Lawton, a 40-year-old architect has been married to Trina for eight years. The sex was initially good and plentiful, but now at night when he wishes she would roll over into his arms, she’s often engrossed in the Wall Street Journal. They have a tacit agreement that if he doesn’t bring “anything home” or do his extracurricular catting too close to the ponderosa, he can enjoy a little treat here and there.
Lawton’s had a platonic, yet deeply emotional connection to Freda for 12 years. He calls the link between them mind sex. Freda is beautiful, several years older and sparklingly cosmopolitan. She’s helped Lawton to blossom in ways he might not have without her influence. Still, they’ve always been mindful of the boundaries between them, like the fact that Freda was married when they met. Yet it hasn’t stopped them from becoming closer than Lawton and his wife have ever been.
Is he cheating? Monogamy, for most people, is all or nothing. The assumption is that both people will put their whole selves in, says Atlanta psychotherapist and writer Eleta Greene, Ph.D. Yet the parameters of monogamy can be blurry: One mate may see holding on to opposite-sex friends or making new ones as a violation, while the other blows it off as no big deal.
It’s hard to get solid stats on sexual infidelity. Those in the know put the number at about 25 percent of married men and 15 percent of married women-though even people who tell the truth to the IRS are prone to lie about stepping out. Getting a gauge, then, on the pervasiveness of emotional infidelity-an affair without sex-is like trying to guess how many jelly beans you can fit into a five-gallon drum. But the impact of an emotional affair can be just as devastating as a physical one.
Sex, Control and Power
Research suggests that women do more emotional cheating than men, while men are more likely to cheat physically. For many women, keeping sex out of an affair can give a sense of control, as if they haven’t completely lost their heads. That’s especially true if the man wants the sex and the woman refuses it-the classic man-woman debate. “Women are kind of socialized to that,” says psychologist Greene. “Look at the way we talk about sex: `I’ll give him some.’ `I’ll let him have some.’ It’s a power thing. The ability to withhold is a sign of power.”
Healing a Divided Soul
Of course, there are times when a close friendship between a man and a woman is entirely innocent, but a partner’s jealousy or insecurity can make it feel guilty or illicit. That was the case with Peter and Vy, best buddies for more than 20 years. Not all of Peter’s girlfriends have gotten along with Vy, however. A few of them, like Ann-Marie, couldn’t stand her.
Ann-Marie felt increasingly threatened by Vy, who was sexy, outspoken and confident. Ann-Marie believed that Vy secretly wanted Peter, and one day she sat Vy down in a bar and told her to keep away. Her suspicions drove Peter’s friendship with Vy underground. Suddenly he found himself lying to cover up the fact that he was still spending time with her. “We had more in common,” he says of Vy and himself. “We were able to be very frank. My girlfriend was more conservative, and Vy and I were more free spirits. We used to make up stuff, talk trash. My girlfriend didn’t have that kind of sense of humor. I needed that.”
A year after they’d first gotten together, Ann-Marie, a manager in retail sales, was offered a job out of town. But Peter, a writer, wasn’t ready to cross to the next level of commitment, and they soon parted ways. His relationship with Vy, however, is as tight as ever. But Peter said he learned something from that whole stressful episode. “Anybody who’s going to be with me would have to have the kinds of qualities Vy has. I don’t want to be split. That experience taught me more about what I need in a woman.”
Becoming conscious of what we need in a mate is key, says Greene. William July agrees. “If you feel an emotional affair brewing,” he advises, “treat it with the seriousness that you would a physical affair, because that’s where it’s heading.” He suggests you cut the contact, or limit it if you must interact. Second, he says, identify what it is you’re seeking and why you’re seeking it with other people. Then address this unmet need with your mate.
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