Emotional Affairs: The Most Important Conversation You Aren’t Having is Wreaking the Most Havoc

Most people would agree that covert sexual contact with someone other than your spouse or committed partner qualifies as cheating. But what about those murkier waters of a “third party” relationship, be it with a “work wife/husband,” a neighbor, or a FB reconnection—you know, that person that seems to “get you” a lot more than your spouse does these days? That relationship where, even though you’ve never even touched, your interactions lately just feel…not entirely kosher. Maybe your spouse has even raised an eyebrow or two when this person is mentioned.*

Perhaps you’ve already consulted Dr. Internet on whether this curious relationship you’ve been spending an awful lot of time thinking about really is innocent (that may even be how you found this blog post!). Did Dr. Internet’s bottomless lists of “The 8 telltale signs that you are having an emotional affair” settle it for you at long last, or did they leave you even more confused, since your scenario sorta fits their criteria, but sorta doesn’t?

Here’s the thing: you are unlikely to resolve this “is it or isn’t it” torment because you are looking for Truth in all the wrong places—you’re having the wrong conversation with the wrong people under the wrong conditions. In reality, you already have all you need to find your answers and know how to proceed; you just need to learn how to have a thoughtful, useful conversation with yourself. Your vision has been hijacked by your defense mechanisms, those ancient survival tools that have a way of distorting Truth and preventing sound decision-making.

Today, I’d like to help you discern when you are under the influence of those defense mechanisms and learn how to understand and harness them to have honest, productive discussions with yourself, uncover insights from within, and use those to make sound decisions about your future.

Because the truth is, when you get involved in an emotional affair, the most important conversation is the one you’re not having – the one with yourself.

Defense Mechanisms or The Truth— Who’s in Charge of Your Thoughts?

First, a little Psychology 101: defense mechanisms are those unconscious mental strategies that protect us from difficult or painful thoughts, emotions, facts, or memories that threaten our self-image. We evolved to use them so we can remain accepted in our tribes, and in fact, we all use them every day – our survival depends on them.

Just as the presence of antibodies signals a foreign pathogen in the body, the presence of defense mechanisms likely indicates some emotional dilemma or ambivalence. To preserve our sense of security and self-image, defenses soften, cloud, or twist reality into a more palatable picture—to ourselves and our tribes (AKA, our loved ones).

Brilliant, right? But when these defenses take over, we can put ourselves—our marriage, family unit, job, financial security, self-worth — at risk, and impair our ability to make sound decisions. It’s kind of like an autoimmune disease, where a person’s immune system kicks into overdrive and attacks its own healthy cells.

So, if these strategies are unconscious, how can you tell if yours have been triggered? Easy—just internally ask yourself if this relationship is 100% innocent and listen to the “yes, buts” fly! If merely asking yourself this question produces a dialogue worthy of the most intense courtroom drama, that’s a sign that your defense mechanisms have been employed. When your conscience begins to prosecute you for the “crime” of an inappropriate relationship, your defense mechanisms jump in to fight for your innocence.

A female attorney questions a female witness on the stand in a courtroom. A jury is watching in the background.
Have you been cross-examining yourself again?


Most people in this situation will find themselves using one of three common defense mechanisms: justification, denial and minimization. Unfortunately, as long as we keep choosing to believe the defense mechanisms instead of digging a little deeper, the behavior will continue. And this only increases your guilt, shame, and the odds of the relationship escalating out of control. It can become a vicious cycle, trapping you in a maddening, endless back-and-forth internal debate that never gets resolved.

So how do you reach a verdict?

First, test whether these possible defense mechanisms stand up to “cross-examination.” For example:

Yes, Ms. X, you and your FB reconnection have only conversed innocently about your high school days, but isn’t it also true that you get butterflies when he texts you?”

Yes, it’s true, Mr. Y, that there were 3 other coworkers at the happy hour last night, but isn’t it also true that when your wife asked who went, you specifically left that special coworker’s name out?”

Yes, Mrs. Z, it is true that you and your ‘work husband’ have never touched each another, but isn’t it also true that you’ve had several 3-hour intimate conversations together, and you always make sure you wear that killer skirt that shows off your legs when you meet?”

It can be tricky to imagine asking yourself these questions, so if that’s the case, try imagining your spouse doing the cross-examining. Next, imagine your crush’s spouse asking the questions. Then your boss, coworkers, and clients. And how about your kids, 2, 5 or 15 years from now? What would having these conversations feel like?

If the very thought of your having these conversations fills you with dread, the likely verdict is that you are engaged in an emotional affair. And that’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Believe it or not, this is very good news—you have an answer to the first and most important question! You are being honest with yourself, and your internal warning system is functioning as it should.

Hopefully, reaching this verdict will enable you to finally have the honest conversation with yourself that your defense mechanisms have been preventing, take inventory, understand what happened and why, and decide what to do next.

3 Questions to Ask Yourself

Below are three questions to help guide this conversation with yourself. Spend a few minutes thinking about each one. Feel free to write down your answers if that helps you process (you don’t have to show them to anyone!).

1. If I were to end this relationship altogether, what would I feel? What would I lose?

Listen to the answers your unconscious gives, and take them seriously. Maybe you can’t bring yourself to give up all that yummy attention received from time with your crush because the butterflies and blushing have reawakened forgotten parts of yourself after years of mundane family life? Possibly you enjoy (just a little bit) seeing the way this has made your spouse jealous, when you’d thought all passionate interest in you went MIA years ago?

Take an extensive, honest, and objective look and listen for all your answers, positive, negative and everything in between. They may surprise you. They will definitely guide you.

Take care to avoid judging yourself just now. You already judged the state of the relationship; adding guilt or shame is likely to retrigger your defenses and prevent resolution. It’s an obstacle to moving forward.

2. Do I want to get a divorce?

Given that many affairs lead to divorce, this is an important question to ask yourself.  

Divorce can have a major impact on your lifestyle, finances, and identity. If you have kids, you’ll need to work out a coparenting plan and adjust to splitting their time between two homes. None of these changes are necessarily bad. But sometimes, people fantasize about divorce because they are desperate to escape the pain and stress of their current situation, and this can lead to rash decisions. Be sure to take your time and think through all the consequences of each choice so that you can decide with confidence.

If you realize you want to avoid divorce (and all that comes with it), you could view this affair as merely a signal of your desire to change something about your life or marriage.

To answer this question honestly and explore the possible options, you may need support from someone else, ideally someone who isn’t cynical about marriage and can be hopeful that things can change, whether that’s a couples therapist or a trusted friend. (Check out my recent post on who to talk to and who not to talk to about a potential divorce here). 

Treat yourself to watching these TED talks by our leading expert on marriage, love, sex and affairs, Esther Perel. They can help you understand why so many people have affairs (emotional or otherwise) and how they can be an impetus for lasting change in a marriage with the right support:

Rethinking Infidelity – TED Talk – Esther Perel

The Secret to Desire in a Long-Term Relationship – TED Talk – Esther Perel

3. Will I allow myself to be in control of my life? To flourish in confidence instead of in shame and guilt?

Believe it or not, some of us seem to unconsciously sign up for being “the bad one,” and your answer to this question could point to this being an aspect of your personality. 

As we learned earlier, engaging in an emotional affair not only deceives your spouse; it also requires quite a bit of self-deception. Your emotions and defense mechanisms are now driving your behavior and impairing your judgement – and unfortunately, that’s like giving the wheel to a drunk and expecting to get to your destination safely.

So, can you allow yourself to take back control? What would that look like? How would it feel? Again, listen and take seriously your answers.

Moving Forward

Hopefully, this post has helped you to begin a new, more honest conversation with yourself. But it’s only the start. Moving forward after an emotional affair is a nuanced, complex situation that requires an equally nuanced response – something that can’t be found in Dr. Internet’s quick, one-dimensional answers.

Some parts of the process only you can do, like the exercise above. But other parts would ideally involve a skilled therapist, who can help you and your partner have the right conversations with the right people at the right time (including the one with yourself!). They can also help you recognize and manage your defense mechanisms and decide where to go from here. You don’t have to navigate it alone.


*If your partner frequently accuses you of cheating for no reason, or their jealousy/insecurity has worsened into controlling, isolating, and/or abusive behavior, that is a different issue. Learn about emotional abuse here. Traditional couples therapy is not recommended for people in abusive relationships; you may want to speak with an individual therapist who specializes in intimate partner violence (IPV) to get support and figure out what to do next.



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A licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience, I’ve helped hundreds of couples and families navigate life's bumps and find the way forward.