When Emotional Primacy Strays: The Many Shades of Infidelity

Couple growing apartSeveral years ago, I was eating an ice cream cone on the patio of a walking mall under a summer azure sky when I noticed a woman sitting alone at a table adjacent to mine. I recognized the cover of the book she was reading—Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity—and I recognized the pain on her face: betrayal, sadness, anger, and grief washed over her like waves onto a shore. I stopped mid-lick, walked over to the woman (breaking all rules of social decorum), and said, “If you’re reading that book, it can’t be good!” In the split second it took the stranger to look up from her book, I thought to myself, “You moron, what have you done? The woman is obviously in a world of pain, and now you’re calling attention to it? What kind of person walks into a stranger’s space? Especially with something so personal as betrayal and infidelity?”

My thoughts evaporated with the cutting, raw vulnerability of her reply, spoken in a calm and gentle tone: “No, it’s not good. It’s really, really bad.”

Infidelity takes many forms. It can be a hidden compulsive cycle with pornography. It can be live Internet sex with webcams. It can be sex with a prostitute or coworker. However, Glass (2003) warns her readers about a new type of infidelity, one that can affect “good people in good marriages,” people who “unwittingly form deep, passionate connections before realizing they’ve crossed the line from platonic friendship into romantic love” (p.1).

Glass’ new infidelity starts with emotional disconnection in the primary relationship and then seeking someone (usually in the workplace) who is available and responsive emotionally. The emotional reciprocity found outside the sputtering primary relationship can fuel romantic involvement not unlike how the wind spreads a prairie fire. This can lead to a sexual relationship.

Sexual affairs, though, are not necessarily the most damaging to committed relationships. Affairs involving sex can be devastating, excruciatingly hurtful, and for some couples deal-breakers, yet what seems to be the most critical part of collapsing and destroying a relationship is the primacy of the emotional connection that the injuring partner has with his or her object of surrogate attachment. Not all infidelity involves sex; another common form of infidelity gaining press is that of emotional infidelity or an affair of the heart (Furrow, Johnson, and Bradley, 2011).

The English word “infidelity” comes from the Latin infidelitas. It suggests a lack of constancy or disloyalty, especially in sexual relations. Disloyalty in a relationship can take many forms. It can be sexual, emotional, or even limited to a cyber or fantasy realm.

It is important to understand that even in much of American culture, infidelity is a spectrum and not a particular or singular act. For example, when a recent couple (who I will call Renee and Marcus) entered counseling with me, Renee met with me individually first because she wanted to discuss some of the issues that she had “just discovered.” Renee sat down and within the first sentence of her story burst into tears. My heart sank for her, and I was immediately engaged in her story. Renee’s world had been turned over with the discovery that her husband had been using porn on the Internet.

This was devastating for Renee: an act of disloyalty, and a failure of constancy in their marriage and sexual relationship. For Renee, even though it was videos and pictures on the Internet rather than a physical act with someone else, it was a betrayal that filled her heart with fear, anger, and pain. This also ignited negative self-image feelings. Underneath these wounds, shame lurked—the sense that she might not be enough, a voice that spoke lies to Renee about who she was and how lovable or desirable she is. This was confusing to Renee, a successful businesswoman in a male-dominated industry. For Renee, this type of infidelity was very close to the deal-breaker end of the spectrum; she felt the kick-in-the-gut sense of a life out of control.

For other couples in my practice—and this in no way invalidates Renee’s feelings and worldview­—pornography may be acceptable, used individually or together in sexual activity. This seeming disparity helps to illustrate the main point of this article: that the most critical part of collapsing and destroying a relationship is the primacy of the emotional connection that the injuring partner has with his or her object of surrogate attachment. Renee needed to know why Marcus was going elsewhere for sexual pleasure, and how long this had been going on; she was assessing Marcus’ emotional attachment to his surrogate form of soothing.

As it turned out, Renee and Marcus were able to work through the attachment injury in their marriage fairly quickly. Marcus’ use of pornography was a cycle that he was able to break once we found and addressed the underlying emotional issues he was struggling with. He had been using the porn to escape and numb feelings of inadequacy and fears of incompetency as a co-provider for his family. Though Marcus found porn an accessible, anonymous, and powerfully effective escape from his negative feelings about himself, he was willing to give it up and repair the broken trust by doing whatever was needed to provide his wife with safety around this issue. Marcus was then able to reestablish the primacy of his emotional connection with his wife: he was able to show her that she mattered the most, and he was able to reach for emotional support from Renee in an interdependent way.

Reflecting on my encounter with the woman on the walking mall that long-ago summer day, I was reckless in reaching out to her. Sometimes, though, we need a measure of recklessness to show that we are human and that we care. I am not a stranger to injuring my partner of 33 years by failing to police what becomes emotionally primary in my life. That does not mean I do not have many passions; I do! And my partner supports them (most of them!). Yet when addictive behavior, work, school, another relationship, pleasure, or play becomes my primary emotional attachment—when it usurps my most important, secure bond with my partner—I need to examine where I am most responsive and engaged emotionally.

Healthy couples can assess their primary attachment bonds together, they can voice what feels safe and unsafe, and they are willing to recognize both obvious and subliminal threats to their relationships (Johnson and Wittenborn, 2012).


  1. Furrow, J. L., Johnson, S. M., and Bradley, B. A. (Eds.). (2011). The emotionally focussed casebook: New directions in treating couples. New York: Routledge.
  2. Glass, Shirley P. (2003). Not “Just Friends”: Rebuilding trust and recovering your sanity after infidelity. New York: Free Press.
  3. Johnson, S. M., and Wittenborn, A. K. (2012). New research findings on emotionally focused therapy: Introduction to special section. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 38 (Suppl 1), 18-22. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.2012.00292.x

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Patrick Prag MA, NCC, LPC

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jeri

    February 25th, 2015 at 11:16 AM

    My husband and I experienced the same issues that Renee and Marcus did in your practice and I have to say that there were so many times that I felt exactly like she did. What could I say to people when they found out that we were separated? It’s not that easy to admit that your husband has been looking at online porn to fill some void that he felt like he had in his life. It is impossible not to think of this as being your own failure and your fault.
    Over the years we have been able to successfully work through this although I would never say that this journey that we have gone through together has in any way been easy. It is a relief to know that we have gotten through it but I do have to admit that there are still times that my mind goes back to what I see as that betrayal and I still have days that are hard.

  • EDgAR

    February 25th, 2015 at 2:12 PM

    I find that as with anything else we have to start by looking at the part that we may have contributed to this instead of first pointing the finger to blame another

  • Delaney

    February 25th, 2015 at 4:17 PM

    I am not sure that I could get over that- I would feel such a sense of betrayal… I don’t know, it almost seems like it would feel like he actually cheated even if he just thought about it but did not physically act on his impulses

  • Correy

    February 26th, 2015 at 5:07 AM

    Yeah there is something about that kind of emotional intimacy that is developed with someone over time that feels even harder to accept. You have to wonder why he or she wouldn’t come to you to talk, how someone that they barely know could make such an impact in their lives when you have known this person forever and still can’t get through to them.

  • Courtney

    February 26th, 2015 at 7:34 AM

    If one of the marital partners is actually seeking out someone else for intimacy then there is something wrong in the marriage.

    It doesn’t matter whose side this is coming from. When you are looking for that intimacy from someone other than your husband or your wife then there is a deep marital issue there. Whether you like it or not for the marriage to survive then this is something that has to be addressed and dealt with.

  • Kurt

    February 26th, 2015 at 12:21 PM

    It might be hard to do, but it is a good idea to do a little marital inventory every now and then to determine if both of you are doing everything that you can to satisfy and please your spouse. I think that a little evaluation like this is good every now and then because it is so easy for things to quickly get out of control, and if they get too far gone then there will be nothing that you can to ever recover what has been lost.

  • Patrick P.

    February 26th, 2015 at 1:52 PM

    I think your spot-on Correy. I think there is something in a long standing commitment (however the couple defines that) that makes the emotional and or physical betrayal cut deeper.

  • laura

    February 26th, 2015 at 6:25 PM

    Compelling article and discussion.

    We think it’s also important to understand why affairs happen: here’s Peggy Vaughan’s research: dearpeggy.com/affairs.html

    This understanding can be a core piece of healing.

    In our peer counseling work, we help men and women heal from the trauma of infidelity. And we know that professional therapy can always complement and enhance peer counseling.

    Laura S
    Exec Director
    Infidelity Counseling Network

  • Cason

    February 27th, 2015 at 4:07 AM

    I will be checking out dearpeggy.com
    It’s always the reasons behind this that compel me

  • martin

    February 27th, 2015 at 11:14 AM

    I am never too sure what these people who stray in this manner think that they are going to find that they are already missing in some way. I think that most of the time they are just looking for someone who will express the same feelings to them that they already have in a spouse but in a different manner. It is all so confusing, looking for something in someone else when you don’t even have that there in yourself is bound to be unsuccessful.

  • Bill

    February 28th, 2015 at 9:12 AM

    I think that there are times when this happens that it will catch everyone off guard.
    You don’t mean for it to happen because you know that you love your wife, but at the same time there is something about this other person that you have let into your life that really is very irresistible to you.
    I am not saying all of this as some kind of excuse for the behavior because we all know that this is the wrong thing to do, but there is some justification there that w have to be willing to understand and look at.

  • Sarah

    April 8th, 2015 at 10:26 PM

    The fact is that as humans, we are attracted to other people. The issue arises when you are committed to another person but choose to inquire or invest time in a relationship with the other person you are attracted to. Simply put, the problem is that people need to keep “it” in their pants, period! It’s okay to be attracted to other people, but you cross the line when you act on it (if you are in a committed relationship). There is no justification for it. End your current relationship and THEN pursue the other person if you are so enamored. Otherwise it is just the selfish cliche of having your cake and eating it too. It is about maturity, integrity, and having good character.
    Lol, if you can’t tell, I am in a 13 yr marriage with a man that has acted on his attractions more than once. I have zero sympathy for infidelity or betrayal.

  • Gigi

    August 19th, 2017 at 3:36 PM

    Omg I’m feeling sick. I have a friend I am very close to. This is making me feel as if I am just as bad as my husband. I am totally against infidelity. Having my friend has helped me brave the situation. The friendship is not a secret. It sounds like you shouldn’t confide.

  • patrick prag

    April 9th, 2015 at 9:18 AM

    Hi Sara,

    It seems to me that if your husband (or anyone else) cannot keep it in their pants in a committed monogomous relationship that this will break trust and cause deep wounding every time! No relationship can withstand repeted breaches of trust, and only some can withstand a few or even one major breach of trust. If you cannot trust your partner you cannot be vulnerable. Without vulnerability, intimacy is dead.

    If they want to repetedly eat cake from another bakery then perhaps the sign on the origional bakery should be flipped to read “Loyal Customers Only.”

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