When we think of cheating in a relationship, the first thing that often comes to mind is sexual infidelity. While sexual infidelity can absolutely be devastating to a relationship, another kind of infidelity that can pose j ust as much of a threat has recently begun to garner more attention: emotional infidelity.
So, just what is emotional infidelity? An emotional affair occurs when one partner engages in a relationship that has an inappropriate level of emotional intimacy. While emotional affairs do not include an active sexual component (such as exchanging pictures or engaging in physical intimacy), there is usually an element of attraction for at least one side of the affair, often labeled an “innocent crush.” Emotional affairs can also lead to sexual affairs down the road.
Emotional Affairs vs. Physical Affairs: Which One Is More Serious?
When I first meet with a couple that wants to recover from an emotional affair, one comment I often receive is, “Well, nothing sexual actually happened!” While some people may think that an emotional affair is not as serious as a physical one, the reality is usually much different. An emotional affair can inflict just as much pain and damage to trust in a relationship as a sexual one.
Part of why emotional affairs are just as painful as physical ones have to do with boundary violations. When partners come to me justifying their emotional affair by saying that nothing sexual happened, what they are really saying is, “I didn’t violate the boundaries we have around sexual fidelity.” While this may be true, couples also usually have boundaries around emotional fidelity, although they are much less likely to discuss these kinds of boundaries explicitly. When these boundaries around emotional fidelity are violated, the feelings of deception and betrayal that are experienced are very real and poignant.
One thing that can help ensure that both partners are on the same page about emotional fidelity is explicitly talking about what the boundaries are. The earlier you have this conversation, the more likely you and your partner will have a greater understanding of what’s important to each of you. Here are just a few questions that can be helpful to discuss with your partner around emotional boundaries:
- What kinds of things are okay to discuss with or confide in close friends? What things are off-limits?
- Is it okay for us to have close friendships that the other doesn’t know about? What kinds of things do we need to disclose to each other?
- Are there certain kinds of people (i.e., people who you used to date, people who you are attracted to, people with a history of infidelity) who are off-limits for ongoing close friendships?
If you find that having this conversation starts to bring up uncomfortable feelings or results in one or both partners shutting down, it’s okay to reach out for help. Including someone you both trust in the conversation, such as a relative, spiritual leader, therapist, or mentor could provide a level of safety/comfortability in the conversation and accountability.
Emotional Affairs vs. Close Friendships: What’s The Difference?
A question I often receive as a couples therapist and relationship coach is what the difference is between emotional infidelity and a close friendship. Emotional infidelity includes a betrayal of trust or, in other words, doing something that would hurt or make your partner feel uncomfortable if they knew about it. In many ways, this difference is dependent on the boundaries that you and your partner each feel comfortable with for emotional fidelity in your relationship, which is why it’s so important to talk about those boundaries.
Three other criteria that can help define the difference between an emotional affair and a friendship are:
- Intimate information, such as life dreams and personal hardships, is shared
- The closeness of the friendship is kept a secret from your partner
- There is sexual attraction going at least one way in the friendship, even if that attraction has never been acted on
Pay attention to your friendships, are any of them playing with the boundaries that you and your partner have agreed on? Are you crossing any lines that would make your partner feel uncomfortable? By checking in with yourself regularly, you can avoid slipping into an unhealthy relationship with others that would ultimately betray your partner’s trust. Emotional affairs don’t happen in just one night, they tend to gradually grow and turn into something more serious over time – the earlier you read the signs, the easier it is to nip it in the bud before it gets out of control.
What Are The Signs That You Are In An Emotional Affair?
In addition to the above three criteria, here are other signs that reveal you may be involved in an emotional affair:
- Your partner would feel uncomfortable if they witnessed your interactions with your friend
- You feel that the friend understands you better than your partner
- You feel emotionally distant from your partner or find that it’s difficult to communicate with them
- You find yourself anticipating being able to spend time with or communicate with the friend more than in other platonic friendships
- You find yourself sharing more with the friend than with the partner
- When you learn big news, your friend is the first person you want to share it with
- You dress up for your friend
- You feel dependent on the emotional high from interacting with your friend
If you recognize that you’re in an emotional affair and want to save your current relationship, the affair must be ended. Because of the emotionally intimate nature of emotional affairs, this can be very difficult! You likely will have developed a strong attachment to this person and will be tempted to try to hold on to the friendship by committing to adhere to certain boundaries with them. While this desire is understandable, it is usually not sustainable. If the intense emotional attachment is still present, it will be very easy to cross those boundaries again if the friendship is maintained.
Once you have decided to end the emotional affair, here are some steps that you can follow:
- Communicate this desire to the other person. Clearly state that you feel that the friendship has crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed and that you have chosen to not participate in it anymore. Ask that they respect your wishes.
- Set clear boundaries. Let them know that you do not want any more contact with them. If they are a work colleague or someone who you will need to interact with, set clear boundaries for the content and method of communication that is okay. For example, you may request that they only communicate with you through your work email and that your supervisor or other coworkers are included on every email.
- Delete the person from your social media and block their phone number and personal email. While this may seem like an extreme step, it is an additional safeguard you can put in place to make the temptation to reconnect as minimal as possible.
Once you have decided to end the emotional affair, the first step is to communicate this desire to the other person. Clearly state that you feel that the friendship has crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed, and that you have chosen to not participate in the relationship anymore. Ask that they respect your wishes.
Secondly, you will need to set clear boundaries. Let the friend know that you do not want any more contact with them. If they are a work colleague or someone who you will need to interact with, set clear boundaries for the content and method of communication that is okay. For example, you may request that they only communicate with you through your work email and that your supervisor or other coworkers are included on every email.
Lastly, you will need to make a conscious effort to remove them from your personal life. Delete/block them from your social media, block their phone number and personal email, and cut off other forms of communication. While this may seem like an extreme step, it is an additional safeguard you can put in place to make the temptation to reconnect as minimal as possible.
Remember, you’re not doing this to hurt your friend, but to save your most important relationship with your partner.
Signs That Your Partner Is Participating In An Emotional Affair
Because of the nature of emotional affairs, it can be difficult to recognize if your partner is participating in one. Usually, when emotional infidelity occurs, there is a lack of physical evidence. However, here are a few things that could indicate the presence of emotional infidelity:
- Your partner spends large amounts of time texting or messaging on their phone or computer
- Your partner is protective over their electronic devices and does not let others use them
- Your partner no longer shares emotional or personal things with you
- Your partner suddenly seems to be less interested in hearing emotional or personal things you want to share with them
- Your intuition tells you that something is not right
- When you try to discuss your concerns with your partner, they tell you that you’re imagining things or get overly defensive
If your partner is in an emotional affair and you decide that you would like to pursue reconciliation, they must also make the choice to end the affair and to focus their efforts on rebuilding trust and emotional intimacy in your relationship. If your partner is serious about ending the affair and repairing your relationship, some telltale signs include:
- They accept responsibility and are remorseful for the ways that they have violated boundaries and broken trust
- They are committed to ending all contact with the person as much as possible
- They demonstrate their commitment to rebuilding your relationship by putting effort into reconnecting and actively participating in couples therapy
Moving Forward After An Emotional Affair
Once contact has been cut off with the affair partner and the couple has decided to move forward in their relationship, it is time for the healing process to begin. This can be a very difficult and tricky process to navigate, which is why I recommend enlisting the help of an experienced couples therapist, preferably someone with a license and training as a Marriage and Family Therapist! Your therapist can guide you through the affair recovery process and help you to build a relationship that is stronger and more connected than before the affair occurred.
A good couples therapist can help guide you and your partner through emotional affair recovery by giving space to the partner who was hurt by the affair so they can express their pain and ask questions of their partner. In return, a good couples therapist can give space to the partner who was involved in the affair, accept responsibility and validate their partner’s pain.