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Adultery, Adulterated

Is the latest rage over "emotional infidelity” a genuine concern for those in a committed relationship, or is it just the latest trumped-up, talk show filling, anxiety-provoking non-issue?

My husband works in an industry – medical publishing – that, for whatever reason, seems to be disproportionately populated by women. While I can’t quite pinpoint the uniquely feminine appeal of using one’s literature degree to write articles about corneal elasticity or optic nerve sheath decompression, the attraction is apparently strong. In fact, the ratio of women to men at my husband’s office is such that a male colleague once charmingly referred to the place as a “target rich environment”.

Because my husband is not the kind of idiot who would liken female colleagues to a collective sexual bulls-eye, I’m generally untroubled by concerns about his fidelity. He’s a decent and honest guy. However, I’ve been hearing more and more lately about a mutant strain of infidelity that can’t be detected in the form of mere sexual contact. This clever new way of cheating has managed to elude that tired old “sex” thing that once defined infidelity, and has morphed into a more sophisticated form of treachery. It’s called “emotional infidelity”, and apparently it’s the most adulterous fun you can have with your clothes on. I’ve seen this topic addressed everywhere from MSNBC, Cosmopolitan and Redbook, to such venerable publications as Psychology Today.

From what I’ve been able to glean, emotional infidelity involves forming an inappropriate emotional attachment to a person of the opposite sex (or whichever sex you find sexy) other than your significant other. Basically, it’s cheating, but minus the fun.

I haven’t quite decided yet whether I think emotional infidelity is a genuine, insidious threat to a happy relationship, or whether it’s simply this year’s gingivitis or body mass index – a newly manufactured worry to add to the growing heap. Either way, I’ve been unable to avoid the ubiquity of articles on this subject, all of which ask readers to search their souls for signs of emotional adultery in their own backyards.

I have to say that, based on some of the guidelines I have read, I am mired in an emotionally promiscuous marriage. And you know what? After weighing all of the information at my disposal, I’ve decided to let the emotional adultery slide.

OK, before you disgustedly assume I’m about to break into a stoic Tammy Wynette refrain about “standing by” my partner as I am repeatedly betrayed, I think it’s necessary to delve further into the parameters that constitute emotional infidelity. The definition is quite nebulous, lacking as it does those straightforward, old-fashioned guidelines of genital contact or bodily fluid exchange. It seems to be finely delineated along lines of attachment and closeness, and is considered to be distinct from “harmless flirting”.

One definition I’ve read says that emotional fidelity primarily involves “forming meaningful attachments with people other than your partner in ways that prevent your partner from having that deep emotional intimacy with you.” This definition seems to me to be startlingly broad and ambiguous, and could, theoretically, apply to almost any friendship with either gender. Not surprisingly, many of the articles I’ve read claim that the phenomenon of emotional infidelity has reached pandemic levels.

It seems to be a natural outgrowth of modern times that we would place ourselves in this kind of emotional jeopardy. Modern workplaces now put us in close confines for long hours with potentially attractive individuals who are not our significant other. Most people spend more and more time at the office, and when not physically in the office, they maintain ongoing Blackberry dialogue or walk around like unapologetic schizophrenics babbling into their Bluetooth devices. Work -- and its relationships – seems to have become a second home for many of us in this stage of labor evolution, one which might easily infringe on the first home.

This is a far cry from so-called simpler times, when middle class men headed out to blue-collar hardhat jobs, or to offices staffed with only a minimal female secretarial force (within which they still notoriously managed to have affairs, ala Mad Men). Middle class wives, meanwhile, stayed home and raised kids, blissfully (though perhaps erroneously) untroubled by concerns that their husbands were being seduced by some IBM Selectric-wielding minx.

Similarly, most jobs for women were sexually innocuous (for heterosexual women, that is), requiring female employees to deal primarily with other women, children, or people too sick to hit on them. The system almost seemed designed to keep married heterosexuals at a safe remove from temptation.

Certainly, great strides have been made since then in broadening these constricted, almost caricatured gender roles, and in forming an evolving and dynamic workplace for women. The downside, it seems, is that the modern monogamous relationship is anything but simple, and the idea of emotional “exclusivity” with one's romantic partner seems increasingly unrealistic, almost laughable.

Even for those who don’t spend excessive hours at work, there’s now the easy-access world of the Internet, where jokes and confidences and flattering photographs can be shared with ease. Over email and on social networking sites, people are emboldened to speak more freely, and share their feelings more openly. Sometimes, they never even have to meet the people with whom they share these feelings. This combination of relative anonymity and lightning-speed communication has no doubt led to some rampant emotional fooling around.

But how is it that we even came to identify this fancy new form of betrayal? Well, we’ve been thinking about ourselves. A lot. It seems to me that the obsessive drive toward self-analysis and introspection is now more popular than ever, with everyone and their dogs reflecting upon the condition of their lives, their relationships, and the precise levels of their self-esteem. But it also seems that this ponderous social zeitgeist is like an insatiable beast, constantly demanding new types of navel-gazing to get us through interminable workdays. Who are we? What is our relationship all about? Those online quizzes, asking questions like “Who Rules the Relationship?” and “What’s Your Kissing Personality?” have to give some meaning to our lives, right?

So naturally, someone had to come up with this new type of infidelity that may just destroy your precious, personal relationship that was otherwise not in danger. All of a sudden, you realize that you may have been cheating on your beloved partner for a decade, and are only now finding out what a complete philandering jerk you are. It’s interesting that even as the definition of marriage is being considered and possibly expanded beyond the confines of opposite-sex partners, the standards of fidelity may be growing more restrictive.

It no longer suffices to successfully avoid having sex with other people when one has spoken one's vows to another. Now, in what is arguably the most social and communicative era in history, we also must avoid forming too close of an emotional attachment to all but one person. I’m thinking this could be especially difficult for those in the bisexual community, who, under these new guidelines, are in danger of emotional infidelity with absolutely everyone.

So we’re faced with a challenge: how does one avoid emotional infidelity? For me, it’s really not all that difficult. I work from home, and since I generally do not have men infiltrating my home on a regular basis, I tend not to bond emotionally with men during my workday. However, I do make liberal use of the Internet, and I do share jokes, feelings, and opinions with friends of both genders. Does this mean I’ve been engaging in hot, emotional affairs left and right? If so, I feel gypped; it seems it should have been a lot more fun.

My husband, on the other hand, seems to most definitely be an unrepentant emotional whore. When reading some of the guidelines for avoiding emotional intimacy outside the marriage, I’ve determined that he violates every one. Below I will list some of the rules I read in a recent article on iVillageon emotional infidelity, and will explain how my husband violates each (sorry, Dave). Of course, I am paraphrasing some of these rules, since the limited boy/girl paradigm presented in the article might exclude the endless configurations of potential emotional entanglement that comprise the real world.

A scene from Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967)

Rule 1: Keep it All Business at the Office.

This rule instructs readers to avoid excessive non-work conversations with attractive coworkers. The rule explains that “being cordial means inquiring of a colleague how her sick mom is doing and how her daughter’s birthday party was. It doesn’t mean chatting for a half hour and laughing about their recent trip to Egypt”.

My husband and his work friends, both male and female, talk and laugh frequently about all sorts of things: who got too drunk at the company Christmas party, that weird new guy who spits tobacco at his desk, the business trip to Hong Kong where someone got sick on the flight. They email funny stuff to each other. They commiserate over office politics or stolen conference room pizza. If someone took a trip to Egypt, they’d probably laugh about it, provided it was funny.

I know this partly from my husband’s account, and partly because I’m also (not emotionally cheating) friends with some of his female friends. I suppose this adds a twisted new dimension to his adultery. What would that be called, a conversational ménage a trois?

Rule 2: Avoid Meetings with Attractive Co-workers Outside of the Office

My husband’s job description specifically calls for meetings with members of the opposite sex outside the office. He travels to international medical conventions on a regular basis. He not only meets with opposite-sex colleagues, his company overtly encourages business dinners with clients and co-workers. Basically, if my husband refused to meet with opposite sex co-workers in environments outside the office, he would be out of a job.

I know that at these stressful international meetings, common sentiments are shared, and yes, I suppose sometimes an emotional bond, or at least a feeling of fellowship, is formed. Sometimes that bond is between two heterosexual men, sometimes between a heterosexual man and woman. Sometimes it’s between a gay man and a straight man, sometimes it’s between a lesbian, a straight woman, and a bisexual man who secretly enjoys bondage. Who cares?

I guess I figure that if my husband is going to fly 18 hours on coach to discuss eyeball surgery in Kuala Lumpur, he may as well have somebody to kvetch with. I guess I’m a pushover.

Rule 3: Don’t Drink Around the Emotionally Appealing Colleague

OK, this is a rule that I break as well. The article says that “even a single glass of wine is enough to relax you and lead to a more personal conversation.” It saddens me that we’re now supposed to be on guard against “personal conversation” with anyone who happens to have the set of genitals with which ours prefer to mingle. This seems alarmist and unnecessarily dirty-minded, and it also is likely to preclude plenty of interesting conversations.

Is relating to another human being on more than a cursory, small-talk level really a betrayal of your significant other? In my opinion, as long as you don’t get sloppy drunk and wind up dancing on a table, or shamefacedly waking up in bed with your boss (or anyone else for that matter), you’re OK.

Rule 4: Don’t Share Your Personal Feelings

On the topic of feelings, the iVillage article draws a seemingly arbitrary conversational line in the sand: “If your colleague shares with you that he’s learning to scuba dive, you could ask him how it’s going, and if he’s enjoying it, without sharing that it’s been your personal dream to do the same for years.” Hmm. I suppose telling a non-partner that you’ve always wanted to scuba dive is just a hop, skip and a jump away from checking into a sleazy motel for the afternoon. This is a hazard that I was not aware of.

The article goes on to dispense advice on a healthier way to express your scuba feelings: “If you feel the need to share that feeling, tell your spouse that night instead about how you were talking to someone who’s begun lessons and that you’re frustrated that you haven’t found the time to do it.” After reading this passage, I begin to wonder if “scuba diving” isn’t some strange euphemism that I’m somehow failing to understand. I'm missing out on … something. At any rate, I feel certain that my husband and I both commit infractions of this kind every single day, although I don’t think I would scuba dive if you paid me.

So there it is: the damning evidence of my emotionally licentious marriage. I feel I should be very upset about it. In my defense, I did try to work myself into an appropriate frenzy over it, but it just didn’t happen. In spite of all this artificial brouhaha, I still feel that I’m about as close to my husband as … anyone, and vice versa.

And really, the idea of our lovers indulging only in the emotional aspect of an affair -- minus the sex -- is hilarious to me. If, in fact, my husband is at this moment engaged in the throes of an exhaustive, Oprah-esque emotion-sharing session, he’s pretty much meting out his own punishment. Emote away, my dear.

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