Up to 60 percent of all couples will experience at least one form of infidelity during the life of their marriage. Another 20 percent of married couples deal with emotional infidelity that is above the statistics for physical infidelity.
According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, about 35 percent of women and 45 percent of husbands report having emotional affairs, while 22 percent of men and 13 percent of women – both married and unmarried – have cheated in their lives.
We could say that these numbers are conservative because, of course, not everyone admits that their partner cheated or that they cheated on their partner themselves.
Also, many people who deal with emotional affairs deny that they are even cheating. However, the harm of emotional affairs is more hurtful to many than a physical affair.
An emotional affair means that a partner has really checked out of the marriage. The level of secrecy and denial causes more pain than if their partner simply told the truth about cheating.
There is a conscious, deliberate intention to deceive – this is the core of betrayal.
In a survey, 88 percent of women said they care more about emotional infidelity than physical infidelity. That is twice as much as men when asked the same question.
Why do so many people go there when they know the pain they are causing?
Here are 17 heartbreaking reasons people get lost and get into an emotional affair.
1. You are narcissistic and have an endless need for validation.
It’s like they’re constantly looking for the next hit, the next confirmation that they’re fine.
They don’t seem to overcome the attraction of having someone endlessly caressing their ego. You are insecure about so much and have low self-esteem.
It is easier to get validation from others than to face the painful feelings of inadequacy that haunt them.
2. You struggle with impulse control.
Signs of this include excessive indulgence in “pleasures” such as alcohol, food, and gambling.
Emotional affairs are another sign of this inability to self-regulate your brain’s reward center by taking too much good.
Even seemingly innocuous flirting and friendships go too far, and then emotional cheaters begin their inevitable cover-up.
3. They believe they deserve this pleasure.
They justify it to themselves and say, “It can’t really hurt. We all have desires that need to be satisfied.”
This sense of legitimacy makes them make peace with their behavior and make up all sorts of stories about how much they need that “friend” or other person in their life and how harmless it is.
At heart, they are very confident in their own “merit” and go to extraordinary lengths to justify it.
For example, there is a direct correlation between the amount of money a spouse makes and their likelihood of having an emotional affair.
4. They believe that they are essentially good people and therefore their behavior is harmless.
They justify their behavior because they think in black and white that only physical sexual matters are wrong.
And since they are not cheating physically, they lack empathy for their partner’s concern about their emotional inappropriateness. They think their partner is just paranoid, jealous, insecure, and controlling.
The emotional cheater repeatedly claims they don’t dream of doing “the wrong thing” (aka sexual affair), but they deny their dark side.
5. You have problems with boundaries and you say “no”.
You see yourself as essential to someone else’s well-being. This is either because they need to “save” this person or because they have a deep need to feel important.
6. You cannot bear to be “controlled” by your partner.
They cannot assert their needs in a healthy way and instead try to dominate others. They think they are defying control when they actually control!
By saying that you will not tolerate any limits from your partner, you are setting your partner’s own limits.
7. You grew up in an environment without adequate boundaries.
Your parents and siblings likely justified and denied their own wrongdoing.
If your family of origin has a system of defense that doesn’t take personal responsibility and uses guilt, denial, projection, and avoidance, you usually do too.
8. You are angry at your partner but you do not speak directly to him in your relationship.
They cannot express themselves (especially harsh emotions) and they tend to please others and avoid conflict. So it is easier – and lazy – to act “harmless” and fill the tank elsewhere!
9. You cannot handle disappointments in your relationship or with your partner.
Similar to the previous point, they behave in a passive-aggressive manner. When their anger goes underground, they are rarely truthful, real, or direct.
Whether it’s disappointment with how their life turned out or what their partner looks like, directly and honestly expressing their vulnerability or their pain and disappointment feels too risky.
10. You are afraid of commitment.
Intimacy is terrifying. They seek it and still fear it. Therefore, it’s easier to add a third person to the mix than to address difficult issues with their partner.
They do everything possible to avoid the vulnerability and the strain of real intimacy with the person they are living with. Instead, they live with one foot outside the door all the time.
Her deep fear of leaving she always leaves the exit door open and secures her bets. Because being the one who gives up is better than the one who is left behind.
11. Your parents cheated on each other.
This led them to consider treason as normal.
Healthy relationship boundaries are alien to them so that they inappropriately share intimacies with others, which means emotional cheating.
12. You experience unresolved grief and loss.
They idealize a lost other (perhaps someone who has died, a former lover, or even their own loss of innocence or youth) and they get feelings that they don’t get in their relationship when they experience that lost ideal or perfect love for one project third person.
13. Your partner (and your relationship) lacks certain qualities that they want.
You married someone who is serious and conservative, so they flirt with someone who is funnier, more liberal, and more reckless.
They may not feel capable of being with their actual partner, but on their emotional level they are a different person or express traits that they normally cannot. And being that hidden side of yourself feels good.
14. You crave novelty.
Their emotional affair is a way to bring novelty and variety to what they think may be away from home.
15. They must transgress or rebel.
They are tired of standing up like this all the time. They have always done the right thing and “were good”, but now they can finally act badly without being really bad – that is their justification.
16. They love to keep secrets.
Keeping secrets can feel tempting. It gives them a false sense of power. You kept secrets as a child, and it is now natural to keep secrets in your relationship.
17. You are emotionally immature.
Whether they yearn for a feeling of eternal youth or cannot cope with taking responsibility for their adult life, they hide from reality in a fantasy world.
Things go wrong in any relationship, but when that happens in theirs, they don’t deal with it – they escape.
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Margie Ulbrick is a relationship counselor and collaborative family lawyer in the areas of family therapy, somatic psychotherapy and law. Please see their website for more information.