“I’ve found that spouses often feel more betrayed by emotional infidelity because it’s not just about sex. Emotional affairs are about an intimate relationship with someone outside the marriage. Learning to trust someone and be emotionally vulnerable after these affairs can be incredibly difficult. If only they had learned how to talk to their partner about their needs, it could have been avoided.” —Sue Brans CPC, ELI-MP, Relationship Coach
Xavier Dumis, M.D. is a phenomenal emergency room physician. After completing a residency in an inner-city trauma emergency room, he enlisted in the army where he served 8 years as a trauma doctor. His residency and experience treating the wounded made him one of the best ER doctors in our region. Xavier’s team has grown so close that in an emergency, they think in unison, like one person with many hands.
Before they arrived at Mercy Medical Center, Xavier regularly shared his day with his wife, Breonna. But after several months in the ER, Xavier began to withdraw. At the same time, Breonna noticed he started talking more frequently about one of his ER team members, Lindsey. Xavier would arrive home and immediately begin emoting about the two of them saving another life. In a moment of jealousy and loneliness, Breonna accused Xavier of having “a thing” for Lindsey.
“Why would you say that?” He responded, stunned. “You know what my day looks like. I barely have time to eat lunch or dinner and you think I am having an affair?”
After a sleepless night, Xavier called my (Rich’s) office. He reviewed the conversation with Breonna and asked for my opinion. He seemed sure I would say that Breonna was overreacting, but instead, I explained,
Xavier, the fact that Breonna believes this means there’s a problem. Think about Breonna’s feelings this way: In saving lives with Lindsey, you have developed an emotional attachment. In your wife’s mind you’ve moved from being drawn to a profession to being drawn to a person. You indicated that you have a six-member team. Your work needs to be equally shared with all the members. You need to emotionally step away from Lindsey.
Xavier didn’t like what he was hearing but knew it was the truth. He could feel the emotional pull. He admitted he looked forward to seeing Lindsey every day.
By definition, Emotional Infidelity diminishes a marriage’s relational pleasure when someone’s encouragement or friendship begins to mean more than the spouse’s. Talking about a recent movie, for example, is rarely problematic. However, statements like “the strength and tenderness the main character showed reminded me of you” can promote attraction. This is why dating blogs encourage singles to use these kinds of statements.
Because Emotional Infidelity leaves the marriage partner out of the emotional intimacy exchange, that spouse can experience feelings of abandonment, betrayal, and inadequacy. These byproducts of emotional infidelity diminish the delight God intended. As Solomon illustrates, emotional intimacy is part of the “intoxicating” magic in “love” (Song of Solomon 1:2). Sharing it with someone else creates relational dissonance.
Research from the counseling professions can also help us understand Breonna’s concerns. According to studies of many counseling centers, clients are most often referred to counselors by gender because opposite-sex counseling can produce emotional attachments – attachments that disparage ethical codes and damage the relational closeness counseling tries to promote.
Over the following year, Xavier rotated his team. He also met with Lindsey and explained his concerns. This produced some awkward moments in the ER, but over time, both made the adjustments.
Wave the Red and White Flags
Rich and I (Marty) coach couples to give each other permission to wave the red and white flags.
- Wave the red flag when you sense someone could be experiencing emotional intimacy with your spouse.
- Wave the white flag when you need to talk about an unmet need or confess your guilt (especially if you discover that emotional intimacy with others makes you feel better than intimacy with your spouse.)
Of course, the flags are metaphors for the related communication strategies, but there would be nothing wrong with keeping flags in the kitchen drawer!
The Bible teaches us to guard against any person that would distract us from investing in each other (Proverbs 5:15-21; Song of Solomon 4:12. These passages refer to intimacy, not just sex.) It also reminds us to “put off falsehood and speak the truth to each other” (Ephesians 4:25). When Breonna suspected her husband was experiencing emotional feelings toward Lindsey, she should have felt free to wave the red flag, and when Xavier began enjoying seeing Lindsey at work more than Breonna at home, he should have waved the white flag.
Although God’s intentions for the church, the Body of Christ, suggest our spouses will not be able to meet every need, we encourage couples to communicate clearly and compassionately in the following ways:
- Give permission to each other to question any relationship.
- Listen to each other’s concerns – if a spouse thinks another person is a concern, they may be.
- Share when you feel emotionally unfulfilled. You need to feel free to talk about it.
- Leave your work at the office. If you need to meet “off-site,” invite your spouse.
- Look for signs. Although suspicion can injure a relationship, most couples have told us they learn to admire the courage and appreciate the love behind the suspicion. Suspicion never hurts more than emotional infidelity.
- Talk about temptations.
Joseph’s narrative with Potiphar’s wife and Paul’s encouragement in 2 Timothy remind us to take flight first and talk later (2:22). When we spin our emotional connections with someone of the opposite sex, convincing ourselves these conversations mean little, we begin a process of rationalization that can lead not only to reduced marital satisfaction but to a relationship that dishonors the author of love.
Counselors use Emotional Infidelity research to explain why many people in helping professions, like ER physicians, lose their marriages. Their findings support what we’ve observed – that learning to wave the flags and communicate about our emotions, can help us avoid the deep emotional pain that comes when we move away from being drawn to a profession to being drawn to a person.