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updated 4/16/2007 6:16:14 AM ET 2007-04-16T10:16:14

All of us know that adultery — sex outside the marriage — is one of the gravest blows to a relationship as well as a painful rejection for one partner. But you don’t have to have sex with anyone else to be unfaithful. Emotional infidelity is just as — and at times even more —destructive to relationships. Couples I counsel are absolutely outraged when I tell them that they could well be committing emotional infidelity when they flirt with co-workers, send around funny e-mails to colleagues, or hang out with members of the opposite sex at gatherings. But they are, and so, probably, are you.

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You’re not going to want to hear this, but stopping this kind of behavior is the single most important thing you can do for your relationship. It’s not about where it may lead. It’s about where it has already gone — far from your focus on your relationship. Remember what it is you’ve always wanted from your committed relationship, and start considering the large, determined commitment that is absolutely necessary to creating a happy coupling.

What’s the harm in a man having a casual friendship with a woman when either has a partner? Or a married woman having a casual friendship with another man? Surely, every friendship doesn’t lead to an affair. Yet we forget the emotional harm of relating to someone outside the relationship when that same energy can be used to relate to our own spouse. A committed relationship is about relating to another person with an intimacy felt with no one else.

How do you know if you're being unfaithful?
Consider your personal relationships:

  1. When you hear a funny joke or good piece of gossip, do you first tell other colleagues? By the time you get home, have you chewed it all over so much at the office that you don’t feel like telling it again to your partner?
  2. Do you discuss all of your work problems (or issues involving volunteer work or other important things you are involved in) so thoroughly with colleagues that you’re all talked out by the time you return home? Do you feel like it would take too long to review and explain the entire issue from scratch to your partner?
  3. Do you go out alone to lunch or after work for drinks with members of the opposite sex?
  4. Do you enjoy harmless (by your definition) flirtation at a cocktail party?
  5. Do you believe that getting emotionally excited by flirting with someone else is helpful to your relationship? Do you think it helps educate you as to what you need more of from your partner? Do you tell yourself that the juice you get from flirting with others brings more vitality to your relationship?
  6. Do you spend as long buying the “right gift” for a colleague as you do for your own partner?
  7. Do you ride in a car sharing with someone else pleasant, personal conversations on the way to meetings or other work-related events?
  8. Do you share intimate issues about yourself or relationship with a member of the opposite sex?

If you’re doing any of these things, you’re being emotionally unfaithful to your partner. You have only so much energy. If you’re spending it with co-workers or outside the home and then getting home and feeling too tired to spend anymore on your partner, that’s emotional infidelity. You’re effectively relocating vital relationship energy into the hands of others. Forget about where it might end up. Even if you never touch this other person, you have still used that person to relate to, and in doing so, you relate away from your partner.

You may be shaking your head and disagreeing. But I’ve spent years helping couples pool their energies toward each other, and it has changed their relationship immediately. Stop all of these outside relationships and bring all your emotional and sexual energy home to your partner, and you, too, will change your relationship immediately.

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