This Is How "99 Percent" of Emotional Affairs Start, Therapist Says
If you're familiar with the term "emotional affair," you know that having one can be just as hurtful and damaging as a physical affair. Establishing a romantic connection with someone who isn't your partner can be seriously detrimental to your relationship, breaking trust and even vows. Depending on how you and your partner define monogamy, avoiding emotional cheating is key, but these kinds of affairs do happen—and one therapist says there's a common way that they begin. Read on to find out how 99 percent of emotional affairs really start.
READ THIS NEXT: 6 Red Flags That Spell Cheating, Therapists Warn.
Emotional affairs aren't cut and dry.
Unlike cheating that involves physical intimacy, affairs that are strictly emotional can be harder to define.
"An emotional affair is more tricky to pinpoint," David Tzall, PsyD, a licensed psychologist based in Brooklyn, tells Best Life. "It doesn't have the same parameters as a traditional affair where someone has crossed a line into physical contact. An emotional affair is more when you are seeking out your emotional needs through someone else."
This can "certainly snowball," Tzall says, creating a deeper connection than the one you have with your current partner or spouse. But affairs don't always begin intentionally, and many who find themselves in these situations didn't set out to cheat in the first place. What they often have in common, however, is a specific tendency.
There's a similar starting point for these affairs.
In a video posted on the social media app TikTok, Kathy Nickerson, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and relationship expert, asserts that 99 percent of emotional affairs "begin the same way"—when relationship details and difficulties are shared with someone other than your partner. This could be a friend, a friend's spouse, a coworker, a neighbor, or someone else.
"The conversations often start innocently enough, you're just sharing … that things are hard right now," Nickerson said in the Aug. 20 video. "But then, you get more and more support, you find yourself wanting to text that person all the time, feelings start to grow."
We all need to vent sometimes, but Tzall agrees that you should be careful with the information you share, even if you feel this other person "just gets you." Nickerson adds that this emotional connection can lead to other forms of intimacy, and platonic hugs can even turn into a kiss. For this reason, she advises being "very, very careful."
"I often say, avoid having these conversations with anyone you think you could ever become attracted to because you're at high risk for the affair," Nickerson says at the end of the video.
For more relationship news delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Her advice resonated with social media users.
Nickerson's video has approximately 1.4 million views, 136,000 likes, and nearly 2,000 comments about her views. One TikTok user wrote that some people are "soooo casual about bashing their partners to coworkers and friends," while another quipped that "there should never be a third in a two-person relationship."
Several people confirmed that this is exactly how issues began in their own relationships. "Mine started out innocent and we were both giving advice to each others relationship…it escalated from there," one user wrote, while others said they've been on different sides of these affairs.
"I've been the 'other woman' in an emotional affair…and yeah. 100%," one user commented.
"My ex husband started doing this with a coworker," another stated. "They both complained about their partners together."
There's an underlying reason why people want to vent to others.
Seeking a confidant outside of your relationship is certainly a pathway to an emotional affair, but the desire to engage with someone else is almost always the result of something you're missing, experts say.
"All affairs are the result of someone going outside the marriage for a strong desire that is not being met within the marriage," David Helfand, PsyD, a licensed psychologist who specializes in couples therapy, neurofeedback, and brain mapping, explains. "Confiding in a friend is certainly a way to start an emotional affair, [but] it starts well before that. The research on affairs shows us that in most cases the partner who eventually wanders outside the marriage attempted at least a few times to reconnect with their partner and get their needs met within the relationship."
Therapists recommend keeping that line of communication with your partner open to the best of your ability, and if you've been met with little response, consider your options.
"If you don't feel like you can talk to your partner, consider reaching out to a therapist or psychologist for help," Lanae St.John, DHS, CSC, ACS, founder of The MamaSutra, tells Best Life. "If your partner is not willing to work on the relationship, it may be time to consider what that means for you and renegotiate or end the relationship."