‘You can make mistakes and come out better’: readers on emotional affairs

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When it comes to playing away, every couple draws the lines differently. For some, even if things don’t get physical, developing an emotional intimacy outside the relationship can feel treacherous.

For some readers, a friendship that went too far spelled the end of the partnership, or shone a light on irreconcilable differences. But for many couples, unconsummated dalliances could be overcome.

Renowned couples’ therapist Esther Perel would be pleased. While she doesn’t endorse infidelity, per say, she does suggest that under the right circumstances – and with intensive post-fling care – the aftermath of an outside encounter can even invigorate a stagnating relationship.

Without exception readers’ feelings were hurt and their trust betrayed. Yet many also told us that as long as things didn’t get physical, and the laundry was eventually aired and repaired, in long term relationships, seeing yourself through the lens of someone new can boost confidence, refocus your priorities, reawaken your love for your partner and ultimately breathe new life into a relationship.

‘She shone in a way she hadn’t since before we had kids’

When my wife first made friends with a new male co-worker, it was invigorating for her and us. My wife’s career is very important to her, and I’m the primary parent for our two school-age kids. When you’ve been a parent for so long you can forget how the early part of an adult friendship allows you to put your best self forward; to re-tell all your best jokes and stories and find out more about yourself through letting someone else see you. She shone in a way she hadn’t since before we had kids.

But it wasn’t long until he started overstepping the boundaries. His marriage was a mess and consciously or subconsciously, his friendship with my wife helped him dream a way out. He started pursuing her, persistently tried to steer conversations in a sexual direction, lavished her with praise, arranged to meet up with her outside work, all while keeping their friendship secret from his wife.

Eventually his wife found out; he admitted he’d had an emotional affair and that the only reason it hadn’t progressed to a physical one was that my wife hadn’t succumbed to his advances.

The fallout of his confession was difficult for us to manage, but throughout all their friendship, my wife had been open and honest with me. Our main takeaway was that we needed to work on our friendship again. Career and kids had taken centre stage for so long, we’d begun taking each other for granted. We’ve spent the last few months focusing on each other, relearning each other’s interests and being present in each other’s lives again.

My advice is to be wary of people in damaged relationships. My wife’s workmate isn’t a malicious person, he’s just a drowning one. My wife wanted to help, but I think we only narrowly avoided being dragged under with him.
Anonymous, Australia

‘You can’t unring a bell’

My husband and I have been married for over thirty years. His artistic profession guarantees lots of female colleagues as well as weird and intense work hours. After decades of fielding female co-workers, I thought we were affair-proof, but this turned out to be naive of me. He has told me that when he became aware of the attraction in what started as a co-working relationship, he initially believed he could keep things under control, but work and personal boundaries were already blurry and soon they began meeting in secret too.

When I found out, I called him on it and he ended the personal and professional relationship. Unfortunately, she has proven difficult to dislodge, so we’re still dealing with this. We are still together but I would characterise myself as ambivalent at times. I now see “emotional affairs” as code for “pre-sexual affairs”, but despite it all, I still see friendship as friendship. I am still experiencing trust issues but couples therapy has really helped.

One of the biggest challenges we face now is what we all lost when their friendship went too far, but you can’t unring a bell.
Anonymous

‘I found out how to be faithful to myself’

I was in an abusive marriage and I had a close friendship with another person for a few years. I saw him as ideal, and it felt as though he protected me against my husband’s violence. We were just friends, save some crush type feelings from me – and possibly from him. We never talked about it.

We would laugh, do the dishes and just chat. He found me interesting as a human being, as opposed to regarding me as an object like I felt my husband did. While I knew it was never going to “go anywhere” our relationship gave me hope.

Eventually, I realised that if I wanted to end my marriage, I should do so on my own. I left and it was empowering to do so without any ties to another person. I found out how to be faithful to myself and my own needs instead of seeking validation from others.
Anonymous, Australia

‘It lifted me out of my rut’

A few years ago a junior staffer was rotated into my team for a couple weeks. I was immediately impressed and engaged by her lively intelligence and positive attitude, we just clicked.

I’m a middle-aged married professional with two teenage kids. I enjoy a very comfortable life with many hobbies and frequent holidays, and while my work is rewarding, it had also become very predictable.

Recently, chemistry with my work colleague has only become stronger. I love getting lost in conversation with her when we occasionally have the chance to spend time together in person. At other times we communicate via messaging apps, chatting about everything and anything, usually with lots of silly in-jokes. These exchanges can veer into discussions of emotionally charged topics that previously I could only raise with my wife. After seeing her I am on a high for the rest of the day. Our relationship has definitely made work vastly more enjoyable.

My wife knows about my colleague and that we get on well but she definitely doesn’t understand the depth of our friendship. It’s the first time in nearly two decades of marriage that I’ve had any interest in another woman.

As this situation has developed, I have become very good at compartmentalising my life. I don’t see my current situation as a zero sum game but more as an invigorating experience to spice up my otherwise predictable working day. I definitely don’t love my wife less and the new level of confidence I have found has lifted me out of my rut and made me a nicer person to be around.

I think society understands that in the work environment some people will become close and as long as that doesn’t spill over into physical intimacy or get in the way of other important relationships then “no harm, no foul”.

I am not sure how things will pan out. I suspect the emotional intimacy I share with my work colleague will gradually fade away and we will end up with a more traditional workplace friendship.
Anonymous, Australia

‘Now we do a marriage check-in every year’

My husband and I have both had emotional affairs.

Mine was early on, we’d just bought our first home together, the process had been a nightmare and we were rarely on the same page. I’d just started a new job that had a strong drinking culture and there was one guy that had similar values, opinions and background to me, so we tended to seek each other out in meetings or share stories on the frequent team visits to the pub.

With my relationship out of whack, hanging out with this work guy who thought I was funny, liked my taste in books and music, and made me feel smart and capable became far more appealing than spending time with my grouchy husband.

The team drinks once a fortnight turned into daily instant messaging, which became grabbing a coffee, which became a routine, which progressed to lunch every day, then drinks more regularly, then texts and calls. To complicate things further, he was married too.

Eventually, I came clean with my husband and we decided to split up. And then guess what? Work dude wasn’t interested any more. Surprise, surprise.

After six months apart my husband and I got back together and while I regret the emotional cheating, the brief separation was good for us.

Around five years later, it was his turn to stray. We were living in another city, not having a great time together. We’d been trying to have a baby and the pressures of fertility treatments were high. I was physically rundown, he was busy with a huge job and we got out of sync.

That’s when some similar patterns started to emerge between him and a co-worker, with the drinks and the coffees, and then there were texts after midnight. I called him out on it and we started going to counselling. It didn’t magically resolve itself – that took months – but we got there.

What led us to these situations, for me, was feeling let down and seeking the affection and respect I felt I wasn’t getting at home. My husband says for him it was about spending time with someone who didn’t make him feel like he was letting her down or doing the wrong thing (like he felt around me).

Bizarrely, through all of this, the one thing we never lost in our relationship was trust. There was sneaking around and prioritising spending time with another person, but there was also a really high level of honesty that I don’t think would have been there if the affairs were physical.

Now we do a marriage check-in every year to see how we’re going. Our advice would be that if you’re not getting the love, support or pleasure you need from your partner, talk about it, do the work together. And don’t forget to ask yourself if you’re providing those things for your partner too. We’ve been together over 15 years now, which should give others hope that you can make mistakes and come out the other side with a better foundation than when you went in, as long as you’re on the same page about it.
Anonymous, Australia

  • Quotes have been edited for structure, clarity and length

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