Recently, someone asked me if I have ever cheated on anyone, and I felt a familiar storm of guilt begin to brew in the pit of my stomach. “Once,” I said. “Not physically.”
Not physically? What does that mean? It means that I had an long emotional affair.
I met Jack at a college party 6 months before I started dating my boyfriend, Nick. We drunkenly hooked up in a lofted dorm bed, exchanged numbers and went our separate ways. I wrote it off as a one-night stand, so you can imagine my surprise when months later, and fresh into my new relationship, Jack began texting me. It started out friendly. Jack had a girlfriend, too. We discussed our plans for summer, our classes, music and movies.
While I know it would make a more dramatic story to say that Jack and I had crazy, skin-clawing sex in a bathroom at a party while Nick lingered by the keg wondering where I had gone off to, this never happened.
My relationship with Jack was was strictly emotional, and our sole ways of connecting were through text message, and something we called “elbow rubbing.” More on that later.
Throughout the first few months, Jack and I would text daily. Soon, our discussions grew heavier. We had a lot in common. We both struggled with bipolar disorder and had major self esteem issues. And we both (surprise!) craved attention we weren't getting from our primary relationships.
It can be hard to decipher what counts as emotional cheating, because it isn't physical. There are a lot of hazy gray areas. Slowly, I began to look forward to texts from Jack. They excited me, and made me happy. On a down day, when my depression was raging, I knew I could count on Jack to pick me up. But I wrote off those feelings as excitement over a connection; Jack understood me in a way Nick didn't. I told him things about my family and childhood that I hadn't told anyone before. He became a serious support system for me.
Ah yes, and the elbow rubbing.The first year of our textual relationship, Jack and I never met face to face. If I saw him out, we would smile and wave casually. Nick knew Jack; they had a few mutual friends and lived in the same off campus apartment building. This, of course, makes the entire situation more shameful. We both seemed to understand, although it was never spoken, what our connection was and where it would remain -- outside of the “real” world.
So what made it an affair? A text reading “Hope you have a great day” could certainly be written off as friendly. “Things are rough. I wish I could hold you right now”...definitely not friendly. By the second year of our connection, we were sending raunchy messages back and forth. They started out as flirtatious: “You look pretty in your dress today.” Soon they blossomed into full-on sext sessions. These conversations were exhilarating, and they also made me feel extremely guilty. And this guilt was a turn-on.
By the third year of our affair, we started something we called elbow rubbing. We would make plans to go to the same party or bar with our separate group of friends. Once there, we would stand next to each other, elbow to elbow. We usually never spoke. Just being in each other's presence was exciting, and weirdly comforting.
As the months went on, we got a bit more daring. Entering a party we had planned to meet at, and a little drunk, I saw Jack ahead of me as I weaved through the crowd. When I got closer to him, I pressed tight against him, hooking my chin over his neck, my mouth near his ear. He slid a hand along the small of my back. From an outside perspective, it looked as if I drunkenly stumbled into him and he was helping me regain my balance. The weird half-embrace lasted less than 10 seconds. I continued on through the crowd. Nick was walking several steps behind me the entire time.
Nick and I broke up eventually, and it might seem as if that would clear a path for Jack and I to be together. But Jack and I never wanted to be together. Both dramatic and emotionally unstable, any actual relationship Jack and I would have constructed would have failed terribly, and we both knew it.
I know now that my relationship with Jack was a byproduct of what was lacking in my relationship with Nick -- communication and a real connection. Both of those were missing from Jack's relationship with his girlfriend, too. ( Although I never met her, I think of her often and feel guilty about that, too.)
Jack and I are both in different relationships now, and nearly a decade after first meeting, we still text occasionally. But because we are getting what we need from our primaries, there are no more late-night sexually charged exchanges, no more fishing for compliments or grappling for emotional support.
I often think about the way technology has changed dating and human interaction. If texting didn't exist, if this scenario played out in the mid-nineties, would Jack have solely been a one-night stand I had my freshman year of college? Probably. And in that case, how “real” was our connection?
In our entire four-year affair, we spent only one evening together alone. I had had a hard week; my mother had been diagnosed with stage three cancer, and I felt isolated. I invited Jack over. Not wanting my boyfriend around in a time of emotional need clearly said something about our relationship.
Jack came over, and we got high and spoke little. We sat side by side on the floor, and at one point, he picked up my hand and slowly traced the creases in my palm before linking his fingers with mine. “Our hands fit,” he said.
I am not proud of this; In fact, I'm quite ashamed. That's the reason I am publishing this anonymously. Nick and I parted ways amiably. I would hate to think of him stumbling on this and viewing our entire relationship -- and me -- differently. The fact that Jack and I never physically crossed any major borders doesn't make the situation less condemnable. I think cheating is cheating, and to be honest, I would feel less guilty about a sloppy one-night stand than a four-year emotional affair.