Navigating the Boundaries of Other Relationships to Avoid Emotionally Cheating

Tara Blair Ball
Woman shushingPhoto byKristina FlouronUnsplash

If you have to ask yourself the question, “am I having an emotional affair?,” you probably are.

That’s because, if you were truly being honest with yourself, you wouldn’t even question if what you were doing was okay. You would just know it.

I’ve never asked myself if I was having an emotional affair with someone like my best friend because that is so ridiculous that it‘s hysterical. I would laugh in your face if you asked me that.

BUT I have had a few past relationships where if you asked me that, I’d probably pause before answering or get super defensive. Because I’d know — and have felt — that there wasn’t something quite above board about those relationships.

Here are some questions to help you tease out if your friendship is actually on its way to being or is currently an emotional affair:

  • Are you keeping anything about your relationship a secret from your current partner?
  • Are you spending less and less time talking, spending time with, or being intimate with your partner to spend with this other person instead?
  • Is there a degree or element of romantic attraction that is or isn’t acknowledged by either party?
  • Are you sharing things (thoughts, feelings, or problems) with your friend that would best be addressed with your partner instead? (see examples above.)

Having had a few almost and total emotional affairs, I can say unequivocally that emotional affairs are real. They are insidious and can sneak up on you at any time if you aren’t practicing clear boundaries.

I used emotional affairs as a way to avoid what I really needed to be looking at: how wrong my current relationship was and how I needed to leave. They helped keep me stuck. One emotional affair turned into a full-blown affair that became the crowbar I used to wedge myself out of my marriage.

So, if you pause or immediately get defensive when you think about whether one or some of your relationships are actually emotional affairs: take note, my friend, because you are probably in one.

Here’s an example of one emotional affair I was in:

When I was 19, I got engaged to a 28-year-old man with a 3-year-old daughter. I was attending college in another state, and he lived in my hometown, so for the first year of us dating, we commuted back and forth. Then I left college to move in with him.

It was a relationship sustained on liberal fantasy. I knew this dude was not for me: I felt constantly like I was compromising my morals and values to be with him, and I didn’t want to be a step-parent when I felt like barely an adult myself.

So I started complaining about him and our relationship to one of my male friends. We started flirting a little. I started texting him all the time and then telling my partner that I was actually texting my friend Mary. I started yearning to talk to him more and more. I told him things like, “I wish Scott would get me the way you do!”

When my partner finally saw whom I was texting with, he confronted me.

“We’re just friends!” I told him.

But I knew. I knew that it wasn’t true.

I knew that if this was truly a platonic friendship, then I wouldn’t be lying about it. I wouldn’t be keeping a secret. If I was truly doing nothing wrong, then I wouldn’t be concerned if my partner happened to see what we were texting.

Instead, I broke out in a cold sweat thinking about how my partner would react to comments I’d made to this “friend” like, “You look great with your shirt off! (winky face emoji)”

In M.Gary Neuman’s book, Emotional Infidelity: How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage and 10 Other Secrets to a Great Relationship, he makes the controversial statement: “Insulate and protect your marriage against emotional infidelity by avoiding friendships with members of the opposite gender.” Neuman believes that limiting your relationships/friendships is “the single most important thing you can do for your marriage.”

I believe you CAN have relationships with people of the opposite gener (or same gender if you’re in a LGTBQ relationship) that are entirely platonic and healthy and GOOD for you and your relationship, but boundaries MUST be in place.

Here are boundaries to consider having:

  • If unmet needs, irritations, or problems with your partner arise, don’t let them remain uncommunicated or unaddressed for too long.
  • If you take problems about your partner or your relationship to another person, make SURE to then bring those issues back to your partner.
  • If you find yourself connecting with or reaching out more to a friend than your partner, schedule some quality time with your partner.
  • If you find yourself feeling attracted to a friend, limit the time you engage with that person.
  • If you feel the need to hide something or keep it a secret, tell on yourself to your partner. Nothing hurts trust more than deception.

I’ve heard before that “emotional affairs act as a canary in the mine for unhappy relationships,” which I find to be so so so true.

When I have desired something from my partner that I wasn’t getting, sometimes the first sign of it to me was when I found myself seeking those things from other people.

If I want to remain in my committed relationship and not pursue what could become a full-blown affair, then my next step should be in returning to my partner and addressing whatever I feel is missing in the relationship.

Whatever you do, try to avoid committing infidelity as it is extremely painful to your partner.

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Tara Blair Ball is a Certified Relationship Coach and author of Grateful in Love: A Daily Gratitude Journal for Couples, A Couples Goals Journal, and Reclaim & Recover: Heal from Toxic Relationships with a 7-Step Guided Journal. She has a Master's from the University of Memphis and is accredited by CTAA. You can find her on Tiktok, Instagram, or YouTube at @tara.relationshipcoach.

Memphis, TN

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