Is a ‘harmless crush’ really harmless?
These days, the opportunities to stray outside of your relationship are abundant. Social media has made it easy to reconnect with an old flame or to get to know someone new in a way that feels merely casual and friendly. Many of us work long hours in demanding workplaces which means we may spend more time with our colleagues than our partners and naturally develop close relationships with them. Extracurricular activities are great ways to meet people, whether you’re on the market or not. Any of these situations is a completely legitimate place to carry on a friendship, but also fertile ground for the growth of a relationship that takes away from your partnership if you aren’t careful.
The point that we’re all most vulnerable to and thus have the toughest time getting our heads around is the fact that the line between friendship and emotional affair is blurry and represents a massive grey area that most couples haven’t clearly defined. If you and your partner have never discussed your expectations of one another as they apply to the other relationships in your lives – which, I’ll be clear, are a healthy and necessary part of life and not to be avoided altogether – you’ve left yourselves vulnerable to slipping into unintentional but compromising positions with others.
The other element that is important to leave no doubt about is this: Emotional affairs are just as damaging as physical affairs. I used the word “crush” in the title on purpose. I think for most of us the word crush implies a teenage-quality, butterflies-in-my-tummy sort of connection that as adults we are pretty dismissive about. Likewise, we tend to minimize the significance of an emotional affair, often by avoiding calling it what it is – an emotional affair – and instead attempting to fool ourselves by using terms like “close friend”, or by denying the fact that it is having any effect on our primary relationship. And no matter what you tell yourself or what you call it, an emotional affair will absolutely take energy away from the relationship with your partner.
Let me take you back to that word “crush” for a minute. Let’s say you’ve found yourself having those hearts-all-aflutter feelings for someone in your life; you’ve got a crush. First, I want to tell you that the way you’re feeling is normal and that anyone with a pulse is capable of it. I’ve drawn some clear lines about crushes already, but I want to make sure you know that any therapist worth their salt won’t judge you for it; I certainly don’t. The need to feel heard and understood by someone else is a basic drive within every human being. It is what motivates us to enter relationships, to connect, to seek out someone who “gets” us. In an emotional affair, we get all of that – it’s like a drug for our heart. In fact, we get all that lovely connection and flirting and banter without things like dirty laundry, in-laws we can’t stand, annoying/disgusting habits and everything else that creates your generally predictable, day-to-day, maybe-a-bit-boring relationship. How could you not find your crush more interesting than your partner? He or she is practically perfect! Ah, but wait. Practically perfect, but not perfect, because you don’t typically see the ugly bits when it’s all tee-hee-hee and playfully slapping hands and sneaky text messages before bed. In fact, you can almost believe this person doesn’t fart because as your partner lies beside you “airing the sheets” in bed at night, you’re comparing him or her to your crush who surely would be fluffing your pillow instead – or at least this is what you’ve come to believe. And this is where the real damage begins to show itself. What your love goggles prevent you from seeing is that you’re holding up a very incomplete, very selective snapshot of your crush next to an image of your partner that has much greater depth and is thus more real. So what’s to be done if you want to avoid sliding down this slippery slope?
Ultimately, your best bet is prevention. Talk to your partner about those grey areas and blurry lines before either of you find yourself in a potentially compromising situation. You’ll be able to speak about it from a more clear-headed place when you don’t have feelings towards someone else muddying the waters, and knowing about the boundaries of the relationship will better position both of you to behave in ways that respect them. The need for closeness through emotional connection is hardwired in each of us and a need that must be met for us to thrive. When we’ve committed to a relationship with another person, we have accepted the task to work with them to meet those needs in one another. This takes work, that’s undeniable, and it is an effort that never ends. The rewards however, are immeasurable and finding the courage to discuss a potential or existing emotional affair with your partner will add considerable strength to the fabric of your relationship.
Blog Author -- Jodie Voth, MMFT
Jodie is a full-time therapist and owner of Voth Family Therapy. She enjoys working with teens and motivated adults who are working through transitions and relationship challenges.