Sex Addiction, Emotional Affair, or Both?

Addictions, Counseling & Coaching2 comments

Clients, spouses, and other therapists often ask us working in the sex addiction field, what is an “emotional” affair and can it be distinguished from that of a sexual one?  I would cautiously say there is a difference between the two.  First off, indiscriminate sexual activities in the form of prostitution, strip clubs, or anonymous sex are more clear-cut examples of it being more “sexual” in nature. 

 These forms of sexual behaviors tend to be more one-dimensional (addict to himself) and can be seen as veiled attempts for control, dominance, or a sense of significance or self-worth.  But I must acknowledge the threshold from sexual affair to an emotional one is hard to discern.  What about a guy who returns to the see the same stripper or prostitute, what then?  While I believe all of sexual addiction is emotional to some degree, the emotional affair that many spouses are concerned with pertains to perceptions or worries that his/her partner has developed romantic or emotional feelings or connection with the affair partner.

How do we tell the difference?  Some are obvious.  Wining and dining to build a relationship is emotional.  Buying gifts, writing cards, or leaving love letters or affectionate texts is emotional.  Using phrases like, “I love you”, “I miss you”, or anything else that can be construed as caring would be emotional.  Snuggling, cuddling, or holding someone to feel nurtured, loved, and validated is emotional.  Calling to talk to an affair partner is emotional.  Having a “friendship” with an affair partner is emotional (i.e. caring about his/her life, interests, work, etc.).  Speaking of which, if the affair is built on a friendship stemming from a pre-existing relationship (i.e. from work, the neighborhood, mutual friends, etc.), I would consider that also emotional.

Fantasy or pre-occupation on a person being your husband/wife is emotional.  But there is a caveat here.  I wouldn’t consider the fantasy as an emotional affair unless it was between both parties.  I still think it’s an issue if it’s one-sided but for me to use the term “emotional affair”, there has to be two consenting parties.  In a real life scenario I don’t believe you can say “Jack and Jill had an emotional affair” if it was only one-sided (i.e. Jill having fantasies with Jack or vice-versa).  Sometimes it may feel like an emotional affair when your spouse is thinking about another person but if it hasn’t been expressed and the other party is unaware of the romantic thoughts, then I believe it’s best to call it a fantasy.  I’m not minimizing the damage or hurt here but clarifying the definition so the focus can stay on the addict as opposed to the non-offending party (unknowing object of fantasy).

If all of this appears confusing, I agree.  But finding out whether it’s “sexual” or “emotional” in nature though shouldn’t be the goal of recovery, instead the focus should be to help a troubled individual learn to connect, bond, and build healthy romantic and emotional attachments with their significant other.

[cleeng_content id=”268548889″ price=”24.95″ description=”\”In Session\” with addicts in denial of their sexual addictions.”]When I see clients, many who are in emotional affairs fail to recognize it.  The denial is strong because to acknowledge it means to recognize the hurt of the spouse, which many addicts don’t want to deal with.  They also do not want to see their level of responsibility increase so denying it allows them to minimize the impact of their actions.

Clients may say have fantasies about being in relationships with women they know, buy them roses or dinners, write them birthday cards, share terms of endearments with each other (i.e. “I miss you” or “I love you”), compliment them, and have long-term relationships lasting years yet still hold vehemently to believing it’s not emotional.  This is where I challenge and disagree with them to help them see it from the wife’s prism.  Yet, an addict entrenched in his cognitive distortions may justify it by saying, “men and women are wired differently”.  This is such bull#*! as it’s another way of justifying the behaviors.

To help break the denial, I ask them to write clarification letters and empathy letters structured in a way where they must address their actions and be held accountable for the crazy-making they’ve done to their partners.  This helps along with having other addicts further in the recovery process challenge the addict still stuck in denial.[/cleeng_content]

*the identities used are an amalgamation of stories collected from both personal and professional sources to help preserve confidentiality.

  1. Sandi says:

    I recently found our my husband had multiple affairs over 13 years ago. There were 8 partners all of which were one night stands, except for two. One he had phone conversations with for over a year but only had sex with her twice. The other one he did not have sex with, but for a period of 4 months he met her for lunch, met her for coffee(made out with at the coffee shop) and also had phone conversations with her. These two are much harder for me to deal with. He says they meant no more to him than the one night stands, but I question that. Since its been so long ago there are many details he claim she to have forgotten; such as what the dynamics of the conversations were. It’s eating me up inside thinking that he cared about these woman. I can’t stop wondering what he said, what they said, if he said sweet things to them, told them he missed them, told them they were beautiful…. All these questions just eat away at me. I suspect he does remember things but just doesn’t want to hurt me or cause himself anymore shame. Any advice would be very much appreciated .

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