Emotional Cheating: A Clear Guide on a Complicated Issue

Updated June 29, 2021
Emotional Cheating

When you hear the word infidelity, sexual infidelity typically comes to mind. However, there are various types of infidelity, including emotional cheating, which can be more difficult to define. If you're in a relationship and you suspect you or your partner is being emotionally unfaithful, or you want to avoid this outcome, it can be helpful to know what emotional cheating is, how to identify it, and what to do if it is occurring.

What Is Emotional Cheating?

Emotional cheating means that someone develops an emotional bond with, or romantic feelings for someone other than their partner. Research has shown that people believe it's possible to have an emotional affair without sexual infidelity, and vice versa. Emotional intimacy is an important part of a romantic relationship, and some people find that emotional cheating is in some ways more upsetting than sexual cheating. Examples of emotional cheating are:

  • Attending important events, such as award ceremonies, with someone other than your partner
  • Hiding feelings for someone from your partner
  • Having sexual or romantic feelings toward someone else that have not yet been acted on
  • Engaging in behaviors with another person that cause relationship problems, such as flirting or expensive/sentimental gift-giving
  • Sharing important information with someone other than your partner
  • Being emotionally open with someone in a way that you are not with your partner
  • Being in love with someone who is not your partner

Friendship Versus Emotional Cheating

The vast majority of people have a friend of the opposite sex who is not their partner. It can be easy to form friendships with some co-workers, for instance. What distinguishes a friendship from an emotional affair is that you are open with your spouse or partner about this friendship. You would be able to share with your partner the conversations you have with your friend, inform your partner of time you're spending with that friend, or tell your partner about activities you did that involve your friend, such as work outings or projects.

Signs of Emotional Cheating

Because emotional cheating can be complicated and difficult to pinpoint, it can be hard to pick up on cues that your partner is doing it. Some indications that your partner might be having an emotional affair include:

Your partner...

  • Stops turning to you for emotional support or help during difficult times
  • Texts with the person enthusiastically for long periods of time
  • Spends less time with you and more time with this other person
  • Tells you this person understands them better than you do
  • Tells you that this person better meets their needs than you do
  • Gets angry or defensive when you ask them about this other person
  • Seems attracted to the person, but denies it when you ask them about it

Reasons Emotional Cheating Might Occur

No relationship is immune to infidelity; and there can be various reasons why someone may cheat emotionally. Some people have not honed their interpersonal skills, particularly how to deal with conflict. So instead of taking active steps to communicate directly with their partner about a problem or issue, the person finds another way to get their needs met.

Another reason for emotional cheating could be that at their core, a person is not really "into" their partner; but they are fearful of change and want to keep the relationship intact rather than breaking up. Emotional cheating may also occur when the relationship starts to feel stale, and it becomes exciting to gain the attention of another person.

What Does It Mean If Emotional Cheating Has Occurred?

A common belief is that if any sort of infidelity has occurred, then the relationship is over. This could be your view, and it is certainly a good idea to know what's important to you in a relationship and what your deal-breakers are.

At the same time, depending on the nature and dynamics of your relationship, infidelity is most often a symptom of a larger problem, not the problem in and of itself. Relationships are not easy; you and your partner may love and care for each other very much while other forces press upon your relationship. All relationships have various types of challenges to overcome. If you move on to the next relationship without addressing the deeper problems that could be contributing to the infidelity, similar problems can arise in your subsequent relationship.

What Emotional Cheating Can Uncover

Some problems that may arise due to emotional cheating might be: unavailability of your partner, communication problems, lack of effort by one partner in the relationship, taking your partner for granted.

No relationship is immune to such problems, and they could actually be present without any form of cheating as a symptom. For example, you might find yourselves setting your schedules to ensure that you see very little of each other. You may take separate vacations, or you spend time together, but it is always while watching TV and not really interacting.

It goes without saying that this sort of distance is also of significant concern. After all, there is a difference between trying not to get divorced and trying to have a satisfying relationship. If any of these symptoms can be addressed by improving your relationship, so can infidelity.

Relationships are a two-way street and people make mistakes. One's actions impact the other's, which impact the former's and so on. If one person in the relationship spends a lot of time working and ignores their partner's bids to interact or communicate, the partner might take the opportunity to get those needs met with someone else, further distancing their partner, leading their partner to spend more time at work, and the cycle continues.

Next Steps to Take

If you have realized that you or your partner is engaging in emotional cheating, it is important to take active steps in order to make positive change. These steps can be:

Good communication keeps everything on track

Acknowledging the Emotional Affair

Rather than ignoring it, facing and acknowledging the difficult truth that your relationship is in trouble is crucial to moving past the problem. It can be helpful to remind yourself that every relationship encounters problems and that you and your partner are not bad people but rather, you're human and you make mistakes.

Opening Lines of Communication With Your Partner

In order to communicate productively with your partner, you must first create the time and space to do so. You can:

  • Tell them you need to speak with them about something important.
  • Schedule a time with them when you are both available to give the other your undivided attention, away from work, kids or other obligations.
  • Select a private space that is void of distractions so you can talk.
  • Turn off cell phones, computers and other electronic devices.
  • Remain calm and start with stating facts and how they make you feel. For example, "I noticed you being distant from me the past few months and that makes me sad" or "I have been spending more time talking to David than you and I feel guilty."
  • Allow your partner to respond.
  • Take turns sharing your perspectives in calm, respectful, and emotionally honest ways.
  • Seek couples therapy if you need help.

Going to Couples Therapy

There are many benefits to couples therapy. A professional outside of your relationship can help you better understand the dynamics of your relationship, strengthen your communication, and help you make plans for the future.

A common understanding of couples therapy is that the therapist's role is to keep the relationship together. This can certainly be the case if divorce is out of the question for you and your partner. However, the more important role that the therapist plays is that of an objective mirror: to observe your relationship and communication dynamics, reflect them back to you, help you make sense of problems you're having, and help you make decisions about the future of your relationship. A good therapist does not make your decisions for you or tell you what to do, but rather, they encourage you to decide what is best for you. Sometimes that might mean that the therapist helps a couple break-up peacefully.

Love Is a Verb

Relationships change and evolve over time, and can hit rocky points. Additionally, you can still find others attractive even though you are in a monogamous relationship. However, if you love your partner and want to spend a lifetime with them, open communication and taking active steps to deal with issues as soon as they arise are vital to keeping your relationship satisfying for both of you.

Emotional Cheating: A Clear Guide on a Complicated Issue