An anonymous reader writes:
Over the last several months, I began an online relationship with a man. I was taken aback by our ability to connect. It was uncanny to me how much we understood each other. The sense of completeness is there when I am chatting with him. I feel validated, understood, and special. I want my marriage to work. Cognitively, I understand that the relationship with my online friend is not complete and based on false circumstances. It’s not real life. But my flesh is weak. I miss the conversations and the feelings that I got from this man. It is almost like an addiction to a drug and I am having a horribly difficult time breaking the habit.
I know this woman is not alone in her struggle because I read a few comments or e-mails like that every day from readers. Boundary issues are extremely difficult when you have two human beings who crave friendship and intimacy, but are vulnerable to the complications that sexual attraction can cause in an uncommitted relationship. With the growing trend of social networking sites like Facebook, emotional affairs are more rampant than ever. And even if the two persons involved haven’t crossed the line into a physical affair, these relationships are still just as challenging–sometimes more–to dissolve and recover from than a romance based in the bedroom.
To help all of my readers who struggle with this issue, I have compiled these 14 tips to overcome an emotional affair: techniques to let go of the pieces in these relationships that can entangle a heart in sadness and distract a person from the goodness of the committed relationship she is in.
1. Distinguish romance from love.
In his book “We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love,” Robert A. Johnson distinguishes human love from romantic love. This is helpful for chicks raised on too much Disney: who believe that two people can fall deeply in love with each other after a three-minute duet like Sleepy Beauty and her Prince did. Or for women who read too many books like “The Bridges of Madison County” and “The English Patient,” where the mystical lover makes one grand entrance, followed by hot, steamy sex. And then he disappears for the rest of her life.
Johnson defines human love (committed, normal love that we see in every day life) as “stirring-the-oatmeal” love. He writes:
Stirring oatmeal is a humble act–not exciting or thrilling. But it symbolizes a relatedness that brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To “stir the oatmeal” means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty, in simple and ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment, or an extraordinary intensity in everything.
2. Schedule some obsessing.
As I wrote in my “15 Ways to Stop Obsessing,” sometimes the best treatment for fantasies is to pencil them into your schedule. When you find yourself fantasizing about an intimate moment with the woman who has custody of your heart, don’t yell at yourself, “Snap out of it!” Simply say, “Thought, I appreciate your coming, but I’ve scheduled you for 7 this evening, at which time you can totally distract me if you want.”
Dr. Christine Whelan, who writes the “Pure Sex, Pure Column” on BustedHalo.com, explains the logic of allowing a bit of fantasy. She writes:
If you are trying to banish a sexual fantasy from your head, telling yourself “I’m not going to fantasize about her” or “I won’t think about what it would be like to be intimate with him” might make it worse: In a famous psychological study from the 1980s, a group of subjects were told to think about anything but whatever they did, they were not supposed to think about a white bear. Guess what they all thought about?
3. Be accountable.
This technique is especially effective for Catholics whose first lessons on human morality involved scary confessions. Do I have to tell everything? What if he sends me to hell? Even when I stopped going to confession regularly, I could hear the devil and angel duking it out on my shoulders, one guy telling me that he was going to go rat me out to the pope, the other guy telling me hysterical St. Peter jokes.
Moreover, accountability has always worked for me, even when I’m free from the nun with the ruler, because, as a stage-four people pleaser, I crave a good report card. So I better make sure I have a few people in my life passing out such reviews: my therapist, my doctor, my mentor Mike, my mom (she can still read my voice like a map, dang it), my twin sister, and my best friend. By giving them the skinny on what’s really going on inside my margin for error decreases ten-fold.
4. Invest in your marriage.
The best way to prevent an affair is to invest in your marriage. And the best way to recover one is to invest in your marriage. It’s a simple physics equation: the energy and time you supply to one relationship has to come from another one. That is, you can’t build and nurture a true partnership if you’re spreading intimacy over too many places.
After a violation of trust–and according to marriage expert Peggy Vaughan an affair is more about breaking trust than having sex–the best reconciler in a marriage are small acts of kindness. Because for most spouses, “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it. Contrition needs to be supported with evidence: backrubs, special dinners, cleaning toilets, a listening ear. To quote Robert Johnson again: “Jung once said that feeling is a matter of the small. And in human love, we can see that it is true. The real relatedness between two people is experienced in the small tasks they do together: the quiet conversation when the day’s upheavals are at rest, the soft word of understanding, the daily companionship, the encouragement offered in a difficult moment, the small gift when least expected, the spontaneous gesture of love.”
Here’s a thought: whenever you are tempted to send a heartfelt and kind e-mail to a special someone, send it to your spouse instead.
5. Replace it with something.
Whenever I grieve the loss of an important relationship in my life–whether it be a friendship that falls apart or a loved one who passes unexpectedly–I’ve found it helpful to immerse myself in a new project, or new challenge. A few years ago, when I was severely depressed, I realized I was clinging to certain relationships because I had no adult interaction in my day: the oldest person I talked to (until Eric returned from work) was 4.
So I pursued a tutoring position at the Naval Academy–in an effort to place myself in a stimulating environment that would force myself to stretch a little. The job didn’t take away all the sting of grief, of course, but it did help to distract me in a positive way.
6. Stay with the loneliness.
I’m not a big fan of loneliness. Because that aching hole in your heart feels too much like the scary black chasm of depression. But they are different beasts. One can be treated, the other must be felt. Writes Henri Nouwen in “The Inner Voice of Love:”
When you experience the deep pain of loneliness, it is understandable that your thoughts go out to the person who was able to take that loneliness away, if only for a moment. When you feel a huge absence that makes everything look useless, your heart wants only one thing–to be with the person who once was able to dispel these frightful emotions. But it is the absence itself, the emptiness within you, that you have to be willing to experience, not the one who could temporarily take it away. When you can acknowledge your loneliness in a safe, contained place, you make your pain available for God’s healing.
7. Outsmart the body.
A little biology lesson here. When you are infatuated with someone, your brain chemistry whispers lies into your ears that can have you doing really stupid stuff. The spike in dopamine and norepinephrine produced with heightened sexual tension might tell you that all your troubles would end if you only kissed the handsome guy you just friended on Facebook, or ran off with the barista that makes you a perfect cappuccino.
Most people who have experienced an emotional affair describe it as a head rush. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love,” explains why:
Love is a drug. The ventral tegmental area is a clump of cells that make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and sends it out to many brain regions [when one is in love]. …It’s the same region affected when you feel the rush of cocaine.
Thus, identifying the physiological components of infatuation can be a strong ally in fighting the war against infidelity.
The Buddha taught that it is attachment that leads to suffering. So the most direct path to happiness and peace is detachment. I know that to be true on so many levels. In his book, “Eastern Wisdom for Western Minds,” Victor M. Parachin tells a wonderful story about an old gardener who sought advice from a monk. Writes Parachin:
“Great Monk, let me ask you: How can I attain liberation?” The Great Monk replied: “Who tied you up?” This old gardener answered: “Nobody tied me up.” The Great Monk said: “Then why do you seek liberation?”
9. Treat the addiction.
Categorizing an emotional affair as an addiction is helpful in two ways: first, it depersonalizes the experience, making it easier to let go of, and it also provides some tangible steps a person can take to kick her habit. Craig Nakken, author of “The Addictive Personality: Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behavior” defines addiction as “a pathological love and trust relationship with an object or event … the out-of-control and aimless searching for wholeness, happiness, and peace through a relationship with an object or event.” Addictions induce a trance-like state that allows the addict to detach from the pain, guilt, and shame she feels. Temporarily. Until reality hits.
It makes sense that so many depressives and alcoholics find themselves in toxic relationships. Nakken explains that the “addictive logic”-buying into false and empty promises, a false sense of intimacy and fulfillment–stays with a person long after she has broken off the relationship or stopped her destructive behavior. She is vulnerable to it resurfacing in a different form or with a new person at any time and especially during stressful periods. Which is why recovery never ends. It’s a way of living that involves one smart decision after another that fosters true intimacy.
10. Surround yourself with friends.
For a person who has just broken off an emotional affair, friends aren’t optional. They are a life-support system. In his book, “How to Break Your Addiction to a Person,” Howard Halpern writes:
The value of this network is so great that having it or not having should not be left to chance. It can make the crucial difference in your success in ending the relationship. IT has many specific and even specialized uses, but overriding all else is that when you are terrified of being all alone in the universe, it can give you the comforting assurance that there are other caring people out there. And this assurance, by making you feel reconnected to the web of life, can firm up your determination to make and sustain the break.
Safe friends are especially important if the relationship you are mourning formed at work, among mutual friends. You’ll need to befriend colleagues who are not connected to him in any way, or hang out with your non-work friends, safe folks, until you feel strong enough to socialize with friends who might talk about or involve him.
11. Think with your new brain.
In his bestselling classic “Getting the Love You Want,” Harville Hendrix distinguishes between our old or “reptilian” brain that is weighted down with unconscious baggage from our pasts and reacts automatically in fear, and our new brain: the “analytical, probing, questioning part of your mind that you think of as being ‘you.’” Harville theroizes that when we get sucked into intense, emotional relationships that hurt us our old brain is holding the helm. It wants to recreate the pain of our past in order to heal the wounds.
So what we have to do is to squeeze some of the rational and cognitive skills of our newer brain into the old brain before the unguided driver gets us into too much trouble. This means to apply a little logic or to fill in the details of our love story. For example, you think this guy on the Internet is your soul mate. Okay, then visualize what you would have to do to spend the rest of your life with him: give up the marriage you are in and everything it provides you, disrupt the stable home life of your children, disrupting their lives in a negative way, and so on. The new brain can also remind you that no one person can make you happy. That job is all your own. You may very well think this person can fill the hole in your heart. But once you are there, having given up so much of your life to get there, you will realize it wasn’t him after all that you needed. It was some self-healing.
12. Help someone else.
When I’m in pain, the only guaranteed antidote to my suffering is to box up all of my feelings, sort them, and then try to find a use for them. That’s why writing Beyond Blue contributes a big chunk to my recovery, why moderating Group Beyond Blue has me excited to wake up every day. When you turn your attention to another person–especially someone who is struggling with the same kind of pain–you forget about yourself for a split moment. And let’s face it, that, on some days, feels like a miracle.
13. Write about it.
If you get the feeling your friends are quite over hearing about your emotional affair, try putting your emotions to the page. In an August 2003 issue of Australian Journal of Psychology, University of Texas psychologist James W. Pennebaker summarizes dozens of studies linking expressive writing to improvements in immunity, academic performance, social behavior, and mental health. In a 2003 British Psychological Society study, results indicated that writing about emotions might even speed the healing of physical wounds. If journaling about pain can heal your knee scab, think about what writing might do for your broken heart.
14. Let yourself grieve.
A relationship without sex can be every bit as intense as one involving lingerie. A special connection between two kindred souls needs to be grieved just as a marriage or committed partnership.
In the case of an emotional affair, guilt can impede the grieving process. Since a person feels as though she is wrong to have had these feelings to begin with, she often won’t allow a time of tears and loneliness that are necessary for healing. But just because the relationship happened outside of a committed relationship doesn’t mean the heart isn’t broken and needs some repair work. Also, an emotional affair rarely happens overnight, and neither does recovering from one, which is why you need to be as patient and as gentle with yourself as you would a friend who just ended a primary relationship.