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Understanding Each Other: Emotional Infidelity vs. Excessive Jealousy

Of all the columns I’ve written, this is the one I’ve had the most requests to send out, and to expand and revise. The following is a 60% longer version of a column I wrote three years ago. Though it will talk about marriage, it is also meant for those in long-term committed love relationships.

The opportunity to have a healthy friendship with the opposite sex comes often to married people—at work, at church, at family gatherings, in the neighborhood, at parties and on vacations with friends, and talking with other parents at children’s school and sporting events, just to name a few.

I am continually amazed at how many people fall into sexual infidelity and divorce from enjoying too much of what seemed to them at first like a perfectly normal opposite-sexed friendship (OSF). They are like the frog in the kettle of slowly warming water—they don’t jump out, because the temperature rises so slowly they don’t know they’re being cooked. Here are some meat thermometers for you.

Emotional infidelity does indeed damage a marriage, and every couple needs to agree on where to draw the line. As a suggestion, I have seen certain guidelines that will enable OSF’s to remain just friends, and that will at the same time enhance and preserve a marriage. When OSF’s get too close and personal, either the friendship or the marriage will get destroyed. The following guidelines aren’t widely observed, but they need to be.

1. Avoid discussing your or your Friend’s love-life or marriage, past or present, good or bad. That would set up strong desires to meet each other’s needs. Tell them they can assume your marriage is good, and that if it wasn’t, to protect your friendship, you wouldn’t tell them so.

2. Don’t discuss your “relationship”, or even your feelings for each other. Even in your own mind, don’t compare the feelings you have toward your Friend with feelings you have toward your Spouse. The two different kinds of relationships, settings and conversational topics naturally would bring out different emotions, regardless of the personalities.

3. Don’t touch or make glances at your Friend in any way you wouldn’t do in front of your Spouse.

4. Don’t go alone with your Friend into any place that has a bed.

5. Get a same-sexed Buddy who’s well married, and who knows and likes your Spouse. When you’re tempted to violate these guidelines, or if you have overstepped your bounds, promptly talk it over with this person, and do what your Buddy says to make your marriage healthy.

6. Avoid spontaneous getaways. Before being alone with your Friend even in public, especially over a meal or beverage, and especially at any time you aren’t working and your family is available, give your spouse prior knowledge of your intentions, including the time, place, and agenda, before you set it up. Give your spouse veto power, and the power to suggest modifications of your plan, such as your Spouse planning to join you. If this veto or revision privilege is in your opinion abused, you all need to have given in advance to your Buddy the power to mediate and propose compromises.

7. Don’t hassle, argue or go on and on about temptations. Thoughts and feelings should be confessed to Spouse only if Spouse agrees to it, and agrees not to bring it back up once the temptation has been discussed. Questions can be asked and answered if they are not angry, panicky, accusatory or repetitive. Why?

Because if Spouse is not able to gracefully handle the truth about your temptations, that is if they don’t take responsibility for getting over the feelings the confessions produce, if they can’t help pressuring you to say certain things, he or she is making it harder for you to be honest, and is undermining their own need to trust you. People cannot take full responsibility for their partner’s feelings without compromising their capacity to be honest. Honesty is a more important need.

8. Finally, about things covered and not covered above, establish in advance what your Spouse would want to know, when, and then confess faithfully as agreed. If this seems to you impossible or unwise, consult your Buddy, or a counselor. Then you can enjoy life within your revised boundaries.

The guidelines above for emotional infidelity are the same ones you should use for excessive jealousy. When a spouse insists on stricter guidelines than above, his or her jealousy has probably become overprotective and harmful to the relationship. As harmful as emotional infidelity is to a marriage, excessive jealousy (called irrational by many men and possessive by many women) can do just as much harm. Overly jealous spouses will be miserable until they get themselves some help.


Try This at Home!

Copy this column and make a list of what changes you’d suggest making in the guidelines I have given you here, to suit your marriage or relationship. Ask your partner to do the same. Then exchange lists, think about it silently for ten minutes, and combine them again into one set of guidelines you can both agree to abide by.

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.