Spend some time on the pages of the collective sum of human misery that is the agony aunt blogosphere, and you’ll come across the idea of the “emotional affair”. Definitions vary somewhat, but the basic idea is of a love affair that does not become physical. Certainly, the definition of “physical” can vary – be it a hug, a kiss, a drunken fumble, or intercourse – but the idea is that the primary betrayal of the SO comes from the sharing of emotional intimacies with the affair partner.
Some people dismiss the whole notion of an emotional affair as absurd, and an example of unreasonable jealousy on the part of the SO. Those people are non-limerents. (I’d bet my house on it). Their view (the non-limerents, who are wrong) is that sharing intimacies is not a violation of monogamy, because friends can be emotionally intimate – indeed, they argue that this is a healthy and normal aspect of friendship, and the gender or sexual orientation of the friend is entirely immaterial to the situation.
In fairness, I am sure people who sincerely hold this view do exist. They pop up in the comments section of sites dealing with love all the time, to lament how all the girlfriends of their male friends dislike them, even though they have absolutely no designs on the man. They remain baffled by this pattern of partners who for some inexplicable reason don’t like their SOs spending hours discussing personal and intimate topics with another woman.
Before I became properly aware of the existence of non-limerents, I confess that I held a rather uncharitable view of these people. I am ashamed to admit that I thought they understood perfectly well why they raised the hackles of partners, and that they actually just enjoyed the attention of lots of their (sexually compatible) friends, and got a bit of a thrill from knowing that they had an emotional hold over someone else’s SO.
It probably doesn’t help that this is the pathetic clichéd excuse of someone who is actually having an affair, and the first argument presented when a sceptical SO finds the first flirty text on a borrowed phone. “We’re just friends.”
Now, thanks to the consciousness-raising of Dorothy Tennov’s work, I am more open to the idea that non-limerents could, genuinely, seek the sort of intimacy that limerents crave from their partners in friendships. It’s another one of those tragedies of misunderstandings between the two cultures: non-limerents can’t understand why their limerent partner is jealous of their friends, and limerents are distraught that their LO is starting an affair.
So, why is it that limerents react so badly to emotional sharing, and can we learn to reach a middle ground of mutual understanding?
Let’s approach this by considering what an emotional affair means to a typical limerent. As I’m assuming this is most of my audience, I’m going to work from the starting point of how to identify an emotional connection that crosses the line from friendship to affair. I guess the commonest difficult situation that a limerent will encounter is developing limerence for someone other than your SO. Is this automatically an emotional affair? What can you do about it? How should you act?
1) Your thoughts are your own
An important first principle is that no one should feel guilty about their feelings or their thoughts. I really don’t believe in thought-crime, and anyone who makes you feel guilty about your thoughts is almost certainly jealous and controlling, and unpromising material as a life partner.
As limerents, we are not able to turn off our feelings and stop being limerent at will. When developing limerence for a new LO while in a monogamous relationship, you should not feel guilty about the emergence of limerence. The only thing to feel guilty about, in my view, is your actions after it has set in. The emergence of limerence should lead to personal analysis: why am I vulnerable to this? Is anything happening in my life at the moment that might make me susceptible? Do I need to work more at my relationship or have I been trying to ignore its deterioration for too long? Or, quite possibly: have I succumbed to an LO who knows how to manipulate my limerent tendencies?
The key thing is not to try and kid yourself that you can handle the limerence, and that really this is just a kindred spirit who totally understands me, and that wasn’t really the glimmer that was just me feeling connected to a good friend. I should be allowed to luxuriate in their intoxicating company, no harm done. Denial of the problem is an evasion: willful ignorance that puts your relationship at risk.
2) Sometimes LOs are unavoidable
You may have to spend time with them. If so, boundaries are your ally. Set some clear ones: no chit chat about sex. No discussing your or their partner’s shortcomings. No discussions about love (or limerence). If your interactions are in a professional setting, this should be easy, as you shouldn’t be discussing that shit at work anyway. If your interactions are not at work, then why are you interacting with them? Ha! Gotcha!
OK, maybe you’re one of those people that has more than a handful of friends, and socialise and stuff. If so, the same principles apply. No quiet chats in the corner while everyone else is getting the drinks in. No lingering hugs or kisses. And don’t indulge them – many LOs can enjoy the attention and seek to cultivate your limerence through flirting and touching of their own. These people are not your friends. Boundaries are your friends.
3) You will probably know when you’ve crossed the line
Limerence is not associated with a subtle emotional landscape. I have known my closest friend since school, and love him sincerely. Never once, when discussing intimate topics, have I felt butterflies of anxiety and hope, nor crushing despair when he misheard, misunderstood, or plain mocked me for my disclosure. I can listen to his own problems without prejudice, or without wondering how best I can frame my answer to meet his approval. That’s the point of genuine friendships: there is no anxiety or emotional compromise, even when you disagree. In contrast, in the foothills of an emotional affair, your limerence will assert itself. And when it does, that means you are close to the tree line.
For the sake of clarity, here are some topics on the wrong side of the line: Declaring your love for LO (even as a joke). Explaining that you are deeply unhappy with your partner and would like to leave, if only you could find the right person. Gazing into their eyes, and complimenting them on their beauty. Kissing LO.
I would hope these were obvious, but with some people, you never know.
4) If you can’t stop it, be purposeful and show integrity
I’ve already offered the opinion that we can’t be authentic friends to our LOs. It follows that if you attempt it, you will almost certainly crystallise the limerent reaction and be completely hooked. At that point, your existing relationship is on very thin ice. If you are in full-on denial mode, then you are likely to start devaluing your SO, idealising your LO, and behaving in a way that destabilises your primary relationship. Assuming that you wish to live a purposeful life, and not pass through it like a ping-pong ball in a tumble drier bouncing from crisis to crisis, now is the time to start being honest with yourself and others. If your relationship with SO is dead to you, then tell them. You probably should disclose the limerence. You may not want to, but giving the truth to the person you committed to is the least you can do. They may hate you and leave you. Suck it up. That is the consequence of your decision – if you take it with integrity then you should be able to live with it. And they will at least know the reality of their lives.
After disclosing to your SO, and deciding whether you both want to continue with the relationship, you have to respect their requests. If they demand no-contact with LO, and that is unbearable to you, then that tells you quite clearly how you are prioritising your relationships. Otherwise, cut contact and focus your efforts on being a better partner, and clearly communicating your needs.
If the primary relationship ends, the LO may not want to be in a relationship with you. Tough. If you became so limerent for someone else because you were discontented with your relationship, then the primary relationship was not working for you. Seek a new one, with an LO that reciprocates.
The basic message here is that limerents understand emotional affairs, because they crave exclusivity and respond powerfully to interactions with LOs that stray from the simple friendship template. An affair is never a good option, never a purposeful choice in life. Limerents feel the sting of infidelity keenly, because they are emotionally all-in in their relationships.