I’ve long been skeptical of the whole concept of an “emotional affair” – the idea that a close, possibly flirtatious friendship constitutes betrayal of one’s marriage vows. But it just recently struck me, as I read this article at Redbook (via Rebecca Woolf at Girl’s Gone Child and figleaf), that emotional affairs are being constructed as women’s work.
Even the title of the Redbook story conveys the idea that women might be especially susceptible to this form of cheating: “Are You Having an Emotional Affair?” The second-person pronoun, aimed at the female reader, contrasts strikingly with a whole genre of women’s magazine articles that fall under the rubric of “how to know when your husband is having an affair.” You’d never see an article titled “Are You Having an Affair?” Presumably the reader would already know the answer to that question.
But the title question, as it’s phrased, evokes insecurity and self-doubt – and deliberately so, because the article’s first premise is that you could be having an emotional affair and not even know it. The author, Heather Johnson Durocher, starts off in a confessional register. She was flirting with a guy at work. Though they never so much as touched each other, she admits she was having an affair with him. Yet she was oblivious to the fact!
Our conversations turned to easy banter and later — I have a hard time admitting this even now — flirtation. Our e-mails, which could number several in one day, never included outright expressions of affection toward each other. Instead, our notes were mostly business peppered with friendly sparring. We shared a similar sense of humor. I felt that he got me.
I told myself I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I had to talk with this guy for work, after all. And couldn’t I have a friend who happened to be male? I also told my husband about him, even sharing when we’d meet for coffee or lunch (always scheduled with the intention of discussing business). My husband, busy with a demanding job, trusted me completely.
In the midst of working part-time and caring for a preschooler, a toddler, and, later, a new baby, e-mailing and talking with John felt like an innocent escape. I never would have said at the time that I was in a bad marriage — my husband and I got along well; we just didn’t have a lot of quality alone time together — and I had no intention of crossing any physical line. But I increasingly found myself sharing more and more of my hopes and dreams with John instead of just with my husband. I anticipated my regular interactions with John in a way that was all too consuming. And it was John — not my husband — who was beginning to fill a key emotional need in my life. I was, in fact, unknowingly cheating on my husband; I was having an emotional affair.
And you, too, dear reader, could be cheating on your husband! Are you sure you’re not? How sure are you? Do you ever flirt with a man other than your husband? Do you have any close male friends? Then you’d better read on, and be prepared to admit your own guilt.
The article continues by telling other women’s stories and quoting the usual “experts” that populate women’s magazines. Not one of these stories is told from the man’s perspective. Durocher never suggests that her colleague John might have found their friendship equally exciting. This exclusive focus on the women’s stories gives the impression that emotional affairs are something women engage in – but men don’t. And yet, just as with an actual, sexual affair, it takes two to tango – or two to talk. (Because by definition, that’s all an “emotional affair” is – talk: confidences, emails, shared jokes, compliments. If it crosses the line to being explicitly sexual, then it’s just a plain old-fashioned affair.)
Can you imagine an article like this appearing in, say, Maxim? I just searched Maxim’s website, as well as the combined website for GQ and Details, for “emotional affair” and got – predictably – no hits. I didn’t bother searching Playboy.
The idea that women are peculiarly susceptible to emotional affairs echoes the idea that women aren’t really interested in sex, anyway. It reinforces the stereotype that our real desire is for deep emotional relationships, and sex matters only as a means to that end. The “emotional affair” short-circuits the expected pattern by cutting straight to the emotional bond without the physical contact. Durocher says she had no intention of getting physical; a slightly flirtatious friendship provided what she was missing at home. None of the women in the article is portrayed as wanting to actually have sex with the men who’ve caught their fancy. But one story ends when the man, Bobby, wants to do more than hold hands with the woman, Toni. The implication is that men might be using the emotional connection to try to ignite a full-fledged affair.
Women are thus positioned as the gatekeepers of emotional affairs. It’s up to them to say no, to manage emotions, to resist temptation. This is tricky, though, because on the one hand, Durocher admits that she didn’t know she was cheating on her husband. On the other hand, she claims:
The signs of an emotional affair may be more subtle than those of a sexual affair, but they’re just as unmistakable.
So it’s up to the (female) reader to know those signs and retreat at the first sign of danger. All the onus is on her, while the man bears no responsibility. This is just an extension of women’s traditional duty to monitor the emotional health of their relationships, which every women’s mag from Cosmo to the Ladies’ Home Journal reinforces every month.
The concept of an “emotional affair” assumes that all opposite-sex friendships need to be closely policed as a threat to one’s marriage. It’s a throwback to an era when partners were expected not to have opposite sex friends. I thought that idea died around 1970. Apparently not.
The concept is also deeply heteronormative. It constructs heterosexual attraction as irresistible while erasing even the possibility of same-sex desire. And yet, we all know that people can cheat with a same-sex partner. Given the evidence that women’s sexuality may be more flexible (or at least our culture permits it to be more fluid than men’s), this would imply that nominally heterosexual women should also vigilantly police their friendships with other women. While I was in Berlin, I went out for drinks with two girlfriends of mine who both have a history of sexual experiences with other women. Should my husband have been worried?
As Lynn Gazis-Sax points out, this paranoid view means “you’re pretty much screwed if you’re bisexual, or a woman working in a male field who needs mentors.” I’d add that any workplace is a potential minefield. It might be safer for women to just retreat to their kitchens!
The very definition of an emotional affair further presumes that caring is a zero-sum game. Here, too, the Redbook article calls on women to manage and budget their emotions:
And even if you never so much as touch him, this emotional attachment has just as much potential as a sexual fling to damage your marriage. “We only have so much emotional energy; the more of it we spend outside of our marriage, the less we have inside our marriage,” says [psychotherapist M. Gary] Neuman. “And after a while, we simply do not have enough emotions and love and caring and time for both.”
I’m skeptical of this idea that our capacity for caring is limited. I’m not arguing here for polyamory or open relationships (that’s a separate issue). I’m just saying that if you take the idea of emotional scarcity seriously, any close friendship – no matter how asexual – becomes a form of cheating. Logically, this would imply that heterosexual women shouldn’t share their deepest thoughts and feelings with their platonic female friends; they should hold their friends at a certain distance. And ditto for men, though they don’t tend to talk feelings as much as women.
But I don’t see how emotionally isolating married people from all other sources of support is going to strengthen their relationship. This looks to me more like a recipe for emotional starvation and marital instability. It’s blindingly obvious that no single relationship, no matter how satisfying, can give us everything we need. I’m glad that my husband has friends, both male and female, in whom he can confide, because I don’t imagine that I should be his whole world. I’d consider it a sign of trouble if either of us resented the other’s friendships. These “experts” don’t seem to realize that friends can help us meet those needs that our partners leave unmet, as well as allowing us to vent and gain perspective. Or maybe they’d prefer that we go straight to a therapist instead of first turning to our friends for support whenever our relationship hits a snag. (The cynic in me wonders if the reason psychologists discovered “emotional affairs” was to help drum up business.)
Certainly a flirtation can become a run-up to an actual affair. The “sexually charged” emails mentioned by one of Durocher’s interviewees cross that line in my book, if they were explicitly sexual and not just lightly flirtatious. But wouldn’t men and women alike be better served by ditching the term emotional affair? Wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on the real problem that every woman in the Redbook article shares – a moribund marriage – instead of stigmatizing behavior that’s primarily a symptom of her marital difficulties?
The flirtations Durocher describes do signal real trouble. They’re warnings that couples have drifted painfully far apart – that they’ve become mere roommates. And when a flirtation is a red flag for a troubled marriage, both participants in the flirting should take heed. How should they respond? Again, the article discusses only the wife’s side of the story:
[The experts] say it’s not imperative that you admit your affair to your husband — in fact, you may even hurt him needlessly by doing so—some women don’t feel like they can fully move on unless they come clean. After she cut things off with Bobby, Toni opted to tell her husband about the situation. “He was hurt that I’d been sharing personal thoughts with another man,” she says, “but he was mostly relieved that nothing physical had happened.” The couple is in the midst of trying to find a marital counselor, and Toni is hopeful she can rebuild her marriage.
First, if Toni hadn’t confessed, she might well have averted outright crisis. She’d held hands with Bobby one time over dinner, but she made a clean break when he wanted to go further, physically. Clearing her conscience came at the expense of breaking her husband’s trust in her. While the article notes that confessing may not be necessary, it doesn’t provide any examples of women who moved on without confessing. Its emotional impact comes from describing the emotional wreckage in the wake of confession or discovery. Indeed, because Durocher frames the article with her personal story of an “emotional affair,” the article’s entire structure encourages and celebrates confession as a route to redemption.
Secondly, notice that Toni is described as rebuilding her marriage on her own. While she unilaterally touched off a crisis with her confession, restoring trust will make demands on both partners. So will redressing the marriage’s underlying deficits. No way can she do all that alone.
Instead of clearing one’s conscience through confession, doesn’t it make more sense to skip straight to the article’s final recommendation – paying more attention to one’s partner and marriage? Trying to revitalize a dull or dying marriage is emotionally risky. But that seems to me a far more fruitful path to take (and a less hurtful one, to boot) than wallowing in a bad conscience about flirtatious emails or secret attractions. It would skip the guilt and stigma and address the real problem.
Then again, if Redbook couldn’t package and sell a guilty conscience, the whole notion of an emotional affair would dissolve into air. As would this article. As would the ad revenue that rolls in whenever magazines push women’s guilty-me buttons.