What exactly constitutes emotional infidelity?
Lately, the concept of emotional infidelity seems to be cropping up everywhere — from magazine covers to talk shows to pop psychology best sellers. But don’t be fooled — it’s not just some flavor-of-the-month catchphrase. Emotional infidelity is very real. And it’s vital to determine whether it poses a serious threat to your long-term happiness.

Couples often ask me, “How do I know if my partner is being emotionally unfaithful?” Well, while physical infidelity is a fairly black-and-white issue, emotional infidelity is often all about shades of gray. It defies strict definition — and that’s partly what makes it so dangerous. It is an indiscretion of the mind and heart, not of the flesh. Generally speaking, it is an extramarital involvement in which deep, personal intimacies are shared. It is an emotional romance that is not consummated. And yet psychologists find that the effects of emotional infidelity on a marriage can be just as devastating as those of the more explicit taboo, sexual infidelity.

Friend or Foe
It often begins innocently enough. Two people connect through similar interests or shared experiences or simply proximity. As a friendship develops, trust grows. This is a natural part of life. We are social creatures. And let’s be clear here: there is nothing inherently wrong with opposite-sex friendships when you are married. In fact, experts agree that these friendships can actually enrich a marriage by providing insight into how members of the opposite sex think, communicate and behave. But the key is that these friendships need to bolster, not undermine, your union in order to be a healthy part of married life.

Crossing the Line
So when does a friendship teeter on becoming a threat to your marriage? Clear red flags include friendships enshrouded in secrecy or friendships fueled by strong sexual chemistry that is acknowledged and engaged. Another harbinger of trouble can be the consistent revelation of emotions, feelings or thoughts to a friend that you are unwilling to share with a spouse. In that instant, the emotional connection in the friendship becomes more intimate than that in the marriage, and this borders on the dangerous. Yet another clear sign emerges when discussing problems in the primary relationship becomes the focus of the friendship. This is particularly dangerous if the friend has no vested interest in the health of the marriage, or if the spouse would perceive such discussions as a violation of the marriage. Remember that airing your dirty laundry highlights vulnerability and conveys potential availability.

Work, Web and Blurred Lines
Experts have pinpointed several reasons why emotional infidelity may emerge as an increasing threat to today’s marriages. First, male-female friendship has become not only possible but practically unavoidable. Major cultural shifts over the last few decades have changed the landscape of relationships between the sexes. Men and women now work together and share interests and socialize more freely than ever before. Yet few models of platonic love exist in our culture, and so male-female friendships often don’t have a frame of reference other than the romantic. Thus, it can be extraordinarily easy for a man and woman who enjoy each other’s company to slip into a romantic mode. It may not even be a conscious decision.

Experts also point to technology as a major factor in the increasing reports of infidelity — both physical and emotional. Technology opens the door to emotional communication in previously unheard-of ways, allowing us to share our feelings without fearing face-to-face consequences. The Internet creates a unique venue for immediate communication, as well as the ability to be clandestine. Since there is no physical contact over the Web, people can more easily convince themselves that lines are not being crossed.

Recipe for Disaster
Always remember that infidelity — whether physical or emotional — is often rooted in the desire to fulfill a need that is not being met in the marriage. Opening yourself emotionally to someone other than your spouse can be triggered by fear of rejection or humiliation within the marriage. Some people engage in extramarital attention to bolster self-esteem or for excitement. So take your relationship’s temperature — consistently. Here are some tips to affair-proof the emotional side of your marriage:

Show your partner respect.
Keep an open mind and reserve judgment. Try not to criticize or look for the “right” or “wrong” in what your spouse shares with you. Remember that feelings are a person’s own and cannot be classified as right or wrong.

Be other-centric every day of your marriage.
Practice putting yourself in your wife’s shoes to arrive at a greater understanding and appreciation between the two of you. Listen without constantly planning on what you are going to say in response. Let go of your own agenda and really listen. Adopt a “we” instead of “me” attitude in your conversations.

Pay attention to the non-verbal.
You can speak volumes without uttering a single word. Instead of looking at the TV or doing chores while your spouse is speaking, show that your full attention is on her. Make direct eye contact, nod your head and make encouraging facial expressions. Make her feel like what she says is important to you.

Respond carefully and consciously.
Take the time to think before you speak. It’s always better to ask questions for clarity rather than to misinterpret what you thought you heard. When responding, let your partner know that you heard what she said by using a feedback technique and restating what was said (”So you are saying you feel�”). Be prepared to hear from your partner that you have misunderstood. Resist the urge to “fix it” when she may just need to be heard and validated. Don’t give advice unless asked for it.

Though people embroiled in an emotional liaison may not be violating the vow of physical monogamy, they are investing time, energy and emotion in another relationship at the expense of their marriage. The man who recurrently vents to a colleague and then doesn’t open up at home is shortchanging the marriage. The woman who discusses her marriage’s problems with a male confidant is shortchanging the marriage. Safeguard your marriage by staying vigilant to your its vulnerabilities and by making yourself emotionally available to your wife every day of your life together.

Author's Bio: 

eHarmony Marriage is a new, online alternative to marriage counseling. It's a private, personalized program that is designed to help you enjoy a stronger, happier and healthier relationship. We use your answers to our marriage questionnaire to focus on your areas of greatest need. When you visit eHarmony Marriage and take our questionnaire you'll receive a FREE Marriage Action Plan to show exactly how we can help you. http://marriage.eHarmony.com