What is an affair? When does an affair become an affair?
In the past I’ve talked about how commonly people seem to consider an affair occurring only when you have had sex with the other person.
To me, that interpretation is really broken.
Sex seems like a level that affairs hit when they have reached “the point of no return”, but it has always seemed to me that the “affair” started long before that.
Affairs don’t just happen. There are any number of choices made by both parties that lead to an affair. But at what point does a relationship cross that line?
I’ve been searching for a better way of describing and identifying an affair, and recently came across it in the form of a Ted Talk video by Esther Perel. If you haven’t seen it, it’s truly a great video and well worth spending 20 mins on.
In this, she defines an affair as a relationship with three characteristics:
- A secretive relationship
- With an emotional connection
- And sexual alchemy
Let’s look at each of these characteristics in turn.
A Secretive Relationship
First, the relationship is secretive. That doesn’t mean the betrayed partner doesn’t know about the person. In fact, in the VAST majority of affairs the betrayed partner does know the “other person”. Often they know them quite well, and may even consider them a friend or at least an acquaintance.
Statistically, men are most likely to have an affair with a co-worker while women are most likely to have an affair with a friend. So it’s not as if the people are unknown. And often the betrayer will even talk about them and mention them in conversation.
What is secretive about the relationship is the nature of it.
Even if the affair has not progressed to a sexual stage (and some never do), the betrayer keeps a lot of details away from their partner. How often they are seeing the person, the sorts of things they talk about, etc.
So while the betrayed partner likely knows about the other person, they have no idea what’s actually going on. They think it’s just a co-worker, or an acquaintance. What they don’t realize is just how much time and energy their partner is expending on this other person. How invested their partner is in this new relationship, usually at the expense of their own.
The betrayer may claim “it’s just a friendship, it’s nothing” – and maybe part of them even believes that. But if that were true, then why hide it? The fact that they are hiding details from their partner indicates that at least at some level, they know they are doing something wrong.
In one case I know of, the husband had a very close friendship with a co-worker. They talked/texted all the time outside of work, and sometimes the husband would go meet this person without telling his wife where he was going or who he was going with.
When the wife found out about the relationship she confronted her husband on it. He insisted it was nothing, and that they were “just friends”. When she asked why, if they were just friends, was he so secretive and evasive about the “friendship” his response was “because I knew you wouldn’t like it”.
Ummm, alright. So if he knew she wouldn’t like it, then that would seem to indicate he knew at some level that there was something wrong. And he chose to pursue the relationship in spite of that.
Maybe there truly was nothing more than friendship. But the fact that he kept it going in spite of knowing how his wife would feel about it indicates at the very least a lack of empathy, and putting himself and what he wanted ahead of the good of the relationship.
The secretive nature of the relationship destroyed trust, and once broken trust is very hard to regain.
An Emotional Connection
Next is an emotional connection, and to me this is where the real affair begins. Maybe it starts out as a friendship, or a co-worker at work. But as you get to know the other person better you start to open up more, and discuss increasingly personal details about your life.
This type of discussion builds closeness. But this closeness is a huge danger sign for someone in a relationship.
If you think back to how your existing relationship began, it was probably exactly like this. How someone looks may be the characteristic that caused you to initially notice them, but it was likely long talks and “getting to know them” that caused feelings to form.
Once an emotional connection starts to form with someone else? Well, that’s not really a great sign for your existing relationship.
In many affairs the cheating partners fall in love (or at least believe they have). Incidentally, women are more likely to believe they have fallen in love while men tend to see the affair as “harmless fun”, and something that is filling a gap that is missing in their current relationship.
But whether or not they have fallen in love, they have allowed themselves to open up to the other person in a way that has created an emotional connection, and allowed it to grow.
A while back I had a post called Can guys and girls just be friends? (when they are already in relationships), where I suggest that no, they can’t.
That’s not entirely true. Guys and girls CAN be friends, but if you are in a relationship it changes the nature of the friendship. You aren’t single – and you shouldn’t act like you are. Certain topics shouldn’t be discussed, and the biggest one of all is you should NEVER discuss any problems you are having in your relationship with the other person.
Lastly is sexual alchemy. See, you don’t need to have had sex for things to be an affair. You don’t even need to have kissed. But you feel *something*, and when you do you KNOW you feel it. A cheating partner may tell the betrayed partner that “nothing happened”, or “they are just a friend”. Well, they can lie to their partner but they can’t lie to themselves. They know they felt something. And even if they didn’t act on it, they know they’ve thought about it.
If they are starting to feel good about themselves when they are around the other person and find themselves looking forward to the next time they see them, then these are HUGE red flags that the nature of their feelings are changing. When that happens, if they are already in a relationship they owe it to both themselves and the other person to stop. Cut off contact with the other person, and figure out what they really want.
I think Esther Perels definition of an affair is perfect. A secretive relationship with an emotional connection where you feel *something*.
If someone is pursuing a “friendship” like this while they are already in a relationship, then whether or not it goes any further than this it’s an affair.
Plain and simple.