What’s an emotional affair?

Many of the men called sex addicts are considered great neighbours and popular co-workers. They are pillars of the church and favoured family members. They range from presenting as extroverted and gregarious to presenting as quietly mysterious and spiritually deep. Similarly, the kind of sexual and sexualized activities they initiate with others also varies. One of the more difficult to recognize activities is the initiation of emotional affairs. If “emotional affair” is a new term for you, let me share what I’ve learned.

The men called sex addicts conduct emotional affairs by initiating and nurturing emotional/spiritual/psychological intimacy with someone other than their primary relationship partner. This has nothing to do with their partner’s emotional availability or capacity for compassion or understanding. In almost all cases men called sex addicts emotionally abandon their wives or partners gradually over time. Along they way, they present themselves to another woman as someone starved for emotional connection, or in some kind of real crisis of need or loneliness. They usually drop “bread crumbs” that create a story about their wives or partners as cold, too busy, or unable to understand or meet his needs in this area. Often they use their role as a religious leader or  a community volunteer (for example) to develop existing relationships in this direction.

Before long, the other woman believes she is having a high value relationship with this man who is “all alone” and whose cold wife isn’t deep enough to connect with him the way she does. In fact, he is giving her the intimacy that he is denying his wife.

Often the wife or girlfriend knows his emotional affair partner. She may even see her every day. While this is risky, the man called a sex addict gets the most pleasure when this is case. He is humiliating his wife or girlfriend with someone she knows. This really works for him. Some of the affairs, however, may be conducted entirely online by old high school friends who connect on FB, or strangers found in chat rooms.

The inappropriate intimacy becomes a carrier of sexual energy whether or not physical interaction happens. In most cases with men called sex addicts, wives or partners have been sexually abandoned or placed on a heavily restricted sexual diet by the man. So the emotional affair that is now sexualized also contributes to the wife or partner’s ongoing sexual abandonment as well as her emotional, spiritual and psychological abandonment.

The practical ways a wife or partner may experience this infidelity and betrayal are varied. One client told me how a neighbour sat in her kitchen discussing a difficult story from the client’s husband’s childhood. The neighbour went on and on. It became clear that there had been several deeply emotional conversations where he had wept with this neighbour and she had tried to comfort him, saying he could talk to her anytime. But, the neighbour began to be uncomfortable about it, suggesting to my client that he needed professional help—all the while assuming my client knew the story. She didn’t know the story at all, and wasn’t sure that it was even true. In this case, the neighbour shut the emotional affair down because of her concerns for his mental health, without fully realizing what she was participating in. In most cases, the affair flourishes in a common void of the desperate search for connection.

In my story the emotional affairs usually connected to my ex-husband’s role as clergy. Women he said were from his church (?) would call and ask for him late at night, and even in the middle of the night. When I would question this, he would make up stories about committee work or the woman’s troubles at home. Sometimes, if I was at his church, I would sense a woman was not comfortable around me or seemed almost rude to me—as if she had a negative opinion about me without knowing me at all. But maybe she did “know’ me the way he had chosen to present me to her in order to “seduce” her. This kind of public meeting was a great pay off for him. He was humiliating both of us, and neither of us knew. You might experience something like this at a neighbourhood BBQ, a Christmas work party, or in your community of faith. You also might experience it in your own home with a nanny or another household worker.

Emotional affairs are particularly painful for wives and partners. That’s because they are predicated on lies about your character. It’s not driven by superficiality (like how perky your breasts are.) The man called a sex addict is lying about your character, impugning it by denying the very gifts you have in abundance and have tried to offer in your life with him. It’s an offence that insults you at the core of who you are emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Most clients find emotional affairs hurt more than the sexual ones. I suspect that’s because most women can believe their husbands or boyfriends don’t’ find them sexually attractive anymore. We are socialized to feel negatively about our bodies. But women generally can and do believe in their emotional, psychological and spiritual capacity to meet their husband or partner’s needs. In other words, emotional affairs attack the one place women usually feel they can succeed in a relationship. It’s a cruel blow.

The “wake” left behind emotional affairs lasts a long time. For years, I continued to get phone calls from women asking for my ex-husband. When I would tell them that he hadn’t been at this number for six years, they would often say “oh, I know.”  So why were they calling? They were chaffing against the now unnecessarily secret nature of their relationship and also angry it was over. When I would ask “if you know he’s not here, why are you calling this number?”, a few hesitated and then said they wanted me to pass on a message to him. Now, anyone could google my ex-husband and find multiple ways to contact him. So, I know it wasn't about contacting him. It was about them validating the reality of their "special connection" to my ex-husband by making sure I knew about it. I would respond, "I think you are confused. Please don't call this number again." Don't think you have to help these affair partners get over the end of their affair. Dday for me was 8.5 years ago. Last call was about 6 months ago. I've cancelled that number.

Do you have questions about emotional affairs? Your story is safe here. Let’s talk.

With you,



Diane Strickland