denial and minimisation may also be defensively deployed by the excluded partner as well, to avoid confrontation.
In Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, the composer Hugh Moreland, talking of an unlikely couple experiencing love at first sight, denies that they are having an affair: "You can have a passion for someone without having an affair. That is one of the things no one seems able to understand these days...one of those fascinating mutual attractions between improbable people that take place from time to time. I should like to write a ballet around it."
Therapy as subset
The entrance of a therapist into a couple's dynamics may be problematic. It may be experienced by the non-client as the client-partner having an emotional affair with the therapist. This is someone granted a greater degree of intimacy and confiding than themselves. The tendency to create a mate-substitute out of the therapist may be especially acute in incest survivors.
- "University of Florida Counseling and Wellness Center Types - Types of Intimacy".
- "Understanding our attachments to others".
- Moultrup, David Husbands, Wives & Lovers: The Emotional System of the Extramarital Affair New York: Guilford Press 1990. Moultrup also contributed to 'The Handbook of the Clinical Treatment of Infidelity' with editors Piercy, FP; Hertlein, KM and Wetchler, JL. Haworth.
- Schutzwohl, Achim & Koch, Stephanie "Sex differences in jealousy: The recall of cues to sexual and emotional fidelity in personally more and less threatening context conditions." Department of Psychology, University of Bielefeld, Germany 2004.
- Glass & Wright 'Sex differences in type of extramarital involvement and marital dissatisfaction Journal Sex Roles Publisher Springer Netherlands ISSN 0360-0025 (Print) 1573-2762 (Online) Issue Volume 12, Numbers 9-10 / May, 1985
- Shirley Glass S 'Not Just Friends - protect your relationship from infidelity and heal the trauma of betrayal'
- "NORC at the University of Chicago - Insight for Informed Decisions - NORC.org". norc.org. Archived from the original on 2007-03-07.
- Blow, Adrian J, Hartnett, Kelley "INFIDELITY IN COMMITTED RELATIONSHIPS II: A SUBSTANTIVE REVIEW" Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2005, retrieved from 
- Blow, Adrian J, Hartnett, Kelley "INFIDELITY IN COMMITTED RELATIONSHIPS I: A METHODOLOGICAL REVIEW Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, April 2005, retrieved from 
- Jill Hubbard, The Secrets Women Keep (2008) p. 47-8
- B. Schaeffer, Is it Love or is It Addiction (2013) p. 104
- R. T. & P. S. Potter-Efron, The Emotional Affair (2008) p. 28 and p. 116
- Anthony Powell, Casanova's Chinese Restaurant (1980) p. 54
- Diane Vaughan, Uncoupling (1987) p. 212
- Sam Kirschner, Working with Adult Incest Survivors (1993) p. 129
- Pittman, F. (1989). Private Lies. New York: W. W. Norton Co.
- Rubin, A. M.; Adams, J. R. (1986). "Outcomes of sexually open marriages". Journal of Sex Research. 22: 311–319. doi:10.1080/00224498609551311.
- Vaughan, P. (1989). The Monogamy Myth. New York: New Market Press.
- Mathews, J. (2008) "Dating a Married Man: Memoirs from the Other Women" Amazon.com