'Ask Amy' Tackles Flirts and Emotional Affairs

The Chicago Tribune's "Ask Amy" columnist, Amy Dickinson, outlines the path from a harmless flirt to an emotional affair.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And it's Thursday. Time to ask Amy. Every other week Amy Dickinson joins us. And this Thursday happens to be the day after Valentine's Day, so we're all cleaning up the chocolate boxes, the dried out flowers, and maybe a few broken hearts.

In the spirit of the post-holiday mood, we're talking about a dangerous side of love: the emotional affair. We're all connected all the time, which makes it easy to make friends, meet people, correspond. It also makes it a lot easier to stumble into a romantic entanglement that could threaten marriages and long-term relationships.

Amy Dickinson's "Ask Amy" column is syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. She joins us from our bureau in Chicago. Nice to have you on the program again, Amy.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Hey, Neal. You know, like a private detective, Valentine's Day, my busy season.

CONAN: You're working up until April 15. February 14 in your case.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes.

CONAN: Now listeners, if you've ever had an emotional affair or if you have questions about just what constitutes an emotional affair, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

And Amy, first of all, how do you define emotional affair?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, emotional affairs have three components mainly: secrecy, emotional intimacy and sexual chemistry. Now do you need to have the, do you need to be in the presence of the person you're interested in in order to have these three things? No. That's what's insidious about it.

You can have all three of these things with somebody you're corresponding with on the Internet. And this is why, you know, it's very, very confusing. I, you know, I get a lot of letters of people who say, like, my husband has been in touch with his girlfriend from high school, and I met her and I know I shouldn't be worried about it but he seems preoccupied. They're in touch a lot, they talk on their cell phones a lot, I've noticed a lot of e-mailing.

Yeah, these are all really, you know, pretty serious red flags.

CONAN: The other place you mentioned - obviously the Internet - but the other place you would suspect would be the office.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, the office, the office. Okay, me flirting with Kenny from systems. Kenny, I love the way you fix my computer. You're so good at that. That's one thing. Okay, flirting is fine. But if I say to Kenny, you know, Kenny, I feel like you get me, like you understand me in a way that my spouse doesn't. Like one aspect of these emotional involvements is you start to exclude your partner and you start to include the other person.

So if I say to Kenny, you really get me. You know, lately my husband has been - he's just too busy, he's not involved in the kids. Like it's so inappropriate to start to talk about the intimate details of your marriage with somebody else who is not a friend to your marriage. This is really important.

You have to, you know, your friends should be friends of your marriage, if that makes sense.

CONAN: If that makes sense. But, you know, if you have a friend, sometimes it's a very good thing to talk to a friend about your marriage.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. If that friend is also a friend to your relationship. Do you know what I'm saying? So that if I'm talking to Kenny, who doesn't know my spouse, and I'm drawing Kenny into this intimate world, I'm telling him things I'm not telling my spouse. It's a question of, you know - the greatest description I think of a true marriage between two best friends is that you, the couple builds a wall around them like a house. And they have a window that they look out together at the outside world.

When somebody becomes involved with somebody else emotionally, they let that other person in and then they start to build a wall around the other person, excluding the marriage partner. This is really devastating.

CONAN: And though it may or may not come to involve sex, it certainly can undermine a marriage or a long-term relationship.

Ms. DICKINSON: It can be ruinous. I mean one of the things we think we know is that men and women view infidelity differently. Men seem to feel - based on studies and surveys, men feel that infidelity involves sexual contact, where women feel that infidelity is more about emotions.

So, for instance, I'll hear from a man: Can't I have a woman - can't I have female friends? My wife is really jealous. Can't I have female friends? And the answer is yes. If you have a female friend who you invite to your home for dinner so that she can become a friend of your family's, that's fine. You actually cannot have a female friend that excludes your partner. That's when you get into trouble.

CONAN: And should the sign being that secrecy you're talking about first. If you're not telling your spouse, your significant other, whatever term you want to use, about this other relationship, that should be the red flag?

Ms. DICKINSON: Ding-dong. Also little thing like oh, I can't wait to e-mail Kenny from systems and tell him about that happened to me today. Like, do you find that you're looking forward to getting in touch with this other person who is not your partner? Do you look forward to sharing little things about your day, your experiences? Do you - this is really sort of obvious, but this is a huge red flag. Do you get out of bed to check your e-mail? Do you stay up late checking your e-mail? Do you get up really early in the morning to check your e-mail?

You know, the Internet has brought all of us in - you know, if I wanted to look up my high school boyfriend, I could find him in five minutes and start all sorts of nonsense. And one of the things that happens is, for instance, you know, people will go to high school reunions, and they will very innocently be in contact with people. And then before you know it, it's like these things can grow.

And with e-mail it can grow within a couple of days. I mean, anybody who has done Match.com knows how quickly you can feel like you're getting to know somebody by e-mail. It's very, very intimate.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on this conversation. Our guest is "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: talk@npr.org. And let's turn to Mike(ph). Mike's with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

MIKE: Well, I can fully relate on this subject. I was drawn in through the Internet, and it was so easy to let down my guard and allow myself to become emotionally involved with someone other than my wife. Fortunately, I was able to see this down the road, after marriage counseling, et cetera, and realize that, you know, marriage is a commitment. And the Internet really makes it easy to find excuses not to be committed.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes, and don't you feel like very quickly you can feel that somebody sort of gets you in a way that your partner doesn't?

MIKE: Oh, very much so. And I still - I can look back, and I still have this feeling that I've never had before, and I have to push it away. And I think it's the mystery. The mystery is what draws you in, and it's just dangerous.

CONAN: Well, isn't it also, Michael, flattering?

MIKE: It is, but that's - you can be anybody on the Internet, and so who knows what's being said is true?

Ms. DICKINSON: Can I ask you something? I'm just really curious. Like, how was this discovered and what happened next?

MIKE: Well, over several months - I ended up actually moving out. There was underlying problems with the marriage. This sort of just precipitated, but then we sought marriage counseling, and this individual on the Internet and myself tried very hard to distance ourselves, and over time we did. Don't speak with her or chat with her or send e-mails any longer.

Ms. DICKINSON: This is something that I talk about in my column, and it sounds so draconian in a way, but guess what? In order to sort of fix this, heal from this, you have to cut off all contact. And what people say is they say oh come on, we'll just switch to being friends. And it doesn't work. It does not work.

CONAN: What if this person is in the next cubicle? Excuse me, Mike.

Ms. DICKINSON: If the person - absolutely the same thing. You have to take absolutely very specific steps, and that means - I have told people that I felt they should switch offices. You have to remove yourself from proximity, and you know, I have recommended that people should maybe change jobs. You know, if they value their marriage and want it to work out, that's sometimes what people need to do.

CONAN: Michael, go ahead.

MIKE: I'm sorry. One other thing that I found was I was ashamed, because how could you develop emotions over the computer for somebody else? And I still have trouble with that. In talking with other people, they sort of look at you. Oh, come on, you've never met the person.

Ms. DICKINSON: Did you ever - you know, look at some of the correspondence between George Bernard Shaw and, who was the woman, the American woman he had this very, very long correspondent with. It's funny. I know it seems absurd, and I can understand why that would be embarrassing, but it's so easy, it's so familiar. I mean, writing to another person is a great way to - you can be the funny guy, you can be the sexy guy. Like, you can be the guy you want to be.

MIKE: Exactly.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much. Good luck.

MIKE: Thank you. All right.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Amy Dickinson, author of the "Ask Amy" column, syndicated by the Chicago Tribune. If you'd like to join the conversation, we're talking today about emotional affairs. 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Paul on the line. Paul's' with us from Dallas, Texas.

PAUL (Caller): Hi Amy, and also I just want to say thanks. I like the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

PAUL: My comment was I'm a prior military, and one thing that I see in this is I've been in for eight years and I've been deployed multiple times, two times to Afghanistan. And the issue is when you're there, we have females who serve as medics in forward positions out there in the field and there are certain times where you kind of get a connection, and you - I've realized that, you know, some of them I begin to care about.

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, of course.

PAUL: And because I've been there, I know that when I come home I have to kind of just push it away. But it's hard to forget that because there's a side that they understand of my life that my wife will never really get.

Ms. DICKINSON: You're absolutely right. And who, you know, I mean anybody who has shared that kind of incredibly intense and dramatic experience would, you know - who wouldn't understand how you must feel, especially in the field, especially a medic, somebody who is taking care of you.

And no, I mean, it's - and that's why the military - you know, there are studies that show that certain professions - I was so interested in this -professions where colleagues touch one another and professions which require that colleagues talk very closely to on another tend to be rife with more emotional involvement.

PAUL: My question - I'm sorry.

CONAN: Go ahead.

PAUL: My question is, and this goes out to me, and I'm asking it for other people in my unit. I've noticed that some marriages have failed simply because of that…

CONAN: Because of emotional involvement with somebody else, or because the wife doesn't necessarily understand the soldier's life in the battlefield?

PAUL: Because of the emotional involvement.

CONAN: Okay.

PAUL: I mean, you know, some kind of rendezvous between soldiers or what have you, and later on when you come home, you realize that you want to be honest with your wife. And of course, you know, that is the best thing to do, but then you've obviously admitted to some kind of infidelity and so therefore, you know, things kind of go (unintelligible) bad road. By my question…

CONAN: Go ahead.

PAUL: How do you - at what point should I - what point should you say enough? or at what point can you say I can't deal with you right now, so to speak, because I'm developing, you know, some sense of caring. Is there a way to tell someone?

Ms. DICKINSON: Someone you're growing emotionally attached to?

PAUL: Yes.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes, absolutely, and it's the way you just did it. You - people who are in marriages - I know this sounds like a cliché - but you need to think of your spouse as your best friend. And that relationship between you and your spouse, you should put that at the center, and the thing you need to say to the person you're feeling emotionally involved with is I feel that this is going too far. I feel I need to honor my marriage and return to it.

Because when you're emotionally involved with someone else, you're not fully involved with your wife. And you know, something about honesty. Honesty is great. You can't - unfortunately, you cannot do it halfway. You can't just come home and disclose something and then say, you know what? I've been over this. I'm not going there again.

You then have to commit to total transparency, and this is really hard. But spouses who have been betrayed sometimes - often actually have a need to - I need to see your cell phone every day. I need to see your e-mail every day. And this is so draconian, but this is what people need. And it's like you get put in the transparency doghouse for a while, and then you heal.

PAUL: Okay. And last.

CONAN: Paul?

PAUL: The last thing is…

CONAN: Very quickly, Paul, please.

PAUL: Yes, I'm sorry. The last thing is - I lost my train of thought there. That's okay. Sorry about that. Thanks so much.

CONAN: Thanks. I just wanted to get to this e-mail from Patrick. This sounds like complete nonsense. Is Amy trying to say that if a person is married or in a committed relationship they cannot have any person outside the relationship to confide in or to get another opinion from? I believe what she's selling is an unhealthy relationship.

A wall around a couple sounds like group-think to me. My wife and I are in a very committed relationship, but both she and I still talk, confide and get outside opinions on our marriage from separate friends. Just because we're married doesn't mean we share all the same friends.

Ms. DICKINSON: Okay, well, I'm not sure he heard what I was saying, but I appreciate that because that's a very common conception. What I'm talking about is you seek out friends to confide in who you know are friends to your relationship.

It doesn't mean you can only talk to people who know you and your wife really well or equally well, but it means that you should only confide in people - to people who believe in your relationship and don't undermine your relationship. That's what that means.

CONAN: So that, indeed, you can go to outside people - third parties, if you will - but people who are similarly committed to your relationship.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson, thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson, author of the "Ask Amy" column, syndicated by the Chicago Tribune, joins us every other week on TALK OF THE NATION to discuss issues just like this one. If you have a subject that you think you'd like to hear more about from Ask Amy and hear about from our listeners as well, send us an e-mail: talk@npr.org. Put "Ask Amy" in the subject line.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: