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Cheating (emotionally) on your spouse

Is it wrong to turn to a friend to fulfill your emotional needs when your spouse doesn’t? Sexploration answers your most intimate queries.
Image: Emotional cheating
When something is missing in a marriage, relying on a friend for your emotional needs can be a slippery slope.Getty Images stock

Is it wrong to turn to a friend to fulfill your emotional needs when your spouse doesn’t? Any advice for a frustrated husband whose wife has a painful skin condition that rules out sex? Sexploration answers your most intimate queries. Got a question? E-mail us.

Q: I have been married for 30 years to the same woman. Over the last two years I have become friends with another woman I know cannot have and do not deserve to have. How can I get my mind and emotions under control? My friend and I have never had a sexual encounter.

Q: My husband and I have been married for almost eight years. I’m still madly in love with him, but for a long time it has seemed like he just tolerates me. I work hard so that he can be a stay-at-home dad, but he just sits around. [Still,] I don’t want our relationship to end. The twist: I have a very good friend from high school who recently admitted he’s loved me all this time — 16 years! We’ve developed an odd sort of relationship. He provides my emotional fulfillment while my husband fulfills me physically. My friend knows I love my husband and doesn’t want me to leave him, he just wants to help. It’s a perfect arrangement for him, too, after several failed marriages. Is “emotional cheating” appropriate?

A: Friendship’s a great thing, but it can get tricky. Last year’s Lust, Love and Loyalty survey showed that often when somebody stepped out, the paramour was a buddy.

You, questioner two, make your husband sound like a cross between Homer Simpson and a trusty vibrator. But a 2006 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology “indicated the possibility that, when a relationship is not able to fulfill needs or provide ample self-expansion for an individual, his or her susceptibility to infidelity increases.” Who can fulfill some missing need better than a good friend who also happens to have the complementary body parts especially if the friend has had “several failed marriages” in 16 years, “loves you,” but, like the government, “just wants to help.” (A quick and unscientific poll of people I happen to know indicates that zero percent of men and women over 25 believe that line. Madam, he doesn't "just want to help." He wants to sleep with you.)

Questioner number one knows he has a problem. Being a gentleman (or a realist) he’s trying to suck it up and get a grip on himself rather than blurting out that he’s in love with his friend. If he can’t, maybe he’ll have to break it off with the friend. Maybe he can develop new friendships, pursue other interests (golf, anyone?), and see less of the friend. Or maybe he can treasure the friendship for what it is, a vital, enriching part of life that he may not have had if he’d forced it to become something different.

As for whether "emotional cheating" is OK when no touching is going on,'s survey of more than 70,000 readers showed that men and women have a different take on that one. Most women (65 percent) said they would be more upset if their partner fell in love with someone else than if their partner had a sexual affair, but most men (53 percent) were more worried about stealthy sex than secret emotions.

Q: My wife and I are 51 years old. She has a condition called lichen sclerosis [A skin condition that can cause itching, pain and often affects the genital area.] Sex is totally out of the question due to its severity. Even intimate touching is off-limits and she has lost all desire. But I’m a healthy male with a very healthy sex-drive. I’m very frustrated and at my wits' end.

A: While lichen sclerosis, which is not contagious, mainly affects post-menopausal women, younger women, and men, can get it too. Severe genital forms of it can indeed create scarring that make intercourse or even sensual touching, painful. Though often called “rare,” a study published last month in Obstetrics and Gynecology showed that just over 7 percent of 2,800 patients coming to a gynecology practice had been diagnosed with it. It is usually treated with powerful topical cortisone, but in cases like your wife’s, surgery can sometimes be used to repair scarring. Ask a specialist if this might be an option for managing her disease.

Even if it’s not, there’s still hope. “The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability” by Dr. Miriam Kaufman, Cory Silverberg and Fran Odette, a book devoted to those living with chronic illnesses and physical disabilities, takes an expansive view of sexuality (a view we can all use, by the way) to show that sex can come in many satisfying forms and combinations. Conversations with your wife, perhaps with the help of a sex therapist, about how to explore those possibilities, might help you find new ways of fulfilling desire.