Emotional affairs: Is a “harmless crush” really harmless?

Jodie Voth, MMFT, RMFT
Manager, Employee Assistance Services
May 2, 2021

These days, the opportunities to stray outside of your relationship are abundant. Social media has made it easy to reconnect with an old flame or to get to know someone new in a way that feels casual and friendly. Many of us work long hours in demanding workplaces, which means we may spend more time with our colleagues than our partners and naturally develop close relationships with them. Extracurricular activities are great ways to meet people, whether you’re seeking a connection or not. Any of these situations is a completely legitimate place to carry on a friendship, but also fertile ground for the growth of a relationship that takes away from your partnership if you aren’t careful.

Emotional affairs are just as damaging as physical affairs. We tend to minimize the significance of an emotional affair by using terms like close friend, crush, work husband/wife, or by denying the fact that it’s having any impact on our primary relationship.  No matter what you tell yourself or what you call it, an emotional affair takes energy away from the relationship with your partner.

If you’ve got a crush, what you’re feeling is normal and even healthy. As humans, we’re hardwired to connect with others, and connection often starts with a fun, exciting crush. In an emotional affair, we get all that lovely connection and flirting and banter without things like dirty laundry, annoying in-laws, disgusting habits and everything else that’s part of most long-term relationships. How could you not find your crush more interesting than your partner? He or she is practically perfect! Ah, but wait. Practically perfect, but not perfect, because you don’t typically see the ugly bits when it’s all tee-hee-hee and playfully slapping hands and sneaky text messages before bed. In fact, you can almost believe this person doesn’t have a single bad habit. As your partner sits across from you all chewed-food-and-open-mouth at dinner, you’re comparing him or her to your crush who surely would be handfeeding you individual grapes instead – or at least this is what you’ve come to believe. And this is where the real damage begins to show itself. What your love goggles prevent you from seeing is that you’re holding up a very incomplete, very selective snapshot of your crush next to an image of your partner that is much more realistic.

So what’s to be done if you want to avoid sliding down this slippery slope?

Guard your heart. Be mindful of the relationships you engage in and how they make you feel. Watch out for a friendship that causes feelings of resentment towards your spouse, a desire for secrecy or a tendency to compare your partner to someone else.

Treat your primary relationship with respect. Reserve flirting, pet names and risqué jokes for your partner. Be clear about the things that are only for the two of you and speak openly with one another when you aren’t sure.

Keep the lights on. Resist the temptation to hide in the darkness of secrecy by speaking openly with your partner about all your friendships. If you notice yourself wanting to keep some things to yourself (unless it’s warranted, like when a friend tells you something private), this is a good indicator that you need to bring it into the open before things get more serious. If this feels like a difficult conversation to have, a therapist can help.

Ask yourself some questions to challenge and clarify your motives. “Why does this relationship mean so much to me?” and “What am I getting from this person that I’m not getting from my partner?” The answers to these questions can help you to identify what might be missing in your primary relationship and assist you and your partner in gaining a sense of direction in your efforts to improve your it.

The line between friendship and emotional affair is blurry and represents a grey area that most couples haven’t clearly defined. Other relationships are a healthy and necessary part of life. To protect yourselves from slipping into unintentional but compromising positions with others, you and your partner should discuss your expectations around what’s reserved for your relationship and what’s okay to share with others before either of you find yourself in a compromising situation. You’ll be able to speak about it from a more clear-headed place when you don’t have feelings for someone else muddying the waters, and knowing about the boundaries of the relationship will better position both of you to behave in ways that respect them.  

The need for closeness through emotional connection is hardwired in each of us and a need that must be met for us to thrive. When we’ve committed to a relationship with another person, we have accepted the task to work with them to meet those needs in one another. This takes work, that’s undeniable, and it is an effort that never ends. The rewards, however, are immeasurable and finding the courage to discuss a potential or existing emotional affair with your partner can add considerable strength to the fabric of your relationship.