Emotional infidelity - as hurtful as a sexual betrayal?
By Susan Daly
Saturday February 27 2010
There is a tacit code when it comes to admiring a person who is not your partner: look but don't touch. It's probably best not to be caught looking either but, overall, the consensus would be that the occasional fantasy is all right -- as long as everyone keeps their clothes on.
When we think of love cheats, we think of secret trysts and illicit sex. However, the psychologists and counsellors who work at the frontline of relationship discord say that being caught in flagrante delicto is not the only way to betray your partner. Emotional infidelity -- becoming mentally intimate with someone other than your better half without taking it to a physical level -- can be just as fatal to a relationship's chance of survival.
The definition of infidelity is now as broad as Bill Clinton's interpretation of what constitutes a sexual act. Look at married radio and TV presenter Vernon Kay, forced to apologise on his BBC Radio 1 show this month for sending texts of an explicit nature to several women.
"Now this week, you may or may not be aware that because of some foolish and stupid decisions I have made, I have disappointed and I have let down a lot of people," said Kay. "To my family and everybody, I am very sorry." Clearly, his wife Tess Daly had been very hurt, even if Kay's spokesperson had stated as news of the first text broke: "Vernon has not cheated. He didn't sleep with this girl."
Kay himself had been a bit blasé initially about whether his sex texts were a form of infidelity or not. As he said: "I suppose it's like fantasy land, just words... I thought it was harmless banter and just larking around." KayGate prompted two interesting discoveries: one, that the emotional depths of bland Kay were even shallower than we had suspected; and two, that there is a real division in opinion over what constitutes cheating.
By rights, Ashley Cole should also be grappling with the definition of infidelity. His wife, Girls Aloud sweetheart Cheryl, was understandably not happy that picture messages of his naked bits had been sent to a model. Of course, as we know from Ashley, he lent the phone to a friend, who lent it to another friend, who found the pictures Ashley took of himself "larking about" in his hotel room and had forgotten to delete, and sent them on to this model as a joke.
So thankfully, there is a perfectly innocent and plausible explanation for the whole thing, but it hasn't stopped Cheryl apparently ending their relationship.
Keira Knightley addresses the same debate in an interview with this month's Elle magazine. Her upcoming film, Last Night, deals with a husband and wife who both find themselves presented with opportunities to cheat while away from each other for a night.
"When we were making it," says Knightley, "the arguments on set were just amazing about whether mental infidelity is better or worse than physical infidelity. There was a huge gender divide on the question. Every single woman said that mental infidelity is 10 times worse than [an emotionless physical fling]. And most men I spoke with said that it's the physical act that would be the ultimate betrayal."
If the genders are divided along these battle lines, it might explain Brad Pitt's reiteration last year that he and Angelina Jolie did not have an affair on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith.
He said their early relationship was "respectful" of Jennifer Aniston, which we are to take as meaning there was no hanky panky. Yet Jolie has made a point of saying that it will be nice for her and Pitt's children to "see a movie where their parents fell in love". There might not have been sex, but there were deep feelings.
"Affairs don't have to be sexual to be destructive," says Allison Keating, relationship psychologist at Dublin's bWell clinic. "A relationship is all about intimacy, sharing your hopes and dreams with someone. I personally would want my husband to come home and tell me about the big things of his day. That is the glue of a relationship -- confiding in each other the important things. If you're talking to someone else about those things, and pushing out your partner, that's not just a friendship."
That echoes the definition given by psychologist Shirley Glass in her seminal 2003 book, Not Just Friends: "The new infidelity," she wrote, "is between people who unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realising that they've crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love. Infidelity is any emotional or sexual intimacy that violates trust."
The key message is that if an attached person feels the need to hide their interaction with someone outside the relationship, then they are aware that they are not being completely faithful.
Former US President Jimmy Carter told Playboy magazine back in the '70s that he had had "lust in my heart" for women other than the First Lady.
"I've looked on a lot of women with lust," he said, "I've committed adultery in my heart many times..."
"I've seen from couples down the years that literally a text was considered unacceptable," says Keating. "Some couples don't mind a degree of flirting; for others, it might mean the end. But the point is that a couple tends to be aware of the values they have set up within their particular relationship, and they know when they are crossing the line, even if they try to justify it by saying, 'It was just a text'."
Marriage and Relationship Counselling Service counsellor David Wheeler agrees that people are well aware when they have betrayed their partner's trust.
"We all have male friends and female friends, but there is a certain line that is drawn about what is appropriate and any reasonably intelligent person knows when it crossed."
He takes issue though with the notion that men take emotional entanglements more lightly than women. "Certainly the clients that I have worked with tend to have the same reaction when they discover that there has been that kind of non-sexual contact, but contact on an emotionally deep level," he says.
"The betrayed person feels cheated and angry, and the perpetrators of the betrayal use all the same justifications -- you weren't meeting my needs, it's non-sexual, I'm not doing anything wrong -- whether they are a man or a woman."
Research seems to suggest there's a lot of emotional infidelity going round. A study last year by the London School of Economics found that a quarter of mobile phone users had sent explicit text messages, and one in six used their phone to flirt with people other than their partners.
The ease of modern communication over the internet has made the e-motional affair more than a virtual reality.
Websites such as Facebook and Friends Reunited -- where England goalkeeper David James rekindled a love affair that started off online but cost him his marriage -- are being used to "live out fantasy lives" says Wheeler. He also cites internet pornography and sex chat lines as another form of betrayal because they create a sense of distance.
"Technology has certainly encouraged and exacerbated the situation," says psychologist Allison Keating. "People can be more inappropriate in text or email because there is one step of removal in it."
Some might say this type of 'virtual' infidelity doesn't cut it as a true form of unfaithfulness. That clearly isn't the opinion of the number of people upset enough about their partner's secret online and mobile phone activities to try their hand at a bit of DIY surveillance.
A Munster-based private investigator told Weekend that he has seen an increase in the number of people asking him to extract data from their partner's phones or laptops because they think they are exchanging inappropriate material with an outsider. "I do try to steer away from that because I don't want to get on the wrong side of the law, and it is difficult to prove when it's not a physical affair."
Another investigator, John Martin, runs the online spystore.ie which sells surveillance gadgets. "We are in a grey area in terms of our investigators doing that [he also runs a detective agency] so we leave it up to people to buy the gadgets -- and they do."
SIM card readers were immediately popular when the site was launched. "People send a text and erase it so their partner won't see it. What they don't realise is that most phones save these messages internally and a reader can fish them out."
Also popular is software that can be downloaded on to a computer and retrieve every move, password-protected or not, made on the internet in the previous days. "Parents use it to keep an eye on their children's safety on the internet," says Martin, "and some employers use it to check that their employees are not surfing the net when they should be working. But it's also used by people who suspect their partner is sending inappropriate emails to another person."
Perhaps we are not used to putting the label 'infidelity' on such subtle betrayal, but we are aware of it. In popular culture, the unconsummated love affair is one of the most powerful -- think Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas exchanging lingering looks in The Horse Whisperer.
"The dangerous thing about emotional affairs," says counsellor David Wheeler, "is that they often lead to sexual affairs. Of the couples I have seen where there was a history of one partner getting close to a third party, there have only been four or five instances where that hasn't proceeded to the physical level."
Clinical psychotherapist Ronald T Potter-Efron co-authored The Emotional Affair: How To Recognise Emotional Infidelity and What To Do About It. If you want to examine whether your own behaviour falls into the definition of emotional infidelity, he suggests asking yourself if you agree with the following:
* I would prefer having lunch/dinner with someone other than my partner.
* Sometimes it feels as though my friend can read my mind.
* My friend meets emotional needs my partner doesn't.
* I feel empty, lonely and desperate when I cannot contact my friend.
If you agree with the above, then you must ask, 'Is this friendship adding to and complementing my relationship, or is it taking away from it?'