Emotional affairs might begin as friendships, but they don’t stay that way. The friendship becomes transformed, sometimes slowly, sometimes almost immediately, into a fundamentally different relationship. There are distinct differences between friendships and emotional affairs.
- An EMOTIONAL AFFAIR is an intense, primarily emotional, nonsexual relationship that diminishes at least one person’s connection with his or her committed partner.
- A FRIENDSHIP is a mutually important but limited and nonsexual relationship based upon warm appreciation, trust, and shared interests and emotions.

Friendship is a special bond, a wonderful kind of attachment. Of course, the idea of friendship means different things to different people. There are dozens of synonyms for the term, including camaraderie, intimacy, companionship, harmony, solidarity, fellowship, and familiarity. But one phrase best summarizes the core of a friendship: warm affection. Friends feel good spending time with each other. They like each other. They good-naturedly tolerate each other’s quirks. They joke together.

Friends are people you can trust too. You can talk to them about important things, although maybe not about everything. Hopefully, good friends won’t betray your trust by gossiping about you or taking advantage of your good will. If they do though, they risk losing your friendship. A friendship without trust is like a deck of cards with no aces.

Friendship usually involves sharing interests and emotions. Some friendships are weighted toward shared interests, such as a couple of guys who hunt together but rarely talk about what’s going on in their lives. Other friendships center around shared feelings—for example, two individuals who met at a grief support group while mourning the loss of their spouses and then continue to see each other regularly as a way of getting on with their lives. But even friends who hardly ever discuss feelings could do so; just imagine those same two hunters sitting on tree stumps while one pours out his anguish over his wife’s filing of divorce papers. Meanwhile, the two grievers might start going on trips together as they heal, instead of only talking about their difficult emotions.

Another key aspect of friendship is a prohibition against sexual connection. Sexual involvement is certainly forbidden in friendships in which one or both parties are committed to others. That’s undoubtedly one reason many people limit their friendships to people they’re not physically attracted to. But the taboo against sexual involvement actually is stronger than that. Many single people develop good, nonsexual friendships with other singles even when they’re somewhat erotically interested in them. If you ask them why they don’t move in that direction, they usually say, “I guess we could be partners. I do find him (or her) attractive. But I just value our friendship too much and am afraid getting involved that way would ruin it. I’d rather just stay friends. There’s so much less tension that way.”

Friendships are also bound by time and energy constraints. True, friends make wonderful additions to someone’s life. They definitely make life better and richer. Still, friendships have a limited place in our lives. A friend is someone you see occasionally, perhaps as often as daily for an hour or two, or less frequently, like once a week for lunch, but not all the time. You don’t go home to your friend the way you go home to your partner or spouse. You might call a friend to ask for help watching the kids or pulling out a tree stump and he or she would be happy to assist you, but not every day in every way.

It’s important to remember: even the best friendship is a limited relationship. True, friendships add spice and flavor to the soup of life, but that’s all. They aren’t the stock for the soup. They aren’t the main ingredient. Friendships are naturally limited mutual engagements. And that means something tremendously important for the purposes of this book: friendships, even good friendships, are not usually perceived as threats to a person’s marriage.

Indeed, we believe that the limitations of friendship have been unconsciously designed over hundreds of generations specifically to allow people to have both friends and spouses without animosity or conflict. For that matter, spouses who get bothered over their partners’ innocent friendships are usually labeled as irrationally jealous men or women with serious insecurity issues. These people live in constant fear because they misunderstand the true nature of friendship.

So the key aspects of friendship are warm affection, trust, shared interests and emotions, a nonsexual connection, limited time and energy involvement, and the absence of any threat to the primary relationship commitment. Now we can compare friendships with emotional affairs. They’re similar in that both are primarily nonsexual relationships. They also both usually include emotional connection. But while friendships are limited in scope and energy involvement, emotional affairs are intense and demanding of energy. Most critically, friendships are carefully structured to complement the participants’ primary connections, while emotional affairs drain energy, trust, and involvement away from them. Friendships don’t represent a threat to a marriage. Emotional affairs are a serious threat to a person’s commitment to his or her partner.

Excerpt from: The Emotional Affair: How to Recognize Emotional Infidelity and What to Do About It (New Harbinger Publications)

Author's Bio: 

RONALD T. POTTER-EFRON, MSW, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in anger management, mental health counseling, and the treatment of addictions. He is the author of Angry All the Time, Letting Go of Anger, and Stop the Anger Now and coauthor of The Secret Message of Shame and Anger, Alcoholism, and Addiction.

PATRICIA S. POTTER-EFRON, MS, is an experienced clinical psychotherapist. She writes, teaches, and facilitates relationship workshops for the general public.

Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Efron live in Eau Claire, WI.