Is there such a thing as emotional cheating?
When do you draw the line between a platonic relationship and an emotional affair?
Relationships aren’t as black and white as you think. Cheating doesn’t always only involve sexual intimacy. It can also be emotional.
The truth is this:
The boundaries between monogamy and having an affair are slim.
What are emotional affairs and how can you recognize the signs you or your partner are in one?
Here’s everything you need to know about emotional affairs.
What is an emotional affair?
According to marriage consultant and co-author of The Everything Great Marriage Book, Sherif Stitrof:
“An emotional affair generally starts innocently enough as a friendship. Through investing emotional energy and time with one another outside the marital relationship, the former platonic friendship can begin to form a strong emotional bond which hurts the intimacy of the spousal relationship.”
But don’t we all have emotional connections to other people besides our partners? Why is an emotional affair so different from those?
Experts believe there is a fair distinction between the two.
Psychiatrist Abigail Brenner explains:
“A platonic relationship is really just a friend whom you may like or even love, who you admire and trust, and who you want to keep in your life. It’s often someone you’ve known for a long time, is not a sexually-charged relationship, and is someone you want to share with your spouse.”
Brenner emphasizes that the last part is especially crucial; you don’t hide someone from your partner if it’s only platonic.
“An emotional affair describes a relationship where the level of emotional intimacy is excessive and where the level of emotion invested in someone outside of the marriage infringes upon the intimacy between spouses or committed partners.
“This extra-marital emotional involvement replaces a couples’ intimacy and obviously, may drive a wedge between partners. This in turn, may very well create distance and a feeling of separation, alienation, and aloneness/loneliness.”
It’s cheating if it drives a wedge between you and your partner. Especially if it involves lies and betrayal.
Signs of an emotional affair
Here are the classic signs that point to you or your partner being involved in an emotional affair:
1. You feel like there’s something “wrong.”
There’s a point when you just have to stop convincing yourself that you’re exaggerating.
Does your gut tell you things just feel ‘off’ with you and your partner?
“They may literally feel their partner pulling away from them, feel a partner’s preoccupation with something (someone) else, and may find it hard or impossible to connect intimately in the same way they once did.
“Don’t ignore your gut feeling. You’re not just being jealous—you’re probably right.”
If you’re the one doing the emotional cheating, you may also feel as if you’re doing something wrong… because you are.
According to psychologist Nicole Martinez:
“When you are emotionally cheating, it is all about the emotional connection … It is about crossing lines and sharing things that would make your partner uncomfortable (including talking about them in a negative way).”
2. You’ve stopped being emotionally intimate with each other.
Often this happens because someone is receiving emotional intimacy elsewhere.
Perhaps you’ve felt emotionally disconnected from each other recently. It can be intentional, as a result of one person engaging in emotional cheating.
Counselor and life coach Michael Formica says:
“Emotional infidelity is any situation that creates or causes some degree of emotional unavailability on the part of one partner that interferes with one particular aspect of the relationship, along with the quality of the relationship as a whole.”
Excuses aside, there’s a romantic intimacy between partners that should only be maintained between them. Getting it outside of the relationship is a betrayal.
3. You spend less time with each other.
You or your partner have so many reasons for not spending time with each other. There’s always the “work” excuses.
For the one being cheated, Brenner says:
“This seems like a reasonably good excuse to spend less time with you. After all, it’s often necessary to be on the job longer hours for a specific project and/or for a certain period of time.
“When this is coupled with a certain co-worker or colleague who is mentioned often and who also is working those same hours it’s reasonable to be a bit suspicious.”
If you’re the one doing the cheating, you’ve probably started withdrawing from your partner, not just emotionally but physically as well.
Here’s a classic sign, according to therapist Jor-El Caraballo:
“You find yourself isolating from your partner and spending more and more time with your ‘friend.'”
4. There’s a lot of toxic behavior lately.
Guilt can turn someone ugly.
If you’ve noticed your partner being too negative to you lately, it may be a classic sign of defense mechanism.
According to Brenner:
“They may be irritated or annoyed, angry, blaming, judgmental and critical of many things you do. It’s almost a defensive posture: they’re doing something they may feel terribly guilty about while enjoying the emotional high they’re getting from another and so they somehow have to make you the one at fault, the one that provoked it all.”
On the other hand, the cheater becomes more critical towards their partner because they keep comparing the emotional connection they have to that of the “other person.”
The comparison leads to a lot of resentment and irritability. Most of the time unwarranted.
5. Deliberately hiding things.
You or your partner deliberately hide their phones or emails, always going out of the room to take a call, or making sure you don’t see their phone screen when they’re texting someone.
Nothing speaks more of guilt than by hiding things from your partner.
Texting someone else regularly is an especially dangerous zone.
Zack Carter, professor of interpersonal, intrapersonal, and family communication, says:
“Text messaging provides an opportunity for wandering hearts, hearts not fully committed to their spouses, to seek pleasure from someone other than their spouses when their relationship grass may be losing its color.”
Before you know it, you’re sending “good morning” and “good night texts.”
6. You no longer celebrate each other’s successes together.
Your partner should be the first person you want to call when you have good news. They’re the one person you want to celebrate your successes with.
But lately, that’s not the case.
In fact, it seems like you’re the last person to know when something significant happens.
Incidentally, to the cheater, the impulse to tell your partner first has gone. Instead, it’s the “other person” you turn to.
According to psychologist Dr. Paulette Sherman:
“Research shows that in healthy marriages, couples celebrate each other’s successes.
If you’re turning to this other person first in good times and bad, then you’re replacing your husband emotionally and avoiding addressing what isn’t working with him.”
7. You’re experiencing communication problems.
Emotional intimacy affects every aspect of your relationship, especially communication.
A disconnect from each other can also cause an inability to express yourself or understand your partner with clarity and empathy. This leads to argument and a lot of confusing talks.
On the one hand, the cheated partner can sense something wrong is going on and desperately seeks answers and reassurances.
The cheater, on the other hand, is unwilling to give the assurances their partner needs. The outcome is confusion and going around in circles with each other.
8. The third person is being mentioned a lot.
One partner will either be secretive about the third party or constantly rave about it.
Have you noticed your partner mentioning their ‘friend’s’ name quite often? Do they only speak highly of this person? Maybe you’re even being compared to them snidely.
This might be a sign you have an emotionally cheating partner.
As psychotherapist Ginnie Love puts it:
“We mention friends from time to time, but a constant name drop is disrespectful and inappropriate.”
It’s possible that this third person runs in your own social circle, so it’s not far fetched to imagine all parties running into each other.
If you notice your partner focusing their attention to the third party more than they pay attention to you, consider it a red flag.
According to Jane Greer, author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship:
“If you start to feel like you’re not number one and that everything significant isn’t being shared with you first, you may not be on solid ground in your relationship.”
There’s probably no excuse to justify this behavior.
If you’re the one committing an emotional affair, the need to go to the other person first clearly displays where your affections lie.
10. Sudden changes.
Of course, it is perfectly normal to develop new interests and hobbies. It’s also normal for people to want to change their appearance and take care of themselves more.
However, if it’s a sudden and excessive change, there might be something behind it.
According to Brenner:
“While taking the time to improve the way you look and feel about yourself is generally beneficial, the sudden change or preoccupation with appearance in conjunction with some of the other signs may be a tip-off.
“Likewise, when a spouse suddenly, out of the blue, develops an interest in something new (unless, of course, that’s how they’ve always been) that neither of you has expressed an interest in before.”
Why do people cheat emotionally?
Emotional affairs can happen due to a variety of reasons. Every couple has their own different issues to deal with.
But according to experts, here are the most common reasons why people have emotional affairs:
1. One person is not satisfied in their current relationship.
According to counselor Cherilynn Veland, an emotional affair is usually stems from dissatisfaction in a current relationship.
“Usually, both parties have some powerful lack of fulfillment in their lives that allows these feelings to take root.
“Perhaps it is an unhappy marriage, a miserable life stage, severe stress, or something that is propelling them forward into what seems to be a scintillating and exciting distraction.”
Still, unfulfilled needs will never justify cheating of any kind.
2. It’s cheating, but not really.
It’s not really a solid excuse, but people argue that emotional affairs don’t really count as ‘cheating.’ To them, it means they’re not really doing anything wrong, so they do it anyway.
“The two that seem to avail themselves most prominently to situations of emotional infidelity are fear and safety; fear of not wanting to get caught “doing anything” couched in the perceived safety of ostensibly not doing anything.”
He believes that this is the natural compromise for someone who wants comfort outside of a relationship while assuaging the guilt of sexual cheating.
“Regardless of the rationalization behind it, emotional infidelity is an expression of either the need or the desire to absent oneself from one’s primary relationship, without actually leaving that relationship.”
3. Impulse control.
Some people just can’t help themselves.
“Sometimes people who have affairs might also have poor impulse control and emotional regulation. That is, they may be subjected to the same temptations that we all experience with other potential partners, but have a much harder time controlling their feelings for someone, more likely to act on those feelings, and more easily fall into destructive behavior.
“This is also true for emotional affairs where boundaries are ignored or crossed routinely for the sake of a new, exciting connection.”
Poor impulse control may come from unresolved psychological issues. It’s best to seek professional health when a pattern of cheating occurs.
How do you deal with an emotional affair?
If you’re the one having it:
It’s important to first understand the reasons behind your infidelity. This will enable you to face the problem and fix it.
A therapist can help you get a clear look at the underlying issues and take action accordingly.
According to Carabello:
“It’s best to try and understand the needs that are being met by the affair, motivating you to keep going back, despite the risk. A therapist will help you sort through the complicated emotional situation and help you craft a plan for extraction.”
If you decide to change your ways and give your relationship another go, it’s important that you commit to it.
“The bottom line is to be attentive to your spouse, to be open to changing what doesn’t work in the relationship, to honor your feelings and intuition as well as theirs, and to be willing to work on saving your marriage if you feel your relationship is the most important thing to you.”
If you’re the victim:
You have to make a tough decision: Give the relationship another chance or move on.
There are no gray areas in this situation.
If you’re willing to continue with your partner, you need to stand up for your needs and be clear about your expectations.
However, if you feel like this isn’t something you can get over, end it swiftly and don’t look back.
“Don’t stand by passively playing the victim. Decide what your expectations for your marriage/relationship are. Only you can decide for yourself.
“Every relationship goes through changes. That’s to be expected.
“But if having a third party in your most intimate relationship is not for you, then you need to decide what’s best for you for your future.”
An emotional affair is just as serious as (in some ways, even more than) a sexual affair.
There is nothing more painful than being betrayed by the person you most trust, even if there was no physical intimacy involved.
Formica puts it: best
“Somewhere along the line, the moral gravity associated with this sort of social transgression became transformed into the moral relativism that allows us to take office supplies from work.
“Who’s it really going to hurt?
“Well, no one, but it’s still stealing.”