A gentle warning to married people who casually use terms like “work husband” and “work wife,” who see nothing wrong with “innocent” flirting, and who share intimate details about their spouse with someone who isn’t their spouse:
“It’s been said that 50 to 70% of all emotional affairs eventually lead to physical cheating and sex.”
Why is this so? Why does emotional infidelity so often lead to physical infidelity—a significant boundary violation that can be extremely difficult for a couple to recover from? In this article, we’ll explore why.
3 Reasons Why Emotional Affairs Lead to Physical Infidelity
1. Emotional Affairs Often Blur the Line Between Appropriate and Inappropriate Behavior
An emotional affair often starts “innocently” enough. Perhaps two colleagues have to travel together for business or stay late at work. Maybe two people have something in common and bond over it. When the initial relationship isn’t obviously “wrong,” it can be harder to notice when the relationship transgresses into something inappropriate.
By the time a person senses the other person has feelings for them—or by the time they realize they’ve developed feelings, as well—they may be too deeply involved in the relationship to easily stop it from moving forward. Physical advances from the other person can feel too tempting to resist. The excitement of the emotional affair can allow a person to “let their guard down” and act impulsively. They might continue to be in denial about what they’re doing simply because it feels so good. It was just a kiss. It only happened once. It only happens when we’re out of town. I don’t think my spouse would really care. I won’t get caught.
If the person were to take a step back and think objectively about what they were doing—or imagine how they would feel if their spouse was doing the same thing—it’d be a lot easier to see how their actions and thoughts are inappropriate. But emotional affairs can cloud a person’s judgment to the point that this type of self-awareness is next to impossible.
2. Emotional Affairs Create Rifts That Seem to “Justify” Physical Cheating
A spouse is supposed to be someone that a person can confide in and feel deeply connected to. When someone spends their energy confiding in someone else, they can start to feel more and more distant from their spouse. Now, absent a sense of closeness and connection to their spouse, a person may be drawn to increase the level of connection they have with their affair partner by crossing a physical boundary.
In other words, a lack of intimacy in a marriage can make it easier for a person to justify physical cheating in their minds—even if they fail to realize that their emotional affair is contributing to the lack of intimacy in the first place. We’re just so “off.” He doesn’t even say “I love you.” She just doesn’t understand what I’m going through. We haven’t had sex in months. I just don’t feel close to her anymore. The more a person feels this way about their spouse (and the more they discuss these feelings with their emotional affair partner), the easier it is to see physical cheating as acceptable.
Could emotional infidelity be a symptom and not a cause of feeling disconnected from one’s spouse? It’s certainly possible. But whether the marital dissatisfaction or the emotional affair came first, the end result (physical infidelity) is often the same.
3. Emotional Connection is the Bedrock for Physical Intimacy
In many ways, physical intimacy is the natural progression from emotional intimacy. It’s simply part of human nature. This in itself is not the problem, of course. After all, it’s exactly how people go from dating to marriage!
This is, however, the inherent risk in opening yourself up intimately to someone who is not your spouse. It can easily lead to strong feelings of lust or infatuation, which naturally paves the way for physical desire.
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Even if an emotional affair never progresses to physical infidelity, it can still be a major threat to the integrity of a marriage. But the degree of pain and betrayal sparked by a physical affair is often catastrophic, which is why avoiding an emotional affair—the “gateway” to physical cheating—is so important.
If you suspect your spouse is involved in an emotional affair, or if you see the warning signs of an emotional affair in yourself, honest communication and swift action are key. If you need help negotiating this difficult experience, consider consulting with a marriage and family therapist or another provider who can offer professional guidance.
Contact The Marriage Restoration Project for Help
Are you or your partner engaged in an emotional affair? Contact us to help start the healing process.