Are You Having an Emotional Affair? Is Your Partner Having an Emotional Affair??

Couples impacted by ADHD often must deal with the question of emotional affairs. This post will help you explore emotional affairs for couples impacted by ADHD, including providing hard data about the incidence of emotional affairs for adult couples impacted by ADHD.  The best way to start the conversation is to ‘hone in on it’ by looking at ‘definitely’ and ‘definitely not’ scenarios.

Yes - Definitely an Emotional Affair

You’re met someone whom you think is really great, and to whom you are attracted physically or emotionally, or both.  You feel you have a lot in common, and find yourself thinking about that person when you are not together, wondering what they might think about something that just happened, or wanting to share what just happened to you.  You might text them to share fun things, or create ways to run into each other.  You find yourself sharing your concerns and feelings about your current relationship because they provide you a sympathetic ear, or being the shoulder that person cries on about his or her relationship.  The engagement with this person replaces engagement you should be having with your own partner.

Yes – Also Definitely an Emotional Affair

You are feeling lonely in your own relationship or are suffering from a real struggle there.  You know that you should be working on fixing things, but you just don’t have the energy…and, besides, this other person is so much nicer to talk to…more appreciative, someone who really ‘gets’ you.  Your conversations with this other person highlight what you are missing in your own relationship and, rather than using that insight to go back and work it out with your primary partner, you start longing to be with that other person.  Your relationship with this affair partner makes your current relationship feel even worse and makes you lose interest in engaging with your partner, even though your friendship is not sexual.

No – Definitely Not an Emotional Affair

You are struggling in your primary relationship and you share this with someone you care about, who acts as a sounding board.  As you talk with this person you start to feel better or your thoughts coalesce around what you need to do.  You re-engage your primary partner with purpose, and may even share that you had talked with that other person and it was helpful for you as a way to clarify your thoughts.  You think of this person as a close friend, but feel no unusual attraction to him or her.

No – Also Definitely Not an Emotional Affair

You work with a lot of people, and often have to work late.  There are, of course, people whom you enjoy and sometimes have to work late with.  Your partner is concerned about this, but even if you notice that one of them has singled you out as someone special, you are careful to communicate boundaries to that person. You don’t meet with them one on one, for example, or you simply tell them that you are in a committed relationship and are careful not to cross personal lines as both you and your partner find the idea of doing so upsetting.  You redirect the conversation when it gets too personal, focusing on shared hobbies and work, instead. 

Emotional Affairs – The Bottom Line

With an emotional affair there is a ‘tug’ that you know, if you are honest with yourself, shouldn’t be there. There is a ‘lightness’ and eagerness to be with a person that you don’t feel with others who are just friends.  And a hallmark of emotional affairs is that they interfere in your current relationship – either right now, or having the potential to do so in the future.

How Common Are Emotional Affairs?

Emotional affairs are common, according to research with about 3,000 ADHD and non-ADHD adults in ADHD-impacted relationships done by Ari Tuckman.  Partners with ADHD have more of them than those without, which makes sense. It can be difficult for those with ADHD to put off something that feels good today for the purpose of a longer term goal (i.e. keeping your relationship intact.)  BUT, those without ADHD are also having a good number of emotional affairs in these often struggling relationships.  In the research, Tuckman defined an emotional affair as being involved with another in a way that would have made your partner uncomfortable.  Here are the numbers:

Percent of Group Having Had an Emotional Affair While in a Committed Relationship

Women with ADHD:  49%

Women without ADHD:  36%

Men with ADHD:  43%

Men without ADHD:  25%

Do I Need to Worry About My Partner?

I’m a big believer in giving one’s partner the benefit of the doubt.  After all, just because we fear something doesn’t mean it’s true.  That said, my experience has been that your gut instincts are often helpful in understanding whether or not a partner may be cheating either emotionally or physically.  In fact, your gut may indicate something isn’t right even before your brain is ready to acknowledge it.

The issue is that affairs of all sorts tend to happen when couples are distressed.  So you may not be in the best place to bring something like this up.  Do so, anyway.  But be careful to talk about your own feelings rather than to focus on blame.  You want your partner to understand and empathize with your concerns, not run and hide from accusations that may or may not be true.

What kinds of things might signal an affair?  Here are just a few – a sudden increase in texting, Facebook or Instagram posting; a sudden improvement in general mood coupled with a decrease in engagement with you; more nights out than has historically been the case, or a dramatic shift in a pattern that has been steady for many years.  (As an example, the first time I realized my husband was having a physical affair was when two shifts happened in the same night – for the first time in over 2 decades he declared he was too tired to drive home from work in CT, which he had previously done no matter the time, and when I called him back to ask him about that, his cell phone was turned off – again, something he NEVER did.  The alarm bells rang.)  Other signs are that your partner suddenly loses patience with you; stops being willing to listen to your feelings when s/he previously did so; or starts to bring you unexpected gifts for the first time and you wonder if they are out of guilt.

Talking about someone at the office doesn’t necessarily indicate an affair – in fact you want your partner to talk about his or her experiences at the office.  But talking about them in a way that is illogical or outside the norm of many years of conversations, should make you pay attention.

Finally, take the relationship context into account – if you are both really struggling, the chances of an affair increase.  If things are good between you and both seem genuinely happy, it’s not as likely…even if you do harbor concerns.

What to Do if You Suspect Your Partner is Having an Emotional Affair

Don’t panic.  And don’t attack.  These are likely to send your partner into defensive mode whether or not he or she is having an emotional affair.  Instead, explain that you are nervous, and why.  Be calm.  Stay focused on you and your feelings, rather than your partner’s actions.  See how your partner responds.  If s/he takes your concerns seriously, and offers to change up the interactions with the person in question to create specific boundaries, you likely have nothing to worry about.  It is also helpful if your partner is willing to have a continuing conversation about the topic and/or offers up suggestions that might help ease your concerns.  A few of these that I have seen work include getting a GPS tracking system on your phones so you know that your partner is really at the office when s/he says s/he is; unfriending the person in question on digital media; and letting you meet that person so you can judge for yourself the type of relationship they share. 

If your partner insists you are crazy, this assertion will not calm you.  You may wish to seek couples counseling so a third party can help the two of you negotiate the hurt and concerns you are feeling.  It is important to work this one out carefully but thoroughly.  Otherwise your fears and anxiety color all of the interactions you start to have.  Simultaneously, you may wish to explore self-calming exercises such as deep breathing so that when you do feel the anxiety creep in you can address it.  There is not much worse than that awful ‘bottom of your stomach falling out’ feeling when you are concerned about your partner’s loyalty.

Finally, if you think there is an emotional affair, or you find out that there really is one, look towards your relationship.  These things don’t happen in a vacuum.  Usually, they indicate deep dissatisfaction and a need for significant improvements.  Look to yourself to see how you might change your own patterns in your relationship, while asking your partner to engage with you around creating a happier life together.