Infidelity is a pretty simple concept. Someone makes a decision to step outside their primary relationship. Emotional infidelity isn’t quite as clear cut because that transgression doesn’t simply apply to interpersonal relationships. Not only that, but sometimes emotional infidelity doesn’t even look like a transgression at all.
The idea of emotional infidelity can apply to platonic relationships—whether same-sex or opposite-sex—as well as activities, work, exs, siblings, extended family, hobbies and even kids. There’s a whole cadre of spouses on the East Coast who ruefully refer to themselves as Wall Street Widows or Widowers. That’s an example of non-interpersonal emotional infidelity at its peak.
The impact of emotional infidelity
Emotional infidelity is any situation where some degree of emotional unavailability on the part of one partner is interfering with nurturing a particular aspect of the primary relationship. This emotional distance prevents the partner from being present. It also affects the quality of the relationship as a whole.
Clearly, the most obvious form of emotional infidelity involves another person. Whether close at hand, or at a distance, that person prompts or volunteers for a pseudo-romantic or pseudo-sexual relationship with someone else. Basically, it’s a crush that’s reciprocated, but not actually acted upon.
Why is emotional infidelity so rampant?
A few things are true: first, the evolution of communication and the ability to communicate with just about anyone, anywhere has greatly increased the opportunity for interpersonal emotional infidelity. Secondly, human nature is such that, left unchecked and when presented with an opportunity, this opportunity will, in all likelihood, be taken advantage of.
Something else to consider is the whole notion of scarcity, or, to coin a phrase, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. In the case of interpersonal emotional infidelity, it’s more like, ‘absence creates a fanciful, romantic story that the heart buys into’. The constancy of electronic communication intensifies this kind of relationship and further promotes its distortion. Paradoxically, while the absence of a lover increases desire, the constancy of a lover-at-a-distance turns that person into a drug.
So, there’s means—an overabundance of the ability to communicate—and opportunity, which is driven, in part, by that communication overabundance.
Aside from the more obvious motivation one may have for stepping outside his or her primary relationship, there are three factors that seem central to emotional infidelity:
- The balance they strike with one another
The fear is a fear of not wanting to get caught ‘doing something’ couched in the illusion of safety created by ostensibly not really ‘doing anything’.
Put in terms of this balance, emotional infidelity makes perfect sense. There is no threat of being caught with a co-worker, a babysitter or a contractor, unlike illicit sexual relationships. Moreover, chances of hooking up with someone you met online after dealing with your spouse, kids, job and chores is also almost negligible. So, the cyber relationship stays confined to an emotional bond and nothing more.
When you get right down to it and despite any rationalization, emotional infidelity is an expression of either the need or desire to absent oneself from one’s primary relationship, while not actually leaving. That paradox lies at the heart of the issue, and it’s also what defines emotional infidelity as something not exactly the same as, but at least socially equivalent to, sexual infidelity.
There’s no ‘cheating’ because there’s no ‘sex’
Another aspect of the dynamic further complicating things is that, for the unfaithful partner, there is no real sense of transgression because, in his or her mind, nothing’s happening. Plainly put, there’s no ‘cheating’ because there’s no sex.
Non-interpersonal emotional infidelity can—and often is—rationalized away as necessary: long hours, relaxation, working out, etc. When it comes to interpersonal emotional infidelity, the same kind of rationalization gets applied.
All this leaves one partner in the curious position of having to deal with all the anger, hurt and rejection associated with an affair, while the other simply shrugs those feeling off and doesn’t get what the big deal is. After all, we’re trained from a young age that when we act out, there are consequences. Most of us understand that, which is how the whole ‘if I’m doing something, but I’m not really doing anything, where’s the harm and you’re overreacting’ argument gets its legs.
Emotional infidelity is acquitted from the consequences of moral gravity on the same ground why we take free supplies from office. We do that because it doesn’t hurt anybody. But that doesn’t change that fact that it is stealing. Similarly emotional infidelity however it may be perceived but it is still cheating.