Tuesday 23 April 2019

Is an emotional affair worse than a one-night stand?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
French President Francois Hollande

Two writers debate which has the worse long term effects on a relationship.

Yes an affair is worse  claims Heidi Scrimgeour

Asking a woman which is worse – the prospect of her partner falling in love with another woman or 'merely' sleeping with someone else once – is like asking them to choose between dying in a house fire or death by drowning.

But if pushed, I would agree with the two-thirds of women who said in a new study in the US journal Evolutionary Psychology that a one-night stand is a less painful prospect than discovering that your partner is deeply emotionally involved elsewhere.

This is primarily because a one-off physical infidelity may be 'rationalised' as a mistake; be that a drunken error or a grave lapse of judgement. By their very definition, one-night-stands are largely regrettable and often 'meaningless' encounters. The words 'I'm in love with someone else', by contrast, amount to a much more calculated act of betrayal.

Even if emotional affair partners 'never meant for it to happen', as is often claimed, the fact that they've had time to think twice but proceeded signals that emotional infidelity carries a degree of intent more damaging than the impulsivity that can characterise one-night stands.

A sexual infidelity is devastating, of course, but it may be a less annihilative wound to the relationship. After all, sex represents part of a couple's connection and not the whole, but an emotional betrayal is a decimation of its very foundation.

It's also a dangerous myth that an extra-marital relationship doesn't 'count' as infidelity if it's not physical.

That's the kind of lie that affair partners delude themselves with while in denial, and minimising the effect of being emotionally unfaithful to your partner in this way can make it unimaginably difficult for a betrayed partner to forgive.

Physical attraction can be a fickle beast, and the remorse that accompanies many one-night stands can be a catalyst for repairing the damaged relationship. But the depth of complex emotional connection that characterises emotional affairs, coupled with the devastating longevity of statements of intent like 'I want to be with her', creates such amess that it may be impossible for the betrayed relationship to recover.

It may also be possible to have sex that is utterly devoid of meaning and regretted but the same cannot be said for an emotional bond. 'It meant nothing,' offers a betrayed partner a degree of comfort that the emotionally faithless spouse cannot give.

The idea that an emotional betrayal is somehow a lower grade of infidelity is to miss the point about what's so painful about being cheated on; 'how far you went' matters little in the final analysis. It's that you went at all which causes agony.

There's also an argument that says that stopping short of having sex is a sort of double-blow to the cheated partner, rendering the affair a sort of 'courtly love' ideal which any subsequent physical relationship can never compete with.

Furthermore, many emotional affairs are a precursor to sexual ones, which discredits the idea that they're benign.

In the excellent book Not Just Friends, relationship therapist Shirley P Glass writes that around 80pc of emotional affairs become sexual, and 82pc of the 201 unfaithful partners she has treated "have had an affair with someone who was, at first, just a friend".

Glass defines emotional affairs as relationships "characterised by secrecy, emotional intimacy and sexual chemistry" and asserts that an emotional affair can indeed be much more damaging to a marriage than a sexual betrayal.

"Sometimes the greatest betrayals happen without touching. Infidelity is any emotional or sexual intimacy that violates trust."

But Glass also writes that affairs often happen not because the person who has the affair has needs that aren't being met, but because they have withdrawn and stopped giving enough to their marriage.

So perhaps categorising infidelity into 'degrees' of damage is to miss the point; which is that affairs speak volumes about the unfaithful partner, not the one betrayed.


Edel Coffey argues the case against. Photo: Ronan Lang.

A oe night stand cannot be forgiven, says Edel Coffey

President Carter once told Playboy magazine. "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times." I'm sure his wife was just fine with that. I'm sure Jackie O wished JFK had restricted his adultery to his heart alone.

Who of us hasn't committed adultery in our hearts? Isn't that one of life's tax-free pleasures? No harm, no foul? It's totally normal to be attracted to other people at some point in your relationship. It's one of life's vital signs, a reminder you're not dead inside.

Two-thirds of women who took part in a new survey said they would forgive a sexual infidelity quicker than an emotional one. On a superficial level, I can see their point. A meaningless, perhaps drunken, indiscretion with a stranger is a much smaller dragon to slay in a relationship than a growing bond of closeness between your partner and a friend, a person he might see regularly and someone he likes and respects, someone he probably only gets to meet at her best and almost never sees on week three of the leg-waxing cycle.

Even considering all this, I think I'd take an emotional betrayal over a sexual one any day. There are risks involved with both types of infidelity.

The chance of your partner falling in love with someone they're having an emotional affair with is probably greater but the risk of getting an STD from a partner who cheats sexually is a downside exclusive to that particular type of infidelity.

I think I'd find it difficult to forgive a sexual indiscretion. But I believe a little harmless flirtation never hurt anyone. It's only if that flirtation spills over into something more solid that you're in the murky area of cheating.

It's all very French I'm sure but, Monsieur Hollande aside, most of us never act on our flirtations. For most of us, they're just a part of life.

I would certainly be upset if my partner were to fall in love with someone else, but it's all part of the risk of being in a relationship. You trust your partner and hopefully that trust is not betrayed.

I have lots of male friends. We chat, we share details of our lives, we go for dinner, we get an insight into how the other half thinks and we go home to our respective loved ones without having committed acts of infidelity or becoming confused about how we feel for each other. My partner trust me on this.

I have a male friend, however, who only ever meets his female friends in daylight. His partner disagrees with meetings after dark, as if he is some sort of sexual vampire whose manly urges might overwhelm him as soon as darkness falls.

I can understand where she's coming from. I've certainly felt some level of jealousy towards boyfriends' close female friends in the past but, considering I would be outraged if I was asked to stop seeing my male friends, I've had to just suck it up. And anyway, the rational part of my brain has always been aware that it's an unreasonable and insecure reaction.

Besides, how little faith do we have in our own value as a human being, or in our partner's respect for us if we feel it's better to monitor their emotional life like a prison warden instead of simply trusting them? We may as well blindfold our partners when they go out into the world for fear they might meet someone to whom they are attracted.

I think there are levels of emotional infidelity.

If you're confiding in someone more than you are in your partner, you're in trouble.

If you're lying by omission – you know those people who never reference their boyfriend or girlfriend in front of the person they fancy? – then you have a problem.

If you're bad-mouthing your partner, you have a big problem.

If you're hiding your emotional affair from your partner, you're in big trouble.

If my partner was engaging in any of this behaviour, I would have no hesitation in asking them to stop. But I'd sure still forgive an infidelity committed in the heart a lot quicker than a one-night stand.

Irish Independent

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