You can almost hear your own defense before you're even sure you need one. "We were just grabbing a drink to unwind from that meeting, and he was confiding in me – he doesn't have anyone else he can talk to," you imagine telling your husband. But why do you need to tell your husband, you ask yourself? You haven't done anything wrong ... so, why the nagging conscience?
That's the thing about so-called emotional affairs. They're really confusing and hard to pinpoint. But essentially, you know it when you feel it.
"It has sort of a grey zone feeling to it because it's not defined necessarily by an act," says Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst at New York Presbyterian Hospital and author of "Anatomy of a Secret Life: The Psychology of Living a Lie." Still, she says, "You know in your heart of hearts when you're in one." You know this because he's become the first person you ring to share your news, because you've started to hope he notices how you look and you don't tell your husband about the things you two do or discuss.
Then comes the tough part – knowing what to do and why you got here. Admitting that to yourself, let alone your partner, isn't easy when it may challenge your self-concept.
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That may explain a recent Huffington Post and YouGov survey that found that people are more charitable with themselves than their partners when it comes to labeling infidelity.
Among 1,000 American adults, 60 percent said they would consider their partner unfaithful for having a deep emotional connection with someone else; 18 percent said it was not cheating. When a separate set of 1,000 adults were asked whether it would be cheating if they were emotionally involved with someone beside their partner, 50 percent said yes and 29 percent said no. Women exhibited the widest swing in answers.
Although emotional affairs may seem more fuzzy than physical ones, they may not be that different.
"In general, affairs are not necessarily about sex but about secrets and the violation of trust," says clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, author of "After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust when a Partner Has Been Unfaithful." "If your partner were in the room, looking over your shoulder feeling very uncomfortable with what you're doing, you might consider you're having an affair," she says, emphasizing that "you always have to see things through the eyes of your partner ... you alone can't decide what's kosher, what's OK."
And for some, an emotional affair causes a greater wound than a sexual affair without feelings involved, according to Mira Kirshenbaum, author of "I Love You But I Don't Trust You: The Complete Guide to Restoring Trust in Your Relationship" and "When Good People Have Affairs." "While people occasionally have a sexual affair just because an opportunity arises, they usually have an emotional affair when something is missing in the primary relationship: things like warmth, appreciation, connection, affection," she writes in an e-mail. "But there may be a reason why these things are missing, and they may be able to be brought back."
Self-awareness is key to avoiding these entanglements to start with, but it's often in short supply, Saltz says. "Most people, they really aren't out there looking for this," she says, but life happens – "they have hit a rough patch with their partner, or they are kind of bored in their relationship, or they're personally feeling insecure about their appearance, their age, their attractiveness, their ability to be intimate with someone." In other words, they become vulnerable to an affair because of something they didn't realize was missing from their partner or their relationship.
At the same time, people need to adjust their views about marriage and committed relationships, Saltz says, referring to "unrealistic expectation that the person should not only meet all your needs, but you should be pretty universally happy in the relationship without a whole lot of work." Human beings and their relationships endure cycles. "Sometimes you'll feel bad. That's OK," she says and warns against drawing a false comparison between the excitement and fantasy of a new relationship and the mundane work that naturally accompanies a long-term relationship.
If you or your partner find yourself in this situation, therapists advise ending the affair (you wouldn't want to start a new relationship in deceit anyway, Saltz says) or trying couple's counseling. "Since this is a real crackup in your marriage, get yourselves in front of a really good marital therapist as soon as possible," Kirshenbaum writes. "And if the first therapist you see seems lame, look for another one. A good therapist can help you sort out whether this emotional affair is a cry for help with a good relationship or a sign that your marriage is beyond help. If you face your issues – many of which you may never have been able to talk about – you will be in the best position to see what's best for you to do. Lots of times when people address their marital problems, their marriage turns out better than ever."