Cheating isn't just sneaking out to a hotel room with the office hottie. A marriage can also suffer from...

Emotional Infidelity

February 24, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Are you a woman who shares secrets with a male friend? Are you the kind of man who reviews his weekend plans with a female co-worker? Or do you go out for drinks with a colleague of the opposite sex?

If you are married and answer yes to any of these questions, then therapist M. Gary Neuman has a word to describe your behavior: Unfaithful.

"We can't fool ourselves into believing that we can have intimate relationships at work and still have a great relationship at home," says Neuman. "My message is that if you want to infuse passion and have a buddy for the rest of your life, you have to keep that emotional content in your marriage. Otherwise, it's not going to happen."

Neuman, a Miami Beach psychologist, has raised hackles in the marriage counseling field with his recently published book, Emotional Infidelity, (Random House, $24) that decries male-female friendships outside marriage as a form of adultery.

The funny thing is that while Neuman's views may seem extreme, even his critics say his central premise -- that friendships between members of the opposite sex can harm marriages -- is probably valid.

"It's a concern," says Shirley Glass, an Owings Mills psychologist and longtime researcher into marital infidelity. "Many love affairs begin just that way."

Marital infidelity, the sexual kind, is hardly an uncommon phenomenon in contemporary America. Nor does it show any sign of abating. According to a 1998 survey by the University of Chicago, about 25 percent of married men and 17 percent of married women in this country admit to having been unfaithful.

Glass suspects those numbers are too low. Her own research suggests it is probably closer to 25 percent of women and 40 to 50 percent of men.

When is friendship an infidelity?

How many married men and women might admit to an emotional infidelity? Probably 55 to 65 percent, she says, and she thinks the numbers are growing.

Her own definition of emotional infidelity is somewhat more cautious than Newman's, however. Glass thinks a friendship between members of the opposite sex must have 3 traits to be an infidelity: emotional intimacy that is greater than in the marriage, sexual tension, and secrecy.

"Friendship becomes a problem when it becomes a replacement for a marriage or takes place outside a marriage," says Glass.

Hamit Aizen, 38, of Reisterstown says she used to think that other-gender friends were fine for married couples -- but after nine years of marriage she no longer feels that way. Instead, she puts a greater priority on preserving intimacy with her husband.

"I don't think I would ever cross the line, but I'm really cautious," says Aizen, a part-time teacher. "The longer you're married, you sometimes start looking for other things."

A Baltimore native and married father of five, Neuman, 37, believes society has generally underestimated how harmful these emotional infidelities can be. He has counseled too many couples not to have noticed that marriages suffer when men and women seek intimate relationships outside the home.

Even if the relationship doesn't escalate to sex, it can be debilitating to the marriage. "If you put the majority of your emotions in the hands of someone other than your spouse, you're still shortchanging your spouse," he says.

Consider, he says, the husband who gripes about work with a female co-worker and then comes home and doesn't really want to repeat his complaints all over again with his wife. The result? She is isolated from a significant part of his life.

Or what about the wife who flirts with other men? Will she feel better or worse about her marriage when she compares their reaction to her husband's behavior? He may seem much less fun and exciting.

Divided loyalties

In his book, Neuman points to the workplace as Ground Zero for the problem of emotional infidelity. Research shows it's where the majority of extramarital affairs get started -- perhaps as high as 73 percent, according to one study.

He sees opportunities for inappropriate behavior behind every lunch, every trip for drinks after work, and every business trip where men and women are thrust into prolonged social contact without their spouses.

Modern "team building" retreats where male and female co-workers climb walls or rappel down cliffs? Neuman would like to see them come to an immediate end.

"We have hard and fast decisions to make," he says. "What's the most meaningful thing in your life? We can't fool ourselves into thinking we can have these intimate relationships at work and still have a great relationship at home."

Neuman admits his views are unconventional. But in the three months since his book hit the stores, the volume of hate mail he's received has surprised him. Many of those letters are from women who angrily accuse him of condemning the presence of educated women in the work force and rekindling a kind of Victorian attitude toward them.

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