Emotional infidelity

Cheating isn't just sneaking out to a hotel room with the office hottie.


By Peter Jensen
Sun staff

February 24, 2002

Are you a woman who shares secrets with a male friend? Are you the kind of
man who reviews his weekend plans with a female co-worker? Or do you go out
for drinks with a colleague of the opposite sex?

If you are married and answer yes to any of these questions, then therapist
M. Gary Neuman has a word to describe your behavior: Unfaithful.

"We can't fool ourselves into believing that we can have intimate
relationships at work and still have a great relationship at home," says
Neuman. "My message is that if you want to infuse passion and have a buddy
for the rest of your life, you have to keep that emotional content in your
marriage. Otherwise, it's not going to happen."

Neuman, a Miami Beach psychologist, has raised hackles in the marriage
counseling field with his recently published book, Emotional Infidelity,
(Random House, $24) that decries male-female friendships outside marriage as
a form of adultery.

The funny thing is that while Neuman's views may seem extreme, even his
critics say his central premise - that friendships between members of the
opposite sex can harm marriages - is probably valid.

"It's a concern," says Shirley Glass, an Owings Mills psychologist and
longtime researcher into marital infidelity. "Many love affairs begin just
that way."

Marital infidelity, the sexual kind, is hardly an uncommon phenomenon in
contemporary America. Nor does it show any sign of abating. According to a
1998 survey by the University of Chicago, about 25 percent of married men
and 17 percent of married women in this country admit to having been
unfaithful.

Glass suspects those numbers are too low. Her own research suggests it is
probably closer to 25 percent of women and 40 to 50 percent of men.

When is friendship an infidelity?

How many married men and women might admit to an emotional infidelity?
Probably 55 to 65 percent, she says, and she thinks the numbers are growing.

Her own definition of emotional infidelity is somewhat more cautious than
Newman's, however. Glass thinks a friendship between members of the opposite
sex must have 3 traits to be an infidelity: emotional intimacy that is
greater than in the marriage, sexual tension, and secrecy.

"Friendship becomes a problem when it becomes a replacement for a marriage
or takes place outside a marriage," says Glass.

Hamit Aizen, 38, of Reisterstown says she used to think that other-gender
friends were fine for married couples - but after nine years of marriage she
no longer feels that way. Instead, she puts a greater priority on preserving
intimacy with her husband.

"I don't think I would ever cross the line, but I'm really cautious," says
Aizen, a part-time teacher. "The longer you're married, you sometimes start
looking for other things."

A Baltimore native and married father of five, Neuman, 37, believes society
has generally underestimated how harmful these emotional infidelities can
be. He has counseled too many couples not to have noticed that marriages
suffer when men and women seek intimate relationships outside the home.

Even if the relationship doesn't escalate to sex, it can be debilitating to
the marriage. "If you put the majority of your emotions in the hands of
someone other than your spouse, you're still shortchanging your spouse," he
says.

Consider, he says, the husband who gripes about work with a female co-worker
and then comes home and doesn't really want to repeat his complaints all
over again with his wife. The result? She is isolated from a significant
part of his life.

Or what about the wife who flirts with other men? Will she feel better or
worse about her marriage when she compares their reaction to her husband's
behavior? He may seem much less fun and exciting.

Divided loyalties

In his book, Neuman points to the workplace as Ground Zero for the problem
of emotional infidelity. Research shows it's where the majority of
extramarital affairs get started -
perhaps as high as 73 percent, according to one study.

He sees opportunities for inappropriate behavior behind every lunch, every
trip for drinks after work, and every business trip where men and women are
thrust into
prolonged social contact without their spouses.

Modern "team building" retreats where male and female co-workers climb walls
or rappel down cliffs? Neuman would like to see them come to an immediate
end.

"We have hard and fast decisions to make," he says. "What's the most
meaningful thing in your life? We can't fool ourselves into thinking we can
have these intimate relationships at work and still have a great
relationship at home."

Neuman admits his views are unconventional. But in the three months since
his book hit the stores, the volume of hate mail he's received has surprised
him. Many of those letters are from women who angrily accuse him of
condemning the presence of educated women in the work force and rekindling a
kind of Victorian attitude toward them.

Even Glass thinks he overstates the harmfulness of a friendship. "It's fine
as long as it's not a replacement for marriage. You just have to ask: If you
say or do things you wouldn't want your spouse to see or hear then you need
to take a few steps back," she says.

Nevertheless, Neuman insists he has not overstated the destructiveness - if
only because marriages can be such fragile things that get neglected and too
easily reduced to "kids and bills."

"I'm not the crazy one here," says Neuman, who stirred far less controversy
with his past writings (mostly about how to protect children from the
harmfulness of divorce). "We need new standards."

He points to the Internet as an example of how men and women can have
emotional entanglements without physical contact. He has heard stories of
people who have spent hours on the Web sharing secrets with people they'll
probably never meet - and in the process denying their spouse the same
intimacies.

Marlene Maheu, author of Infidelity on the Internet (Source Books, 2001),
agrees that such relationships can be a "serious disruption" to a marriage.
In an increasingly wired world, e-mail can be a 24/7 presence, its content
witty and provocative, placing no demands on the reader other than to be
read. What spouse can compete with that?

"If you're telling someone your secrets and confiding in them and telling
them what's going on in your real relationship, the other person is in a
position to tell you whatever you want to hear," says Maheu, a San Diego
psychologist.

Susan Townsend, a Towson psychologist, says it is usually the emotional
intimacy that develops in affairs that devastates marriages, not the fact
that one partner has had sex with another. Whether that develops over the
Internet or from direct contact doesn't seem to matter.

"People can end up feeling isolated and lonely in their marriage," says
Townsend, who teaches a course called PAIRS (Practical Application of
Intimate Relationship Skills) to couples who want to improve their
relationship.

Neuman's solution is to curb friendships with the opposite sex. He admits
that not all such relationships are doomed to turn into affairs or even
weaken marriages, but he believes all marriages would be stronger without
them.

"Some people can handle it, yes. For those people who have a good friend and
a good marriage, I can't disagree," he says. "I just say, why not take the
challenge, stop the outside relationship and see if your marriage gets
better?"

That would be fine for Barry Glazer, a 57-year-old lawyer living in Federal
Hill, a student in Townsend's class, who says he's never believed married
men and women should have close friendships outside marriage. Mother Nature,
he says, just doesn't work that way.

"It's way too complicated. I worry it would be open to something more," says
Glazer, who is in a long-term relationship. "Maybe that's not fair, but when
you try to make nature fair, you're banging your head against the wall."

Still, Townsend and other therapists say such friendships are possible when
both parties understand their boundaries. One of the first steps toward
"affair-proofing" your marriage is simply to make sure a couple spends some
time on a weekly basis having a meaningful conversation.

"The more a couple knows each other, the better off they are," she says. "If
you strengthen the bond between the couple, there is not so much temptation
to look elsewhere."

Glass suggests that friendships become a problem when there's some
attraction involved. If you sense that chemistry, she says, that's when it's
time to put the walls up - maybe avoid some social situations that "create
more of a male-female situation."

"A reasonable safeguard is not to put women in burqas and have no contact,"
she says. "Maybe it's to take that person home to dinner with your spouse or
take a few steps back."

Even safer, says Kim Michel, a 39-year-old Timonium resident, is to avoid
friendships with people of the opposite sex. Last fall she enrolled in the
PAIRS course after the breakup of her marriage. The experience has
reinforced her view that marriages can be fragile things and deserve
respect.

"Eventually, there comes a point where the line will be crossed in my
opinion," she says. "I just don't see how there can be a great friendship.
You need to make your husband or your wife your best friend."

10 Rules for Avoiding Emotional Infidelity

1. Keep it all business in the office.

2. Avoid meetings with members of the opposite sex outside the workplace.

3. Meet in groups.

4. Find polite ways of ending personal conversations.

5. Take particular care not to have regular (perhaps daily or even weekly)
conversations about your life outside work.

6. Don't share your personal feelings.

7. Be unflinchingly honest with yourself.

8. Avoid cordial kisses and hugs, or dancing with members of the opposite
sex.

9. Don't drink around the opposite sex.

10. Show your commitment to your spouse daily.

- Emotional Infidelity/How to Avoid It and 10 Other Secrets to a Great
Marriage (Random House $24)

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun


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