I’m not the only one who has go-to people for certain things. I’ve got my tough love friends and my 'chat shit to me until I feel better' friends. The work friends who know a different side of me from my schoolfriends. Someone I turn to in the blind panic of an emergency and someone I turn to when I’ve screwed up.
In an ideal world, we’d want our romantic partners to fall into most, if not all these categories. We use terms like 'other half' and make vows to share our entire life with one other person, for crying out loud. But when my boyfriend didn't fulfil those supportive roles, I turned elsewhere – not out of spite or malice but out of convenience at having a friend who did.
There's a frustrating gender issue in my example, though. My friend was a man and, prior to becoming as close as we did, my boyfriend was historically very suspicious about my (platonic) male relationships – an eye-roll-worthy yet all too familiar reflex. With the power of hindsight and in the context of what developed, however, I can see why it caused tension in the long run. Those strange gaps in communication between my boyfriend and me, even in understanding each other, make sense too. But the big question is, was I cheating?
My defensive instinct is screaming no. I didn’t have sex with anyone else. I didn’t even want to be romantically involved with anyone else. I might, however, have been treading the boundary of an emotional affair.
"An emotional affair has a central feature: it breaks the trust of the relationship that the person is in," Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at Relate, the UK's largest provider of relationship support, tells Refinery29. "If you've got a relationship – let's say for ease it's a marriage or long-term relationship; any primary relationship – and one of those people seeks emotional connection or care from another person. That becomes the third leg of the stool, if you like. They're sharing their emotional or often their innermost feelings, they're sharing it with that person, as opposed to the person they're married to or in the primary relationship with. It breaks the exclusivity of the main relationship."
Ammanda says this sort of thing can happen for a wide variety of reasons. My partner and I had fallen out over something small which grew into something disproportionately bigger and shut down any conversation about 'The Thing'. It only meant that when that topic came up for me, I turned to my friend to work through it and adopted a habit of leaning on him increasingly when my partner couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do the same. "It's not unusual when one of the two people in the primary relationship becomes unwell, very caught up with work, perhaps a baby comes along or a family member gets sick, or they seem to be unavailable to their partner," she explains.
"The other partner feels they’re not getting a look in and might suddenly find themselves talking to a work colleague or friend, who's just been a friend. Slowly that can gain pace and before you know it, there is a kind of emotional relationship going on, which is more than just friendship. It doesn't necessarily need to include sex." Bingo.
Interestingly, Ammanda explains that when couples have come for therapy with her, when someone has identified being involved in something that sounds like an emotional affair, very often they’ll say that because it didn’t include sex, it didn’t mean as much. "Whereas the other one will say, 'Well, actually, it's almost better if it had just been sex because the fact that you've been sharing so much means that you've broken the trust. You've broken who we are as a couple because you've been giving all your innermost turmoil to somebody else.'"
It’s a slippery slope, which you might not realise you’re walking on, particularly when you’re turning to people besides your significant other for ease or convenience. Regardless, my experience on both sides of the emotional affair coin confirms that even the most innocent intention won’t necessarily stop the other person feeling left out when you’re sharing part of you with someone else instead of – rather than as well as – them.
So how do you check yourself? Ammanda recommends asking yourself: Why am I going to this person? Is it genuinely because they know about the subject, whatever it is, or is it because I actually want to talk about my relationship because I can't talk to my partner about it? "If you're honest with yourself, and what you come up with is that it's easier to talk to [the third person] about my relationship than it is to talk to my partner about what’s not working, then you've got a problem. Because actually, the person you need to address the problem with is your partner," Ammanda says.
"Very often, people don't realise that they've gone as far as they've gone until they either get found out, or the person to whom they're disclosing all these things about their relationship wants to take that relationship further. If you've shared all your innermost concerns, worries about your primary relationship with somebody else, that somebody else may think, You're obviously unhappy, you and I seem to be able to talk about really deep stuff... And then it goes further and maybe becomes sexual or intimate. It's really difficult," she explains. "The times that this sort of thing can become more of a possibility is when your partner is undergoing a lot of strain and may not feel as available to you as previously. But I think that's about how you as a couple talk to each other about support. How do we as a couple negotiate those things together so that somebody doesn't end up feeling neglected?"
I wonder whether you can ever get so deep into an emotional affair that you can never come back from it. In my case, things never got physically intimate with the other person, but I did grow to resent my partner for their absence, while they grew to resent me for my distance when they were around. Ammanda says it is fixable, though. At least most of the time. "You can’t just rebuild, you have to really look at what’s going on in the relationship," she explains. "There may not have been anything. That's the other thing here. People often say, Surely there must have been a problem within the relationship. Well, not necessarily. Sometimes, just the grind of everyday life means that it all gets a bit boring and somebody else shows you a bit of interest."
The ease with which an emotional affair can happen unconsciously is a difficult reality to face when, at either end of the spectrum, you’ve got the clear upset of adultery and the warm glow of a harmonious partnership, each of which seems so much more straightforward. Ammanda assures me that just because someone gets involved with someone else, does not necessarily mean there was something wrong with the primary relationship. "But coming back from it, you have got to do some work in understanding what was it all about. It does entail quite a bit of hard work actually. And it's very difficult to do that. In a way, [the person having the emotional affair] has got to be allowed the space to grieve for what they will feel they’re losing because he's no longer in contact [the external emotional support]. And [the other person] has to be allowed and given space to be very angry, to grieve for the betrayal and loss of what they thought they had."
"At some point, if you're going to go on together as a couple, you have to be able to forgive because if you can't do that, it will always be in the background and could destroy your relationship."