The relationship that’s more loaded than sex. Almost.

A woman I worked with was struggling with a breakup. Except it wasn’t a “real” relationship; she and her colleague were Just Good Friends.

But her “friend” had broken off all contact after being given an ultimatum by his wife who had not liked his “friendliness” — lunches, coffees, weekend and evening text messages — with another woman.

She was devastated and married. So she couldn’t explain to her husband how badly she was feeling the loss of her colleague. She couldn’t even explain it to herself.

“It never got physical — no sex — so it wasn’t a full-on affair,” she said. “So why am I finding it so hard to let go? Why is this so painful?”

Welcome to the breakup of the affair you weren’t quite having.

An Emotional Affair or Just (Very) Good Friends?

Emotional affairs can be hard to identify because unlike infidelity, which involves sex, there’s no clear line for when it’s crossed over into a relationship. I love radio host Ira Glass’s take on it, by the way: “You know you’re in trouble when the word ‘just’ appears before the word ‘friends’.”

An emotional affair is simply a connection that evolves over time. But an it differs from a friendship in two ways: the relationship involves (1) sexual innuendo and (2) an element of secrecy.

As it did for my friend, it usually begins innocently through work or shared interests. But, as the connection deepens, the secrecy and the sexual charge ramps up. So it provides the novelty and thrill of cheating — without the same level of guilt. Or at least that’s what you tell yourself.

Trouble is, when it ends it can hurt as badly as any breakup. And it’s hard to garner empathy or support when no-one else understands how deeply you were invested. Or even that you were spending much time with this person.

When relationships end, chaotic emotions are always difficult to manage — whether there was sex involved, or not.

So here’s some advice for my client and anyone else struggling with this painful form of breakup.

* Acknowledge your loss. It hurts.

Okay, you can’t take your pain out into the world; that won’t land well. But it still hurts, it’s still a breakup — which brings out challenging emotions — and it’s important that you understand the intensity of your feelings. You have lost a relationship that mattered to you, even if you didn’t realise how much, and it’s okay, and healthy, to grieve for it. So don’t deny or squash your emotions. Even if you have to keep it to yourself, even if you have to go away for a weekend on your own, even if — as my client did — you have a good cry in the shower, create space for your feelings.

* Know it was a fantasy.

The trouble with emotional cheating is that it’s a fantasy — borne of beliefs about what a relationship with this person COULD be, rather than the reality of scrapping with your partner night after night over who’ll do the dishes, feed the dog or put out the recycling bin.

Relationships that consist of clandestine text messages and coffees and deep, wistful conversations about the future you’ll never have, are real and nice — but not sustainable. Everyone is (quite) good over coffee.

Remember, the person who seems so fantastic and empathetic and interested in you probably wouldn’t be that person at all if you came home to them every night. Actually, they definitely wouldn’t.

So gently unhook yourself from fantasyland.

* What did this relationship add to your life?

Many people believe emotional cheating occurs because there’s something missing in their current relationship. Sometimes, yes. But not always. You can be tempted by just the sheer novelty of having someone notice you, show deep interest in you, compliment you — make you feel more attractive, intriguing, smart, witty than you have in a while — or ever. Or maybe it gave you space to safely explore another relationship? Or to explore being a different, more risqué, version of yourself?

Notice what the relationship brought to you or what need it met in you — it’ll help you understand why you went there.

And, if you are in a relationship other than the emotional one, gently turn your thoughts to what’s good about it and put your attention there. Because there’s always something good. (Note: If you can’t find anything good, that’s probably information you need to acknowledge and act on.)

* Find ways to fill the space.

When you’ve lost someone, you don’t have to replace them with someone else. It can be futile — or dangerous — to try. But it’s extremely helpful to have a distraction, a new way of filling the space or bringing more excitement into your life.

Long hours of thinking about what you’ve lost, or how much you miss someone, can make shuffling forward even harder. Distraction is a bone fide psychological tool. It’s your friend at times like this. So throw yourself into a side project or sign yourself up for learning something new. Something that really screams for, and holds, your attention.

* Be compassionate to yourself.

It hurts. It’s allowed to. And you are often on your own with it. With this type of breakup, you can’t gather your support army. You may not even be able to tell your best friend. So indulge in some healthy pampering. Treat yourself as well as you can.

Joseph A. Cornacchia