The love of your life hasn't actually slept with someone else. But they've been sexting up a storm. We find out how to cope.
I was just totally thunderstruck,” recalls Maeve*, 34, of the moment she discovered that Shane*, her boyfriend of five years was messaging another woman – and the content wasn’t exactly what you’d call innocent. “It was like someone had actually physically hit me in the chest, the shock was so massive.”
“I really didn’t think there was anything wrong between us,” she recalls. “We were your average boyfriend and girlfriend, happy – or so I’d thought. Oh, sure, we had our moments – but don’t all couples,” she points out. Like a lot of women, Maeve found out about Shane’s infidelity by accident. “I never really looked at his phone – I’d no reason to, because I trusted him,” she says wryly. “But he stupidly didn’t turn off notifications for a chat app he had and one evening when he was out of the room on a work call, his phone started beeping, I picked it up… and that’s when I saw all these really explicit messages coming in from the woman he’d clearly been flirting with. I lost the plot.”
Initially, Maeve feared the worst – that Shane was having a full-blown affair. But he denied that, saying they’d never slept together and that the texts and messages were all a bit of banter and harmless fun. “I think in some ways that was worse. He couldn’t seem to understand that just because he hadn’t put his penis inside her it was still cheating,” she says.
Emotional infidelity hurts so much because it’s a broken bond or a lost sense of trust between the couple.
CBT counsellor Martha Ryan points out that, “emotional infidelity hurts so much because it’s a broken bond or a lost sense of trust between the couple. It can be as bad or worse than the partner having a full blown sexual affair, depending on the values within the couple and the views they have about it.”
For Maeve, Shane’s emotional cheating felt like a total betrayal. “It wasn’t the sexy stuff so much as the fact he was telling her things about how he wasn’t happy, how he felt about his life. Stuff he was meant to be telling me,” Maeve laments.
“When a partner finds a deeper sense of connection and emotional understanding with a person outside of the relationship, there are a few factors that can make it threatening to the couple,” Martha says, adding, “the most important being, why is the emotional connection absent between them? Perhaps it was never there, or life got busy and it was less nurtured.”
When Maeve and Shane talked, and got into the reasons behind why he felt the need to do a Vernon Kay with another woman, she discovered that he had actually felt neglected. “But you know what,” she says, “that made me really cross. Like, we were both busy, both saving to buy a house, both progressing our careers and both juggling a lot of balls – I could have said the same thing to him, but I wasn’t off sending sexts to random guys…”
So does an emotional affair have to mean the end? Not necessarily. “There are a lot of factors that will have a relationship blossom or wilt after one of the couple has engaged in an emotional affair with someone else,” Martha points out. For Maeve and Shane, communication was the key they used to to mend their fences and – civil engineering cliché alert – build bridges for the future.
Before you approach the topic with your partner, get very clear on how you feel about it.
“Before you approach the topic with your partner, get very clear on how you feel about it,” Martha advises. “What bothers you the most? What meaning do you give that they have this connection with someone else instead of you? And finally ask yourself: what do you ideally want to happen now for your relationship, even though your partner has this connection with someone else.”
Once Maeve was able to make Shane understand how hurt she was, and what an abandonment of their bond his messaging had been, he woke up and saw how his behaviour had almost caused the breakdown of his relationship. “He was really contrite. It did take a little while to get through to him, but he was pretty shocked once it had sunk in,” she says. “I think he was clearly in a bit of denial about what he was doing.”
Now, the couple makes an effort to communicate a lot more with each other, making sure to prioritise time together and being vocal when something is upsetting them. Martha thinks this is key. “As long as you’re both on the same page about wanting your relationship to be the priority, that’s half the work done,” she says. All in all, Maeve thinks, that while she wishes it’d never happened, and sometimes she still finds it really hard to think about, they’re probably happier now. “Shane never used to talk to me, really. Not about his real feelings. Now he does, and that’s great.”
How a couple can come back from the hurt.
1 Let it go
“The main thing is to get to the wanted relationship you desire. Don’t keep bringing yourself or your partner back to the unwanted. In other words, don’t keep bringing it up,” cautions Martha.
2 Be patient
A tough one if you’re wronged, but Martha says, “Bear in mind, they may not view it as an infidelity. They have lost a deep connection. They will need time to hurt from loosing that bond so that they can heal and be invested fully once again with you.”
“Rebuilding your bond between will be key. That may mean more time for dates, connection, conversation or couples therapy. Remember you’ve both chosen to move on in the relationship so be mutually considerate,” she says.
This article first appeared in STELLAR’s October issue. The December issue is on shelves now!
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