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Sandra, 45, a teacher in New York, meets a "totally beguiling guy" in a similar field. He helps her with a project; they start e-mailing, then phoning, having long talks over drinks. Thing is, she has a boyfriend. He has a wife. They're not having sex. Are they having an affair?
Yes. It's an "emotional affair," or "accidental affair," says Peggy Vaughan of DearPeggy.com and author of The Monogamy Myth: A Personal Handbook for Dealing with Affairs (Newmarket, 2003). "Emotional affairs are most likely to affect the person who would never intend to cheat."
According to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, 15 percent of wives and 25 percent of husbands have had extramarital sex. Add emotional affairs and other non-physical intimacy, and the numbers go up by 20 percent.
Many emotional affairs are a byproduct of increasingly intense and collegial workplace atmospheres. According to Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, author of Adultery: The Forgivable Sin: Healing the Inherited Patterns of Betrayal in Your Family (Birch Lane, 1993), over half of work friendships become something more.
"The stereotype is the VP of the corporation having a thing with the cute typist," says Shirley Glass, PhD, author of Not "Just Friends": Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal (Free Press, 2002). "But now the bonds between men and women working together are based on much more: similar interests and social backgrounds, in a highly-charged atmosphere."
Hey, we're not made of wood -- what's wrong with a crush? "I had a flirtation with a guy at the restaurant," says Gail, 30, a Boston bartender. "But it was part of the work environment, and No Touching was clearly the rule. Outside of work I didn't give him a second thought -- but the extra dose of feeling attractive actually helped my relationship with my boyfriend."
But No Touching doesn't always mean Harmless Flirting. "I had a close relationship with a married man: late-night calls, meaningful lunches, intense sharing," says Liza, 39, a social worker in Philadelphia. "A male friend said, 'If you're not having sex, there's nothing wrong with it.'"
Actually, say experts, there's plenty wrong.
"It doesn't matter that 'it could be worse,'" says Vaughan. "There's deception going on." That's the risk of a seemingly harmless affair: The more you rationalize that it's okay, the more it escalates, and the more you're compelled to hide. "You wind up depending on the other person more for daily peaks and perks, and that sucks the love away from you and your partner."
What's toxic about an emotional affair is exactly what distinguishes it from a fleeting, fun crush: secrecy. "The number one way to know if you're having an emotional affair is if you're hiding it from your partner," says Vaughan.
"When you 'end up' out to dinner sitting kitty-corner with that guy from work that you can't get out of your head, that's a date," Lana, 29, a Toronto attorney, says (from experience). "Saying you have a boyfriend doesn't count -- all he'll take from that is, 'Then why is she out with me?' You both know the illicitness makes it all the more exciting and tempting. And you know when you cross the line because it's that thing you'd never tell your boyfriend, that thing that would freak you out if you found out he did it."
Are you crossing the line? Answer these quick questions to assess if it's an emotional affair:
(Sources: Shirley Glass, author of Not "Just Friends" and Sharyn Wolf, author of How to Stay Lovers for Life: Discover a Marriage Counselor's Tricks of the Trade, Penguin, 1998)
1. Do you touch him in "legal" ways, like picking lint off his blazer? 2. Do you tell him more details of your day than you do your partner? 3. Do you talk with him more about your relationship than you do with your partner? 4. Does your partner have no idea how much time you spend with this guy? 5. Do you pay attention to how you look before you see him? 6. Do you think crush-like thoughts like, "He'd love this song!"? 7. Has one of you said, "I'm attracted to you but I would never act on it because I/you are attached"? 8. Would you feel uncomfortable if your partner saw a videotape of the time you spend with this person?
How many times did you answer "Yes"?
0-1: Friendship/harmless crush. 2-4: Slippery slope. Step back. 5 or more. 911! Emotional affair.
If you're on the slippery slope between fidelity and an emotional affair, it is possible -- and essential -- to move to firmer ground. "When I felt most tempted, I forced myself to wait, and the wild love feeling actually went away by itself," says Sandra. The friendship that outlasted the lust is now out in the open with her boyfriend.
If you have crossed the line and are engaged in a full-fledged emotional affair, your relationship still has a fighting chance. According to Peggy Vaughan, 70 percent of couples seeking help after an infidelity do stay together -- if they sincerely want to.
"Surviving infidelity is not about what happened and why," says Vaughan. "It's about how you respond to it together. You must decide: Are we going to let this destroy us, or make us stronger?"Positive steps you can take:
1. Take responsibility. "You didn't screw up because of something he did; you screwed up because you screwed up," says Sharyn Wolf, author of How to Stay Lovers for Life. Address overarching relationship issues separately, later.
2. Offer a sense of security. "Give him what he needs to feel safe," says Wolf. If he wants you to cut off contact with the interloper, or come straight home from work for now, you must say yes.
3. Be patient. He may be cool one day, furious the next. "The perpetrator has to become the healer," says Glass.
The temptation to stray may be only a matter of distraction by work or children, and inattention to each other. When you confront the issue, "The honesty and commitment you once just assumed were there are now affirmed openly," says Vaughan. It's a painful -- but worthwhile -- process, she says: "Sometimes you don't realize what you have till you almost lose it."