Relationships come in all different sizes and with different relational dynamics in each one; a relationship is established by developing some conscious (AND unconscious) boundaries and limits while developing an intimate connection with another person. All relationships require work and dedication toward maintaining the intimacy of the relationship while also respecting the boundaries that have been delineated. Often what happens in long-term, dedicated relationships, however, is that partners struggle with communicating boundaries and limits in a concrete way. When conflict arises, as conflict is inevitable, some partners may end up violating their partner’s trust by engaging in activities that conflict with their partner’s boundaries. This can take many forms, but often includes infidelity of some kind, where one partner begins to explore seeking intimacy outside of their relationship with their partner.
There are several forms of intimacy violations that fall under the term infidelity; most people think of infidelity relating to violating a sexual boundary or having a sexual connection with someone outside of a romantic partnership. There are less concrete versions of infidelity that could also arise in a conflict-ridden relationship, however. Emotional infidelity behavior involves one partner establishing an intimate, emotional connection with someone outside of their relationship. This could mean that the partner confides in and connects with another person when they are not doing so with their romantic partner and could even be placing the ground work for a sexual connection to develop with this other person. Often times, an emotional infidelity does not lead to a sexual infidelity, but they are often intertwined. Emotional infidelity can be just as painful for the partner experiencing it, and some people say it is more harmful because the intimate connection that they thought they had with their partner is the most important aspect of their relationship.
Emotional infidelities arise the same was sexual infidelities do, often as a result of diminishing healthy communication with partners and an inability to solve conflict. As conflict continues to present itself within relationships without being worked through, resentment can fester in a relationship, leaving both partners relatively unhappy and wanting to seek out someone who sees them in a more positive light. We all want to be loved and cared for, and if a person is experiencing their relationship as a place of resentment and anger, they may be inclined to reach out in search of a relationship that makes them feel more desirable and appreciated. This leaves a divide in their committed relationship that makes this partner emotionally unavailable to the partner they are committed to and further distances them from maintaining a healthy connection with one another.
While the act of emotional infidelity can begin almost unconsciously as a way to change negative feelings about a partner’s current relationship status into positive ones, removing emotional availability from their interactions with their partner and channeling it into someone or something else can create further disconnectedness and conflict, ultimately damaging the relationship more than addressing the conflict inside it. People don’t like to feel discomfort and pain, and as an evolutionary result, people will avoid or move away from things that cause them pain as a “survival” strategy. While this may be a way to protect them, it ultimately damages or destroys the relationship they once highly valued. This counterintuitive decision may feel like it is helping them to improve their own sense of self-worth, but could be continuing to strain the connection they have with their partner.
Mental health professionals can help unpack some of these protective strategies by helping both members of the couple to address the lingering resentment and conflict that they are experiencing. Often, the help of a neutral third party can help partners begin to learn strategies to healthy communication and can help them to perspective take with guidance and support. Emotional infidelities could be the cry for help that a partnership needs to learn how to reconnect and evaluate their relationship and determine if both parties are willing to work through the conflict to overcome difficulties or if the relationship is coming to an end.
Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events