Crushes happen. You didn’t ask your company to hire that ridiculously attractive new employee to work on your team. Nor did you ever think you’d get into a deep conversation with the girl at Starbucks after discovering you’re both reading the same intense book right now. But here you are — a married dad with a crush on someone who’s not your wife.
It’s inevitable that you’ll be attracted to people outside your marriage, even if you love your partner and have no desire to cheat on him or her. And you’re not alone: In a 2016 study of women published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy nearly 70 percent of them said they’d had a crush (defined as sexual or romantic feelings on which they choose not to act) on someone who wasn’t their husband or long-term partner.
The researchers behind that study, in fact, came to some pretty rosy conclusions about the effects of crushes on relationships. They don’t seem to increase the chances that crushers will cheat on a partner; crushes sometimes reminded participants what they appreciate about their primary partners; and the women with crushes tended to feel more sexually charged than they usually did, which spiced things up when those feelings spilled into their primary relationships.
That rush is one reason crushes will always exist — they literally, physiologically, make you feel good, says Dr. Christine Hyde, Ph.D., a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist. A crush can cause surges in adrenaline as well as dopamine, the neurotransmitter in control of your brain’s pleasure center. In short, crushes inject excitement into lives that feel dull and stagnant.
“It’s more exciting to think about the hot guy or woman down the hall instead of ‘same old, same old’ next to you in bed,” Hyde says. “Feel-good hormones are literally pumping through your body and reinforcing those thoughts and feelings.”
But let’s be honest. Unless you’re in an open or polyamorous situation, you’re going to have to do some cost-benefit analysis to figure out whether your crush is chipping away at the health of your relationship.
“A crush can feel very innocent, and it’s easy to justify its innocence until it isn’t,” says Dr. Matthew Traube, MFT, a psychotherapist in San Luis Obispo, California. “The difference between a crush that’s healthy and one that’s unhealthy is that it’s perfectly safe and appropriate to find other people attractive, but when we act on it, it becomes inappropriate.”
Although that works as a general rule of thumb, it’s not quite as simple as thoughts are okay and actions are not, Traube notes. For one thing, people have very different ideas about what kind of thoughts and behaviors are okay. To some, fantasizing about a crush while masturbating doesn’t veer into emotional infidelity, but to others, it does. So whether your behavior “crosses a line” and betrays the trust of your partner depends on where the line is according to people in the primary relationship.
It’s easy to tell yourself that thinking — even obsessing — about a crush won’t intrude upon your marriage because you never plan to do anything physical with the person. But a preoccupation with a crush, no matter how tempting it might be to deny it, spirits attention away from your primary partner. If you stay up after your partner goes to bed so you can creep through six pages of your crush’s Facebook photos in peace, for example, it isn’t exactly cheating, but it’s not strengthening your relationship, either.
In a weird way, the math is simple: The more time you spend investing and engaging in the crush the more you’re endangering your primary relationship, Hyde says.
So how do you figure it out? Taking stock of what you’re doing to feed your crush is a good first step to figure out if it’s edging into the danger zone, Traube suggests. Are you just daydreaming about someone while driving home from work? Or are you texting constantly with this supposed “friend,” even telling him or her intimate things you haven’t shared with your primary partner?
“Having the feeling is one thing, but how are you handling it? Are you responsible about it?” Traube asks. “Are you seeking out other people, intentionally meeting for lunch dates, or purposely trying to run into someone?”
Those little things you’re doing — timing your coffee refills when she tends to be in the office break room or staying late when you know she’s there working on a project – might feel innocent and fun, but you have to be honest about whether they’re eroding the bond you have with your partner. And they’re not only robbing time and attention from your relationship – they’re increasing your exposure to your crush, which ups the risk that it could progress to a physical relationship.
You also want to ask yourself whether this happens to you a lot. “Thrill-seeker” types tend to have chronic crushes, Hyde says, because they find it difficult to stop wondering what else might be out there and want to prove to themselves that they’re still attractive to others. If your goal is to stay content and appreciative of your partner, however, you might need the help of a therapist to stop the behavior.
“If you’re excited about someone else on a routine basis, there’s more to it,” Traube adds. “It’s more of a symptom of an underlying feeling, so figure out what’s causing it.”
Now, it’s a bit of cliché to assume chronic crushes are always an indication that something’s wrong in a relationship, Traube says. The theory is that when people aren’t happy, they might retreat into a fantasy crush world to deal or take the escape route a step further and actually cheat on their partners. It happens, certainly. But although crushes might crop up because you’re feeling unfulfilled in your relationship, they don’t necessarily mean there’s something wrong at home, Traube says.
Sometimes, however, there is something missing — but it could be in you, not in your relationship. For example, exes are a frequent crush object for people, which could more reflect a longing for your younger, more carefree self than it reflects a desire to reconnect with the actual person you dated. You also might develop a crush to distract you from painful or unpleasant things in your life that have little or nothing to do with your partner. Hell, thinking about a crush is way better than worrying about financial stressors or disagreements about raising your kids.
“If you’re feeling hurt or confused, for whatever reason, instead of seeking out someone to fill in that hurt or void, figure out what’s behind it,” Traube says. “Create some awareness.”
It’s not easy, but if you’re brutally honest with yourself, you’ll know whether your crush is hurting your relationship, Traube says: “It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”
An excellent question to ask yourself is, “If my partner knew what I was doing, would he or she be okay with it?” If the answer is no, stop doing those things. This exercise tends to shed light on the situation pretty quickly for people, Traube says.
You also need to be frank about the strength of your resolve. If you can say, honestly and with the utmost certainty, that there’s no way in hell you’d ever cheat even if your crush flung herself at you, great. But if you fear you might not be able to resist if the opportunity for a more intimate connection presented itself, you need to set some boundaries for yourself if you don’t want to end up cheating.
“Whenever you take a chance, there’s always risk,” Hyde says. “It’s a slippery slope.”