by Andrea Blundell
You are getting very close to someone, and your partner finds out and is worried. Or they haven’t found out, but you are starting to wonder if you are crossing a line. Is it emotional cheating? And does it really even matter?
What is emotional cheating?
Emotional cheating means you are developing an increasingly strong mental and emotional connection with someone else, that is distracting you from your main relationship.
Although the connection isn’t physical, there will often be sexual tension and flirting, whether it is one way or shared. It’s just that the attraction remains unspoken and unaddressed.
The deciding factor
The main factor that shows you are emotionally cheating and it’s not just a friendship is secrecy.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Am I making efforts to hide this situation from my partner?
- If they do know about this other person, do I find myself downplaying or hiding things, or even directly lying about what really goes on?
- Would I be okay with my partner seeing my communications with this other person, or not?
An emotional affair crosses the boundaries we have in place with a partner, and deep down we know this.
Additional signs of an emotional affair
As well as secrecy, you might find that you:
- think about this other person more than your partner
- want to tell them first when something funny or exciting happens
- and have starting turning to them first when you are stressed or upset
- complain about your partner to them, unconsciously leading them to believe there is hope for you to be single in the future
- secretly compare your partner to them
- have a physical attraction you keep denying, or deep down know they are attracted to you.
Is it really emotional cheating?
photo by Gita Krishnamurti
Wondering if it is or isn’t an emotional affair? Let’s take some examples.
1. My partner has stopped talking to me and keeps going out with his group of friends instead. Just because a partner is pulling away and going out a lot doesn’t mean there is someone else involved. It does mean, however, that your relationship has issues and you need to talk.
2. My partner is very extroverted and friendly and is ‘just friends’ with many single people. If this is their personality, and they never hide their friendships, this is unlikely to signify emotional cheating.
3. A colleague is getting very close to my partner and my partner talks about them constantly, it’s annoying. If they are being open and honest, sounds like a friendship or important work relationship.
4. My partner keeps dropping a mutual friend into conversation, insisting they don’t like them that much, or going into great detail about what they do together. If it’s out of character to go on so much, they might be feeling guilty about something and overcompensating. Best to have an honest, open conversation over making assumptions.
5. I’ve just found out that my sister and my partner have been texting and meeting up behind my back, but she’s my sibling so it must be okay. Just because someone is family doesn’t mean it isn’t an emotional affair. This sort of secrecy is often a sign something more is going on.
6. My partner has accused me of emotional cheating because I’ve been talking to a neighbour when he wasn’t here. He’s now banned me from doing so again. This doesn’t sound like emotional cheating but psychological control.
**If you aren’t allowed to have friends or talk to people without ‘permission’ and are told who you can or can’t talk to, it’s a big red flag. Read about coercive control, and seek support.**
Why does emotional infidelity matter?
Sometimes, emotional infidelity wakes us up to the fact that we want out of our principal relationship, and it’s time to move on.
But more often, it’s just a red flag that there are relationship issues we need to deal with, before too much damage is done. If we are carrying out a secret emotional affair, it can:
- lower our interest in investing in our relationship and diminish intimacy
- distract us from facing up to and dealing with our issues
- leave us increasingly guilty and in a bad mood or snapping at our partner or kids
- mean we stop trusting ourselves and by extension others
- eventually be a way to sabotage a relationship we deep down want to be in.
Isn’t this just a thing women complain about?
A popular evolutionary psychology theory states that men worry more about sexual cheating because of their primal need to be sure their progeny are theirs. Women stress about emotional cheating more, given that in cave times they needed men to provide resources, and emotional cheating lures a man away.
But we are no long in caveman times. And recent research shows that our cheating worries might be less about sex and gender and more about age and experience.
A set of studies found that while in a student population, those who identify as female might be more upset with emotional cheating than males, when the sample was older, both men and women reported being more distressed by emotional infidelity, and in about equal numbers. Sexual infidelity led to anger, but emotional infidelity led to being hurt and upset.
What should I do if I suspect my partner of emotionally cheating?
Communication is key. But the right form of communication.
Approaching a conversation with anger and accusations will just cause the other person to shut down and block you out.
It’s important to get out your heated emotions before any attempts at talking. You might want to try journalling, talking it out with a trusted friend, meditation, or a long run, whatever works to help you feel calm.
Then remember the rules of effective conflict:
- be open to the fact that you might be wrong
- listen with full focus and without interrupting
- reflect back if you don’t understand
- start sentences with “I feel/ I think” and NOT “you said/did”, which is blame language. So more, “I felt this when you did that…”.
See this as a moment to discuss and clarify the boundaries of your relationship. What things can you and can’t you accept? And can they and can’t they accept? What limits can you now agree on and put in place?
And if I’m the one having an emotional affair?
Again, there can be positives to take from an emotional affair. It can be the alert that we need to either wake up and leave a relationship, or focus on and repair it.
Often we seek attention elsewhere not as the relationship is bad or not what we want, but because it is what we want and we are just scared, or in a rut.
Realising you are emotionally cheating can mean taking a moment to ask yourself some good questions:
- What needs and wants has this relationship not provided?
Have I shared these needs and wants with my partner?
- And have I been taking note of their needs and wants, too? Or have I checked out lately?
- What is stopping me from sharing and communicating?
- If this relationship could more effectively meet my needs and wants would I be happy?
- In what way have I not being showing up for my partner in this relationship?
- Is this the right relationship format to me? If it’s an open relationship, do I secretly want a closed one? Or vice versa?
Is this what could help?
If talking to your partner shows that you do love each other, but are having some issues hearing and understanding each other? Do consider couples counselling. A therapist doesn’t take sides or tell you what to do. But they do help you communicate in healthy, constructive ways, fully see each other, and make the decisions that work for both of you.
Time to deepen the commitment and intimacy in your relationship? We connect you to some of London’s best talk therapists and relationship counsellors. Or use our booking site now to find UK-wide couples therapy or individual online counselling.
Want to share your experience or advice about emotional cheating? Post below.
Andrea Blundell is the lead writer and editor of this site. After a successful career as a screenwriter, she studied counselling and coaching. She has since written thousands of popular mental health articles, with a focus on relationships and trauma. Find her or pitch her on Linkedin.