You’re at the gym, and the attractive stranger who has been making eyes at you for weeks grins broadly and introduces themself while you’re both taking a break between sets. Your heart races and you strike up a conversation. Within a few weeks, you’ve become gym buddies, and one day you realize with a start that your little crush has developed into a big crush. You’re happy in your current relationship–it’s not perfect, but you love your partner and you intend to be together long-term. So what are you supposed to make of this newfound infatuation? What does it mean? Where are the boundaries? Should you tell your partner? Should you change gyms? Should you enjoy your flirtation as long as it doesn’t leave the gym? Should you just throw in the towel and become a monk or nun and go meditate in a cave until the whole thing blows over?
Ok first: Good news. It’s completely normal to develop crushes on other people, even if you’re married, engaged, or dating! One study even suggested that 98% of men and 80% of women have fantasized about someone other than their partner in the two months leading up to the study (Cheney, 2020). Another study found that 74% of full-time workers reported being attracted to a colleague–and that’s just the ones who were willing to admit it (Cheney, 2020). Crushes are normal, natural, and human whether or not you’re married or in a relationship, so there’s no reason to feel guilty if and when it happens.
In fact, couples planning their weddings would do well to assume it will happen to one or both of them at some point–potentially multiple times. Rather than trying to prevent or feel ashamed of something that is quite human and normal, it’s better to plan together how you’re going to handle any future crushes. There are many strategies for handling crushes in a way that is not detrimental to a marriage. But first…
When You DO Have Reason to Feel Guilty
Yes, we did say that a crush is nothing to feel guilty for–but there are plenty of responses to a crush that could definitely give one cause for guilt. Any response that involves actively feeding the crush is a no-no. For example:
-Initiating contact with the crush unnecessarily. This includes physical contact (unnecessary touches) and contact in the sense of text messages, emails, and carrier pigeons.
-Feeding excessive fantasies about the crush. Of course you’re going to think about them…but there’s a very easily-discernible difference between noticing those thoughts and letting them go, and indulging those thoughts as they take you on a magic carpet ride.
-Indulging in regular displays of flirtation or teasing with the crush. Lots of coupled people flirt with others from time to time; indeed some couples actually specify that flirting is ok. This is something that must be discussed and agreed upon by partners; there is no one-size-fits all policy on flirting while married or in a relationship. However, when one develops a real crush that has the potential to damage their relationship, the boundaries around flirtation become much more rigid. Flirting with that cutie at the business conference and forgetting about it the next day is a whole different ball game than flirting with a crush with whom one is in regular contact and about whom one does not easily forget.
How to Handle a Crush When You’re Partnered with Someone Else
First, take a step back and consider the facts. You’re happily partnered, but you’re probably well past that ‘new’ phase of the relationship in which all those honeymoon phase brain chemicals involved in infatuation and excitement are circulating like crazy. Your new crush has stimulated those serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin receptors once again–and it feels damn good. However, remind yourself that all that stuff fades over time. Were you to actually do something about your crush by destroying your current relationship and trying this new one, you’d eventually discover that the high would fade. What’s more, all those intoxicating chemicals lead us to interact with our fantasy of the other person, not the person themselves. Remind yourself that the person you have a crush on is actually just a fantasy invented by your silly human brain. This fantasy-person is nothing you need to take seriously–especially since you’re already happily in a relationship (Cheney, 2020).
Second, shift your fantasy into a different gear. Instead of imagining all the thrilling moments you might like to share with your crush, imagine in as much precise detail as you can what would actually happen after actualizing your fantasy. Imagine getting caught by your spouse–maybe they find out by going through your phone, or walking in on you during a moment of passion, or from an acquaintance who knows or suspects the truth. Or maybe you would feel compelled to tell them yourself. After the thrill of the encounter with your crush ends, what would come next, and what would happen to your relationship in wake of this affair? Imagine your spouse’ face upon finding out. Imagine their reaction. Imagine what your marriage would feel like going forward. Imagine what steps would be necessary to repair trust. Imagine the guilt and devastation you would feel at causing your spouse such pain. Is your fantasy still as sexy as it seemed before?
Third, tell your spouse about your crush. Hopefully, you guys have built a relationship in which it is safe, normal, and expected to share all kinds of juicy uncomfortable experiences. By telling your spouse, they become an ally who can help you navigate your crush in an appropriate way, rather than a cop you have to dodge (Cheney, 2020).
You also might try leaning into what your crush signals about your marriage. Sara, a woman interviewed by Brides magazine, explained that her crush on a co-worker made her realize that she needed to inject more excitement into her relationship with her partner. The fact that it was lacking probably helped trigger her crush. Instead of feeding her crush, she suggested to her husband that they take a romantic weekend getaway and plan to surprise each other in passionate ways. Sara’s husband was receptive to all of her suggestions, and in this way her crush actually acted as a catalyst that changed her marriage for the better (Amatenstein, 2020).
Sometimes a crush might not actually be signaling anything about your marriage. Another woman interviewed for the same article, Barb, analyzed her crush in a similar way, trying to figure out what it meant and why she was feeling that way. She realized that her crush wasn’t actually about her marriage, but the fact that she did not feel fulfilled in other areas of her life. It actually inspired her to search for a job that would challenge her more (Amatenstein, 2020).
The most simple principle is to simply ignore your feelings and allow them to pass, like clouds in the sky (Amatenstain, 2020). If you don’t feed the crush by indulging it, it can’t survive for long.
But What If…?
What if your spouse indulges a crush? What if you indulge a crush? These things do happen. They happen all the time, and they’re much less likely to happen to you and destroy your relationship if you take the possibility seriously. And it is a serious possibility–a New York Times article reported that 15% of married women and 25% of married men admitted to having had affairs (Brody, 2018).
Many couples choose to include an infidelity clause in their prenups for exactly this reason. An infidelity clause stipulates that should either spouse cheat, they will be required to pay a financial penalty. For example, Jessica Biel and Justin Timberlake’s infidelity clause says that Biel would be entitled to $500,000 should Timberlake ever be caught cheating on her.
Including an infidelity clause in your prenup can absolutely discourage cheating, but it may also be an important safeguard for another reason: Unlike in the past, adultery is no longer considered ‘fault’ in the divorce laws of many states. Therefore, if you get divorced and the court is deciding on alimony and asset distribution, they won’t take cheating into consideration even though you might feel that they should. An infidelity clause helps to make up for this oversight by the court. If you’re asking yourself ‘but do I really need an infidelity clause?’ our answer is always ‘better safe than sorry’. It’s best to cover all your bases. You still get car insurance even though you’re a great driver.
That said, it is important to point out that some states do not consider lifestyle clauses (an infidelity clause is indeed a lifestyle clause) to be legally enforceable. However, a prenup is more than just a legal document; it is also an emotional document. A cheating spouse may feel compelled to honor the infidelity clause whether or not the court is willing to enforce it–or perhaps they might feel more compelled not to cheat in the first place.
We hope that infidelity will never, ever be relevant to your relationship. You can handle crushes with grace by not feeding them, not keeping them secret, asking yourself what you can learn from them, recognizing their illusory nature, and imagining the destruction an actualized fantasy would bring to your actual relationship. Crushes are normal and natural, and your relationship with a spouse is so much more substantial than a crush.
Amatenstein, S. 2020. Crushing On Someone Else? How Real Married Women Handled It. Retrieved from: https://www.brides.com/story/how-to-handle-crush-when-married
Brody, J. 2018. When a Partner Cheats. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/well/marriage-cheating-infidelity.html#:~:text=According%20to%20the%20American%20Association,relationships%20without%20intercourse%20are%20included.
Cheney, D. 2020. How to Handle a Crush When You’re Married (And What It Means). Retrieved from: https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/deal-with-crushes-when-married/
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