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The Affair You Don't Know You're Having

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While emotional affairs are not a totally new phenomenon — the late Shirley P. Glass, Ph.D., wrote about them in her groundbreaking 2003 book, NOT "Just Friends" — experts agree that they're on the rise. "Emotional affairs are happening more often because so many of us feel emotionally isolated," says relationship expert Steven Stosny, Ph.D., coauthor of How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It. Whether it's because of our demanding jobs and packed schedules or the hours we spend on the Internet instead of with our families, friends, and communities, we've become increasingly distanced both physically and emotionally from other people, including our spouses. And when we're not regularly sharing our lives and feelings with those close to us, we ultimately begin to feel that they've stopped caring. "This feeling of emotional detachment plants the seeds for an emotional affair," says Stosny, "because when you feel emotionally detached from your husband, you are faced with a choice — either to improve the bond you share with him or to look elsewhere to get your needs met." And working to improve your marriage is just that: work — work that's a lot less alluring than a little special attention from someone new.

That's where the affair partner comes in. Having another guy turn his focus onto you, even if only in friendship, can be dangerously seductive. I can attest to that firsthand: When I started my relationship with John, I wasn't even aware of the resentment I felt toward my husband over the long hours he spent away from me and our kids at his job. To complicate matters, I was grappling with my sense of self. I second-guessed my new roles as a wife and mother: Was I being the best parent I could be by only working part-time from home? Should I work more so I could help our family's finances? Or scrap the job thing altogether and more fully embrace this precious time with my children? What about my hobbies and interests? What was it again that I liked to do anyway?

Enter John: a guy who understood what I did for a living and made me laugh wholeheartedly. When I spoke with him, I felt smart and beautiful, sexy even, because he respected what I had to say and engaged me in intense and stimulating conversation. It wasn't that my husband wasn't able to do these things; he'd provided all that and more, especially during our early years together. But as time wore on, we were simply so mired in caring for our kids and making sure the bills were paid that our emotional connection waned. John didn't know me as a wife or mother, but simply as a woman. He was someone who reminded me of the person I used to be — and perhaps hoped to find again.

An emotional affair also offers the thrill of the forbidden without crossing any physical lines. "You know it's wrong, that it's taboo," says Stosny. "That's what makes it provocative and rousing." When Rebecca Smith,* a 39-year-old mother of two from Annapolis, MD, began regularly e-mailing with her friend Lyle, her youngest child had just started kindergarten and her husband was working longer hours. Exchanging e-mails with Lyle was a welcome diversion, not only because it filled her downtime but because their often silly, sometimes sexually charged notes were a far cry from her conversations with her husband. "My husband can be kind of negative, and Lyle has a more optimistic outlook on life. We often had these sparring conversations. It was intellectually stimulating for me," she says. "And the more we e-mailed, the more I found myself magnetized to him and fantasizing about what my life would be like if we were together."

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