When Does A Friendship Become An Affair?

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Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.

Today the Sugars take on two questions relating to affairs — emotional and physical. One writer is having an "emotional affair" with a married man who is trying to repair his relationship with his wife. The second comes from a woman who had an affair but wants to delay a divorce to keep health insurance.


Dear Sugars,

I have been pulled into an emotional affair with an older, married friend. He and I became close over the last two years. What I initially saw as friendship has grown into intimacy. He has a troubled marriage that's been on rocky ground for a long time, and it has survived his infidelity. My friend and his wife have children and are trying to make their marriage work. While my intentions are not sexual, I care very deeply for my friend, and I still crave the closeness and emotional intimacy of our relationship.

Is there a way to salvage this friendship in a healthy and respectful way? Or do I need to politely bow out before I create more trouble in an already turbulent life?

Signed,

Totally In Over My Head

Steve Almond: It's unclear to me why you are referring to this relationship as an "emotional affair" rather than a "friendship." My suspicion is that there isn't sexual alchemy necessarily, but there's something that feels secret and covert and occupies a kind of emotional, intimate space more appropriate for a partner.

You know a friendship is over when you're talking more about somebody than to them, and you know a marriage is really in trouble when your partner isn't the person with whom you have the deepest, most intimate conversations. You are in a relationship with this guy that occupies the emotional energy and attention that should be going toward him healing his relationship with his wife, which is what he says he wants to do. My hunch is that your hunch is that you need to step back from this friendship until he figures out whether his marriage is going to be healable or not.

Cheryl Strayed: I think you know the answer, TIOMH. You don't sign a letter "Totally In Over My Head" unless you're totally in over your head. You're in a relationship that doesn't feel right to you, and so, you need to bow out. We all crave closeness and emotional intimacy, and you can find that in a relationship that feels right. So you need to let this one go.


Dear Sugars,

I have an agonizingly American dilemma. After I had an ugly and protracted affair, my husband decided that our marriage wasn't tenable anymore. We've been together for eight years and married for two, but for the past four months, we've been living separately. Despite my many pleas to reconcile, I've finally begun to accept that my husband no longer views me as his life partner, for reasons that are extremely valid. He has drawn up very equitable divorce papers and has displayed a lot of patience about me wanting to take some time to sign them.

I'm currently employed at a prestigious publication as a freelancer; I've been working for them for more than a year, but I don't yet have employee benefits — most pressingly, health insurance. Though I've gotten some vague promises that I am "next in line" for a staff position, there's no indication of when a move in that direction might happen.

I'm currently reliant on my estranged husband's health insurance to control an intense anxiety disorder — and ironically enough, my distraught feelings about our split. While I'm not ready to give up on him, I understand that he no longer wishes to be married to me, and I want to set him free to pursue someone who can be more faithful to him and can appreciate him fully.

On the other hand, divorcing him will mean losing my health insurance, and I don't want to be saddled with crippling financial burdens in order to maintain my precarious mental health. Is it moral to delay the divorce process until I can secure employee benefits? Should I be looking for another job, even though the stability of a job I love is one of the few bright spots in my life right now? Help!

Yours truly,

Un-spoused and Uncovered

Cheryl: It is moral for you to delay your divorce to keep your health insurance benefits. But to me, that's not the question — it is, does your husband want to do this? It might be a good idea to get really specific about what amount of time would allow you to figure out this health insurance situation. You know, the sad thing about a divorce is that at the end of the day, it really is a business negotiation. These health insurance questions are really common, sadly, in this society where we don't all have access to health insurance. And so, I think it's a reasonable claim to ask him to delay the divorce.

Steve: I think the larger crisis that's underneath all this is that your life is in chaos right now. And it feels deeply disrupted by the end of the marriage, by your feelings of responsibility, by your desire to be back with this person, and not incidentally, by your life as a freelancer. So in asking him, you need to be sure you're not further casting yourself into the role of somebody who's living a provisional, disrupted life. Because it sounds like that anxiety disorder you speak of is exacerbated by this feeling that you don't really have a stable base at home or at work.

You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the whole episode to hear from writers dealing with separation from significant others and conflict over pets.

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