Entanglement vs. Affair: What Is the Difference?


If you’re unfamiliar with the term ‘entanglement’, you wouldn’t be alone. We hadn’t heard the phrase, at least not in the context of relationships, until recently, when Jada Pinkett Smith, 48, used it to describe an extramarital relationship she had had with US singer August Alsina, 27, in 2015 during a time when she and actor Will Smith, 51, had decided to separate amicably.

The two are back together now, and in a move designed to clear rumours circling about the affair and an open relationship they’ve long been rumoured to operate under, decided to sit down together and discuss the recent series of events in an episode of Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk.

Jada Brings Herself to the Table

Jada and Will address the recent headlines and share their journey of finding peace through pain.

Posted by Red Table Talk on Friday, 10 July 2020

In the conversation, Jada touches upon her relationship to Alsina, which she says began as a friendship. After discussing the fact she and Will had decided to separate, citing that their marriage was, at that time, definitively “over”, Jada goes onto say: “I got into a different kind of entanglement with August”.

The pair clarify the term ‘entanglement’ to be synonymous with ‘relationship’, though that hasn’t stopped the world honing in on the term itself, with ‘entanglement’ even trending on Twitter following the release of the Red Table Talk episode.

And so it seems ‘entanglement’ is the new ‘conscious uncoupling‘, which many will remember as the phrased used by Gwyneth Paltrow upon the announcement of her amicable divorce from Coldplay singer Chris Martin.

It’s not the first Hollywood rebrand for words like ‘breakup’ or ‘affair’, and it certainly won’t be the last, but for now, we have a few questions. And so we’re consulting the experts. Below, Annie Gurton, an Imago couples therapist on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and Isiah McKimmie, couples therapist and sexologist, help us unpack the term set to define the modern-day affair.

Entanglement vs. Affair: How are they different?

According to Gurton, the term entanglement has no real difference from the term affair. “In my mind, an ‘entanglement’ is the same as an affair as it takes one partner away from the other emotionally,” she says.

Where both experts agree is the fact that Will and Jada has acknowledged they were separated, which meant her ‘entanglement’ with Alsina was not, in fact, an affair. “It sounds as though Will and Jada were already going through difficulties and had agreed to separate at the time Jada became ‘entangled’ (aka ‘involved’) with someone else. So it’s a moot point as to whether she was unfaithful,” Gurton says.

McKimmie agrees, adding: “My understanding is that Jada and Will were separated at that point, as such either partner’s relationship with anyone else wouldn’t be called an ‘affair'”.

But she does agree that ‘entanglement’ as a term is rather vague. “Any relationship could be described as an ‘entanglement’,” she says.

Is ‘entanglement’ merely a rebrand of ‘affair’?

Entanglement certainly carries a softer tone about it. It’s almost accidental in its resonance, and so could perhaps be perceived merely as a rebrand for an affair — a word that carries a hurtful undertone in relationships and marriages.

For Gurton, it’s a resounding yes. She believes the term is simply a new way to describe an extramarital relationship that has you “involved, entangled with someone else and distracted from your primary relationship”.

For McKimmie, it’s a little less black and white. “People choose different words to describe their relationships and breakups. I think it’s really up to the couple or individual to choose the words that feel right for them.”

The end of the ‘affair’?

Relationships look different to how they did many years ago, and in fact, many couples are moving into more flexible arrangements with their long-term partners. So the question begs: Is ‘affair’ an outdated term?

“Many people are choosing alternative relationship styles to monogamy right now. These relationships are often described as open relationships, ethical non-monogamy or ‘monogamish’ relationships,” says McKimmie.

“The difference between these relationships and what we might understand as infidelity or ‘affairs’ is that an affair occurs without the other partner knowing or consenting. The term ‘affair’ still applies if the extra-marital relationship hasn’t been consented to by both partners.”

And Gurton agrees. “An affair is still what it always was — one partner becoming emotionally entangled with someone else. Its true that relationships and monogamy are changing, and many couples understand that it can be challenging to find one person to partner with for life. We are complex creatures and a lifetime is long, and expecting one person to stay the course is a big ask.”

She says that while affairs or entanglements are common, they do not have to spell the end of a successful partnership. “With professional help, many couples can repair and restore, and end up with a better, stronger relationship. Affairs or entanglements do not necessarily mean the end of a marriage, and there are couples who have a marriage with more than two people in it.”

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