Imagine this…..You are in a committed relationship. Drinking your favorite drink at the local coffeehouse, look up and see someone really attractive. You stare a little bit longer than usual. That person looks up, you make eye contact, the gaze lasts longer than a stare, you both smile a knowing smile to each other. You have sex eyes for each other. You never speak, you go on, leave the place and never see each other again.
You are single. You have a few drinks, are feeling a bit lonely and even more bored and your ex boyfriend from college crosses your mind. Wonder what he is up to? You go on Facebook and look him up. You find him. He hasn’t put his page to private and you see pictures. He looks pretty good. You feel daring and you send a friend request and accompanying message. Just a ‘Hey—long time no see! You coming to our reunion this fall?’. Friendly banter ensues. Weeks later communication is daily. You find out he is married. You sort of don’t care. Daily messages turn into nightly flirting. You both start revealing personal information about your lives, your thoughts, your unhappiness, your dreams. You live five states away and never see each other. You never even talk on the phone. It stays an on line relationship.
You love your work and are successful at it. You’ve been married 20 years and have two kids. You have a good life but you aren’t fulfilled. Something is missing. Something is missing in your day-to-day life and something is missing in your marriage. You are roommates. Almost business partners. You don’t hate each other but you aren’t connected beyond schedules and the expected social gatherings in your circle of friends. You have a co -worker. With spunk. Really funny. You find yourself making sure you make meetings were she is in attendance. You exchange funny emails. You think of her. A lot. You go out of your way to arrange a business conference at the same time and figure out which meetings she is attending and which hotel she is staying at. You plan a night out of fun with the group that you all came with together but you are most interested in having this as an excuse to be with her. You fantasize about her, you find yourself wanting to tell her things you tell no one else.
How do you decide in the above scenarios where they fall on YOUR continuum of appropriate to questionable to inappropriate to cheating?
Your boundaries. Your moral compass? Your experience? Your fears? Your heart?
The Answer: All of the above.
Everyone knows where their moral compass points and what their sexual values are. You do.
What feels right for you, may not be okay with me. You may have a whole slew of questions to ask about the scenarios that point to factors that would sway you to one side of the continuum but wouldn’t move the dial for someone else. All of that is okay. The variance between us confuses and confounds relationships but the ACTUAL variance in continuum placement is okay. It is normal, makes things interesting and helps our journey to ourselves grow richer
But it also makes everything a fuck ton harder.
So Where Does the Conversation Start?
You know. Like porn and art. You know your intent and motivation in behaviors. In a connection with someone else.
Knowing is key. Admitting is something different altogether.
Is it easy to admit? Ummmm, NO!!! Well, not always. When something is clear, it is easy to admit. When you dive into murky waters, it gets harder.
Is it easy to analyze? Again, sometimes not. But in most of the scenarios, if you were to quiet your mind, tune into your heart and let go of judgment, you know. And you know why. And you automatically know where your intent falls on the continuum.
Put yourself in a scenario that fits the details of your life. You know what you are thinking and feeling. You know why you are doing it. Or not.
It goes like this:
Have the bravery to ask yourself AND ANSWER the REAL questions. Don’t judge the answers, don’t sugar coat the response. BE REAL.
Why am I texting this person?
Because I am lonely and I know he will respond. Because he is funny and I like that little jolt when he writes a pithy response. Because my husband and I only text kid stuff and Sam writes things that makes me feel sexy and young and I don’t have to think about bills and car pools.
Why is THAT what I am texting?
Because it is risky. Because I know if I write something flirty or kind of sexy he will respond. And actually respond quickly. Because I want to feel wanted. By someone. Because it is safe and going nowhere.
What do I want out of this relationship?
I don’t think anything. Well maybe. I want him to be there when I want him to be. I don’t want to be pushed too far. I want my thing with him to not interfere with my real life.
What feelings do I have associated with it?
Excitement, sexiness, guilt, concern, attachment, connection, appreciation, care, sadness.
Within your answers, find the clues to your intent. If they aren’t obvious, dig deeper.
When we find resistance to something, it means there is something we can’t readily accept or can’t let go of. Find out which it is and what it is.
What’s next? Communication.
Communicate within yourself. Communicate with the person you are engaging in this blurriness with and if you are partnered, communicate with your partner. None of those conversations are easy. Comfortable. Without risk. Have them.
Your behavior is risky so you aren’t adverse to risk. You are adverse to consequences. That’s okay. Who isn’t? If you don’t want to blow up your life or experience pain and have severance in relationships (within yourself or others), then have the courage to start the conversations.
Caveat: I am not saying to go take your spouse aside and tell him/her tonight that you’ve been flirting on line with your high school friend for several months. I’m saying, look at your WHY. Know your WANT. Know your NEED. Then go from there.
If you need excitement, do you want it with your spouse or have you given up hope to get it from him/her? Bring up your needs, your ideas, your concerns. Safely. Lovingly. Check in with your intent, feelings and behaviors.
If you are questioning your relationship future and this blurred thing is becoming more of a real relationship, maybe it is time to seek couples therapy or maybe you should consider asking your spouse about his/her happiness in the relationship. Maybe your spouse is thinking of wanting out too. Check in with your intent, feelings and behaviors.
If you are okay with this blurriness, maybe you take the risk to ask what your partner thinks of flirting or a connection with someone outside of the partnership? Maybe it works for your relationship to give space for both of you to have those kinds of relationships. Don’t assume. Decide. Together. And as always….Check in with your intent, feelings and behaviors.
If you are single and in some blurriness with someone who isn’t, maybe it is time to broach the subject about what each of you want out of it, what you both are risking and where you ultimately see it going. Ask.
Listen. To yourself. To the other one involved. End it with…checking in with your intent, feelings and behaviors.
Finally: Align your behavior with those answers.
In some scenarios, that is easy. It is clear and focused and just a matter of doing it.
In other cases, you think you know until you try it and then you realize “Nope. Didn’t feel right. Stopping that.” Or “That works for me. Right now.”
Man, This is TOO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT
As I’ve gone through this process with clients, some feel the blurriness is okay and the benefit of the relationship is worth the risk. For others, they decide it doesn’t give enough to risk losing the family over. And some clients decide they can’t live with the guilt and risk and end it and grieve for a long time because the relationship really mattered but their value mattered more. There are many more variations of that too.
You may disagree with me but I don’t advocate for fidelity or infidelity. I advocate for purpose, authenticity with self and communication/consent. And I want to make sure intended and unintended consequences are thought out as much as possible. I am about helping others figure out their path towards their authentic self. Our journeys are messy. We make mistakes. Some of our journeys are clear and other times they make no sense. My job is to help ask questions, point out patterns and give support and tools that help each person make purposeful decisions based on self-knowledge. We look at why’s, needs, wants and sort through consequences –intended and unintended—throughout all of it.
Listen…attraction and connection to another person that you could potentially engage in a sexual relationship with is tricky. And it happens a lot. I hear about it a lot with my clients and people in my life. I see it. I’ve experienced it.
It is confusing and dumb and fun and pointless and a big fucking deal and a nothing sort of thing and could ruin your life and could improve some of your life. It is all of that and about 100 things more.
People are tortured by this topic. These kinds of experiences. Other people don’t think much about it and aren’t tempted or don’t feel much guilt. There is a wide range of reactions. What there isn’t, is a lot of people who haven’t been touched by this in some way.
Who Dives into These Gray Areas?
Would you believe me if I say most people? Okay, I actually don’t really know. There aren’t stats on this but I think the number is :A lot. Depends on age. Depends on environment. Depends on socioeconomic level. But I think it is high.
The people I’ve seen who engage in the blurred areas have a few things in common.
- A loss of some level of confidence. In themselves. In their future. In something.
- Trust has been blurred in their life in some way.
- External validation has power.
- They like human connection. Platonic, sexual, or just the feeling of being wanted.
This is not a list of bad people. Or characteristics that are bad. It also isn’t a recipe that will certainly result in cheating. Just things I’ve noticed make someone susceptible for engaging in a ‘thing’ that they, at some point, thought they would never cross into.
Four Blurry Relationships I See Most:
The Jolt, Plan B, Emotional Murky Waters, We Done Did it Now.
This is when you have a relationship that gives you a rush of adrenaline. A text that makes you smile, gives you a chubby, or a little zip in your step. It is fairly superficial and maybe inconsistent but present.
A client described: I get bored. My husband doesn’t flirt with me. And I wouldn’t want him to. That’s not who we are to each other anymore. I’m not really attracted to him much at this point but I’m not going to leave him. I love it when these guys write me texts. They are fun and flirty and don’t matter. Who they are to me would never threaten my husband and my future. It’s meaningless, fun banter that isn’t going anywhere.
The Plan B
The person you keep in your back pocket in case your main relationship doesn’t work out. You put enough work into the relationship to keep it going but not enough to risk the current relationship/situation. You know you are each other’s “go to if…..” (it doesn’t work out with so and so). You are important to each other but that connection has limits.
A client said once: I love my girlfriend but I don’t know if she is the one. We fight a lot. We have enough issues I’m not sure it will work out in the long term. So I keep Gennie in the wings. I write her, I see her every once in awhile and call her on my way home from work every once in awhile. I keep up with her life. I flirt with her, I let her know I care about her and would be with her if she wasn’t with her guy and I wasn’t with girlfriend. We often say it is about timing and not about connection. I would not want my girlfriend to know about her and I don’t think how I feel about Gennie has much impact on things with my girlfriend.
Emotional Murky Waters
This is the relationship that is more emotional than physical. It is more than friends but not a committed, exclusive relationship and there are people involved that are unaware you and this person are that connected. You share personal things-dreams, daily stuff, you have a distant but committed thing together. It is mostly secret, the rules are not defined but known.
A client’s experience: She was single and busy as a single mom and career woman. She didn’t have time to actually go on dates but she wanted a connection. She had two on line relationships that were deeply emotional. Both were with married men. She felt protected by them, felt loved by them, didn’t feel needy because when one of them couldn’t provide something the other one usually could. She didn’t feel badly about them being married and felt like her moral compass was on track because she wasn’t the one cheating, they were and that was on them. She felt no obligation to the other women. She felt wanted, cared for but the boundaries the distance and other marriages gave a protection from having to adjust her life with her children and work. There were times she longed for physical affection but she was okay for her emotional needs being fulfilled being enough for the time being.
We Done Did it Now
You’ve crossed the line. You’ve shared feelings for each other. You may have made it physical/sexual too. You probably have. It may be love, lust, a salve for pain and probably a combination of all three. But it isn’t enough to end outside relationships for. The ‘isn’t enough’ part could be for lots of reasons, not wanting to break up a family/kids are involved, logistically you live in different locations and it is complicated to leave past lives and move together, you see things that may work but have some questions, your current relationship isn’t fulfilling but it doesn’t feel horrible enough to end, your partner isn’t THAT bad you don’t want to hurt him/her but can’t keep faithful to him/her, and well, you really do love/like a lot the outside person.
One of my clients once summed it up like this: “I love my wife and want to keep our kids together and not put them through a divorce but that is where it ends. I love her for being the mother of my kids and for our history but we haven’t been in love or happy for a decade. I also love Karen. Our sex is incredible. She is adventurous and fun and makes me feel 15 years younger. Having her in my life makes it easier to stay with my wife. I don’t want to leave my wife for her but I can’t imagine not having her in my life. There is no reality that would work with her but God I would miss her if we ended. I am so connected with Natalie. She is smart and interesting and her career gets me so excited. She gets me. She makes me feel seen and understood and known. I love her brain and love her admiration of me. I love our talks that last for hours. I feel so stimulated by her. We’ve never kissed and rarely see each other but she fulfills something deep within me. I would consider leaving my wife for her but her life really wouldn’t work with mine. I wish we lived in a world where I could have all three and no one would feel hurt and I wouldn’t feel guilty.
Back To You:
What do you think of those different relationship types and my clients’ experiences and views of them?
What hit a nerve for you? Was too close for comfort? Made you angry? Made you sad? Made you think?
Don’t shy away from the hard part of this topic. Be curious. Be brave. Be excited to learn about you more through examining this topic. Remember the quest for learning more about your sexuality is all about learning about yourself—your essence. That is the good news. The wake up call is that journey isn’t always easy or clear or fun.
But it is worth it.
A few weeks ago I asked my FB personal and professional pages a questions: What is an emotional affair? In the MANY reactions, all four of the relationships were touched upon. There was a wide range of reactions but the overall theme: it hit a nerve. And there is no clear answer. Let’s embrace those differences and get down to the important part…..your needs, your wants, and your journey.
So in your quest to become YOUR own (s)expert, be brave and dive in.
Part 3 is coming next week: Inside look from three people: Someone cheated on, someone who cheated on partner, and someone who was the person who the partner cheated with. I get into the good, the bad and, the hmmmm and the oh wow with each person.
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X oh, Dr. Juliana