Heavy Meddle: Help! My Boyfriend Is Having An Emotional Affair

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Dear Steve,

I’ve been dating my significant other for three years, which have been pretty great. But I have recently discovered he’s been emotionally cheating on me by confiding in his ex-girlfriend about personal and work-related frustrations.

The disturbing thing is I have already given him similar advice about the same issues. And despite the fact that I have wholeheartedly supported his musical endeavors since day one, he says he recognizes her as “the only real person he knows.”

Should I confront him about this? Should I suggest he seek out help from a therapist/professional counseling? Friends? I love him very much and have no desire to end our relationship but this is really hurtful.


Emotionally Wrecked

Dear EW,

The only real person he knows? For reals? What does that make you? A hologram with whom he occasionally copulates? Don’t mean to be cheeky here, but based solely on your brief description I’m having trouble feeling the love for your guy. My personal hunch here is that the “musical endeavors” is the key phrase. You’re in the Land of the Musician, where girlfriend abuse kind of comes with the territory.

But before I saddle up my twin steeds of presumption and indignation, let me mention something I read in a book recently. It was based, as I recall, on a study of marriages and the gist of it was that the chief predictor of infidelity was not (as I would have guessed) the frequency with which a couple has sex. Nor was it their age or socio-economic status or the number of children they have.

You’re in the Land of the Musician, where girlfriend abuse kind of comes with the territory.

No, the chief predictor of infidelity turns out to be the extent to which they confide in one another. More specifically, when your partner starts confiding in someone other than you, the risk of cheating skyrockets.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, or potentially bad news.

The upshot is that I do think you should talk to your guy about this. Not in an accusatory you-did-me-wrong or you-need-help sort of way. That approach feels good in the short-term, but it’s likely to push him away. The problem at this point feels mutual. He feels like he needs more support. You feel disregarded and betrayed.

Your central goal here should be to get this guy to level with you. Is there something in the way you guys communicate that makes him seek out his ex? How much of it is something he’s going through, that makes him reach for an old security blanket? How much of it is insecurity? How much of it is provocation? How much of it (if any) is him pulling away from you? Or needing you to support him in a different way?

I don’t know enough about you guys or your history to speculate on these matters. It’s clear you love him, and have invested three years building a relationship that’s “pretty great,” which is in the 99th percentile of romantic happiness, so far as I can tell. But you’re in pain now. So he needs to hear this.

Intimacy isn’t just about where your rude parts are going.

To me, the real question is how he responds. If he accuses you of spying on him, or trying to control him, or over-reacting — well then, that’s not a good sign. (Though the fact that you know about his “cheating,” and even what he allegedly tells this woman, strikes me as odd…)

My hope is that he’ll listen to your concerns in an honest and open-hearted way. In either case, it sounds to me like you may want to consider talking to somebody together. Couples therapy sounds big and scary and stigmatizing. But it’s really about trying to keep the lines of communication open. Because, as your letter intimates, intimacy isn’t just about where your rude parts are going. It’s about whom you open your heart to, and whether they open it back.

Onward, together,

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

This program aired on September 16, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.