When people talk about affairs in relationship, they usually refer to sexual dalliances. But emotional affairs are common, too, and experts say they can be just as — if not more — painful. These non-physical betrayals can feel embarrassing, isolating, and confusing, especially if you’re trying to make it work with your partner.
Emotional affairs can also be difficult because they’re harder to define. If there’s no sexual contact, where does a platonic friendship end and something more serious begin? “A friendship doesn’t tend to pull out emotional and time resources from a primary relationship,” Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, tells Woman's Day.
That said, emotional affairs tend to send similar red flags to sexual affairs. Woman’s Day spoke to two clinical psychologists to learn about the signs a partner is having an emotional affair and what you can do about it.
Your partner is more distracted
Maybe your partner spending more time on their phone or computer, or their head seem to be elsewhere when you’re talking with them.
“The key there is that they seem more distracted than usual and there’s not always a clear explanation as to why,” Kate Balestrieri, PsyD., certified sex therapist and founder of Modern Intimacy tells Woman's Day. Or, if they do give a reason, they might dismiss your concern or their explanation won’t add up.
They’re more protective of their phone/computer
In addition to being more distracted by their phone, they might start guarding it. Suddenly their phone is never face up, has a new passcode, or they seem to get really agitated or anxious when they can’t find it. “Often these emotional affairs start as micro-cheating: texting, instant messaging sorts of dances that expand from there,” Durvasula says.
They’re providing too many details
Secrecy isn’t always about withholding information. Sometimes when partners start sharing more, it’s a sign they’re making excuses or that they’re absorbing someone else’s enthusiasm.
“Suddenly they have a whole lot of information about a hobby or a topic or a show, and that usually means they’re probably being influenced by someone else’s hobbies, influences, binge-worthy shows, etc.,” Balestrieri says.
They’re talking about someone new...a lot
If a new coworker, friend or acquaintance starts coming up in conversation a lot, it’s not always innocuous. “It’s a subtle and insidious way that people will start to try to normalize the relationship,” Balestrieri says. It’s clearly a sign that person is on their mind more often.
They start changing their physical appearance
You’ve heard this one before for sexual affairs, but it’s true for emotional ones, too.
If your partner suddenly gains an interest in losing weight, exercising more, dressing better, or seems more concerned about their appearance, they may be trying to look good for someone else, Durvasula says.
They’re comparing you to someone else
As demoralizing as it may sound, a spouse comparing you to someone else isn’t as rare as you’d think. “Comparison can actually be an indicator that there’s some kind of new loyalty being formed somewhere else and that you may have been deprioritized in some way,” Balestrieri says.
It’s most common when the relationship has been breeding resentment and the cheating partner hasn't been getting their needs met. “The comparison is a subtle form of humiliation and an unconscious plea for: ‘Why can’t you be more like this?’”
Changes in schedule
Much like changes in appearance, a change in schedule can also indicate that your partner is emotionally attaching to someone new, Durvasula says.
If they’ve changed their sleeping/waking patterns, or they're starting to have later nights at work or socially, it could be an indicator of an emotional affair.
Your partner is more cruel
Critical comments, snide looks, sarcasm, and just generally being a jerk can also be signs of an emotional affair. “It’s as though they’re trying to come up with reasons they don’t like the relationship with you,” Durvasula says.
What To Do When You Suspect An Emotional Affair
Durvasula says that emotional affairs are often more painful than sexual affairs, particularly for women. Assuming you want to try to fix the relationship, there are a few key things to focus on.
First, you have to talk about it. Use the often-recommended “I statements” to tell your partner how you’re feeling and what you’re observing in their behavior. If your partner seems open, empathetic and collaborative, there’s a good chance they’re willing to work with you on whatever’s happening, Balestrieri says. But if they’re defensive or suggest that your concerns are in your head, they’re either oblivious to what they’re doing, or they know what they’re doing but aren’t willing to stop.
Next, don't be afraid to honor the hurt.
Although you might be tempted to brush the affair off since “nothing happened,” it can take a real emotional toll and you’ve got to be willing to feel those feelings in order to get through them.
“If your partner and you are invested in keeping the relationship intact, be prepared to be triggered," Balestrieri says. It will take a while to regain trust, even if the cheating partner does everything "right" by being transparent through the whole process.
That said, you should also know and respect your boundaries.
“It’s good to know what your threshold is to cut and run if you feel like your partner is not showing up in a way that feels authentic and committed to growing through this together,” Balestrieri adds.
Finally, you need to go to couples' therapy. “When there’s been this level of breach of trust. . . it’s very difficult territory to navigate without a good couples therapist," Durvasula says.
Key word: ‘good.’ Find a therapist who makes you both feel heard and supported, so that you can start repairing your relationship and move forward.
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