Yes, Emotional Cheating IS a Thing: Experts Explain
You've seen the scene in countless movies: Someone walks in on their partner cheating, in bed with another. Cue the dramatic walk-out. But affairs don't always involve sex. And even without the physical intimacy, emotional infidelity can pose just as serious a threat to relationships. However, emotional cheating is a bit harder to define.
This type of betrayal is based on sharing deep emotional intimacy with another person (or persons) other than one's partner. Since emotional intimacy can mean different things to different people, it can be confusing to understand when lines are crossed. But having a partner seek an inappropriate emotional connection, comfort or validation with someone else can be devastating—so it's important to understand this specific form of infidelity.
For the 101 on emotional cheating, including why it occurs and how to handle it, we spoke with the experts. Here's what you need to know.
Meet Our Experts
Norman Rosenthal, MD is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and author of Poetry Rx and Defeating Sad.
Joel Block, Ph.D. is a psychologist practicing couples and sex therapy. He's also the author of more than 20 books on love and sex.
In this article:
What is Emotional Cheating?
Emotional cheating is the act of sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with someone other than your partner, explains Norman Rosenthal, MD. This emotional connection goes beyond that of a platonic friendship and betrays your partner's trust. Think: conversations that reveal intimate details about yourself that your partner may or may not know, sharing your partner's secrets or venting about them excessively. Hiding or omitting this communication from your partner is a hallmark trait of this infidelity since you're likely sensing that they would be uncomfortable with it.
If you're unsure how to gauge emotional infidelity, psychologist Joel Block, Ph.D. suggests imagining your partner sitting next to you and this other person while you're conversing. Think about whether they'd hear anything they didn't already know. Ask yourself whether you're being fully honest with your partner about the nature of your relationship, from when you meet up to the intensity of your connection and the content of your conversations.
Alternatively, if the roles are reversed, ask your partner if you had been sitting there with them, would you be comfortable with what was being shared? Would the conversation have changed at all?
Emotional boundaries can vary from relationship to relationship, but if you find that you or your partner are turning to someone else for an emotionally intimate connection or comfort, oversharing private details and/or being secretive about the situation, emotional infidelity could be occurring.
Emotional Cheating Versus Sexual Affairs
Sexual affairs consist of a physically intimate act with someone other than one's partner. Depending on what boundaries the partners have established together, this could be kissing, penetrative sex or another physical or sexually intimate act. Emotional cheating does not include this physical element.
Although emotional cheating doesn't involve sex, that doesn't mean it's not risky, insists Block. "Sometimes, sex isn't that intimate. It's just sex." On the other hand, since emotional entanglements involve intimacy, they can be powerful enough to threaten primary relationships.
For this reason, emotional affairs can be more harmful than sexual affairs, he says.
Why Do People Have Emotional Affairs?
Usually, people commit this act of infidelity when they feel emotionally unfulfilled by their primary relationship, explains Rosenthal. "Often, they perceive their partner as not being giving or understanding enough."
They'll often feel this other person understands them more than their partner. But, oftentimes, they may be withholding information from their partner—not giving them a chance to show compassion, support and love.
"Someone might complain that their partner doesn't seem interested in what they're saying," says Block. "Then, I'll ask them, 'What have you done to create that interest? Did you talk to them from the heart?'"
Why Emotional Affairs are Risky
Like sexual infidelity, emotional affairs are compelling because they're not bogged down with the conflict, stress and mundanity of real relationships. "They're risky because these relationships are unencumbered, which is very attractive," explains Block.
Throughout his career, Block says he's seen many people leave their partners for the people they were in emotional affairs with. And, oftentimes, their new relationships eventually resembled their original relationships—that is, fraught with challenges and tedium.
How to Recognize Emotional Cheating and What to Do
Block says that a key sign of emotional cheating is that the interaction between yourself and your partner becomes more logistical. "[The person cheating] will take care of their family and work, but something is missing," he explains.
Emotional cheaters often become withdrawn, not revealing details about their life to their partner. They might also hide or erase text messages and have whispered phone conversations.
If you've discovered that your partner is having an emotional affair or they reveal the infidelity, it first needs to be determined if both of you wish to stay in your relationship. If so, communication is key in moving forward, as is the acknowledgment that the emotional cheating caused harm. Furthermore, you both need to be committed to rebuilding trust and getting on the path of letting go of resentment.
What to Do If You're Having an Emotional Affair
First thing's first: If you've been having an emotional affair, the best way to start repairing your relationship is to first end your entanglement or reduce your contact with this other person.
However, if you're insistent on keeping this other person in your life, you need to be open and honest with your partner, counsels Rosenthal. By sharing your feelings as they evolve, your partner will be aware of the situation and can decide whether they can continue with the relationship. If they express that they're uncomfortable or request certain boundaries (such as not meeting up with this specific person), that needs to be respected.
Discuss with your partner why you began the emotional affair in the first place. Then, brainstorm ways you can have your emotional needs met in the primary relationship. If you and your partner have trouble navigating this situation—which you likely might—consider seeing a couples therapist, so you can have these conversations in a supportive and safe environment.
And don't wait too long to seek professional help, advises Block. "Early intervention makes a big difference."