Dear Patti,

My husband and I have what all our friends say is the perfect marriage, perfect family and perfect life. Tracy and I got married right after college, and even our respective in-laws all get along great with each other. Our kids (four of them) are teenagers now and we’re already looking ahead to when it will just be the two of us again.

The problem is that I’m finding myself more and more attracted to one of my colleagues, Greg, who is divorced. We’ve worked together on and off for six years now, take occasional trips out of town for conferences, have lunches and dinners, and he has even been to our home many times for parties. In other words, he knows Tracy and knows how happily married we are. At the same time, Greg and I spend so much time together at work and speak the same company lingo that I find myself hungering for our conversations and interactions, more so I have to admit, than coming home and telling Tracy about my day. Greg and I also email each other regularly afterhours and I’ve become more emotionally open with him about things that are bothering me.

Tracy and I have been planning a big vacation to celebrate our anniversary. If I’m honest, though, I worry I’ll be thinking about Greg the whole time I’m gone. I’d never, ever leave Tracy or our kids, but I’m scared my “secret” interactions have made me less than honest with my husband.

  — Anna

Dear Anna,

It’s not uncommon when men and women spend many hours a week with each other to develop deep friendships. As you say, you speak the same “company lingo” and rely on each other to bring out your personal best. Unfortunately, that level of closeness can also bring out the worst in otherwise honorable people by fostering an environment in which an emotional bond segues to an emotional affair. This, in turn, contributes to emotional distance and dissonance with respective spouses. Not only do unrealistic comparisons start being made but the daydreaming about someone who isn’t there during off hours erodes the quality of time spent with those who actually are there; specifically, family members.

According to many mental health professionals, emotional affairs have come to be a big threat facing today’s marriages. They typically start out as platonic friendships that develop almost imperceptibly over time until they potentially surpass in importance and intimacy the relationship with one’s mate. Even in the absence of sex, the feelings of connectedness can be deeply passionate. In fact, the lack of physical consummation can sometimes be a justification for allowing the relationship to occur, mature and become as damaging as a sexual affair.

Many people who have emotional affairs actually involve those who consider themselves to be in happy marriages. In your own case, I’m sure you never intended your friendship with Greg to become inappropriate or to escalate as a result of proximity and opportunity. The difference between a harmless co-worker friendship and an emotional affair can be subtle, however, and, thus, hard to detect when it starts to pose a threat to an existing allegiance.

I’d like you to ask yourself a few things. When something happens during the day—whether positive or negative—is the first person you want to tell Tracy or Greg? Are you and the latter exchanging gifts or sharing secrets that exclude Tracy? Are you purposely creating more excuses to spend time together? Depending on your answers, you’re right to be concerned.

Although setting appropriate workplace boundaries will be a challenge, it’s critical you do so. Maybe you neither established boundaries before nor worried about the psychological fall-out of an emotional affair because you loved Tracy and thought your marriage was solid. If you want to transform that marriage into an even stronger and happier one, though, you have a difficult choice to make. To prevent your relationship with Greg from going any further, it’s best not to travel with him or make a habit of taking private lunches or dinners. It may actually be a very long time before you stop missing the emotional intimacy you have shared but, for the sake of your marriage, it’s essential to focus on Tracy and the family you have created together. 


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.