When we talk about someone cheating on their partner, we usually think about sex. But sometimes cheating can happen far outside the bedroom. And although it might not involve bodily fluids, it can be just as messy, if not more so. So what is emotional cheating? In short, it’s when you connect with another person on an intimate, emotional level and disconnect from your partner, and it can be as damaging to a relationship as sexual infidelity. But how you define it as a couple can get kinda tricky, with many shades of gray. To help, here’s what some experts had to say about it.
So, what exactly is emotional cheating?
“Emotional cheating can be anything that involves emotional energy that is being given outside of the relationship or marriage,” says sex therapist Candice Cooper-Lovett of A New Creation Psychotherapy Services. “Emotional cheating can be anything that takes from the relationship.”
Because that can be a bit vague, it can be hard to pinpoint emotional cheating when it’s happening (and easier to hide). But typically emotional cheating includes conversations where an emotional connection develops within the context of an intimate attraction, explains clinical psychologist Dr. Catalina Lawsin. Think flirty texts, inside jokes and compliments that grow over time. “Physical intimacy is often not a component of the relationship—yet. There may be a physical attraction in this new relationship, but that line hasn’t been crossed. This often allows partners engaging in emotional cheating to rationalize the relationship as acceptable. However, the core component of cheating, or any affair, is secrecy or deception. Therefore, emotional cheating has been shown to be perceived as just as, if not more, destructive to relationships [than sexual infidelity].”
What’s the difference between emotional cheating and a friendship?
“But we’re just friends,” says your partner. Dr. Cooper-Lovett explains, “[Friendship] doesn’t take from your current relationship or make you less of yourself for your partner.” And with an emotional affair, you’re probably establishing a much closer and deeper relationship than you would with platonic friends. “The intimacy that’s being cultivated in the relationship is satisfying and satiating the cheater’s intimacy needs that are now being sought from this new partner rather than their committed long-term partner,” Dr. Lawsin says. “Emotional affairs may start off as friends, and then when intimacy grows or moments of connection become more frequent and intense, the relationships evolves.”
Dr. Cooper-Lovett adds that in friendships there’s typically a limit in terms of how much we share of ourselves, but with emotional cheating, our emotional energy is similar to that in romantic relationships. “This is why emotional cheating can be dangerous,” she says. Plus, you’ve probably thought about this person naked, even if you hadn’t had sex, which is something you don’t do with your other friends.
Why it can often be more damaging than sexual infidelity
When you’re involved in an emotional affair, you’re basically checked out of your long-term relationship. “A lot of your energy is going into the other relationship. You are getting fed in this emotional affair, so the things that you would typically need from your partner you find you no longer need because you're getting it elsewhere,” Dr. Cooper-Lovett explains. “This can cause disconnection in the relationship, which makes both partners emotionally distant from one another.”
Because of this, studies have found that emotional cheating is actually more threatening than the physical kind of cheating. “In a sexual affair, it’s strictly sex with little to no emotional involvement (unless it started off that way),” Dr. Cooper-Lovett says. But when feelings are involved, it might be harder for the person to break away and may even result in them ending their current relationship for this new “emotional” partner, she explains.
And, like physical affairs, oftentimes emotional affairs happen when there are relationship problems such as a lack of intimacy, Dr. Lawsin explains. “Unfortunately, rather than being transparent about the cheater’s desire to explore other relationships, these individuals engage in affairs to meet their needs, disengaging in their relationship.”
Are you guilty of emotional cheating?
If your “work husband” is starting to feel like something more than just a cube mate, Dr. Lawsin suggests distancing yourself from this new partner and asking yourself a few key questions: Why don’t I want to tell my partner about this new relationship? What are my needs that aren’t being met that are now being met in this new relationship? How am I trying to work on my primary relationship when I’m creating distance by engaging in this emotional affair?
“It is important to know when you have crossed a boundary that would be detrimental to the relationship and to cut it off or set boundaries,” Dr. Cooper-Lovett says. “Evaluate if you're happy in your current relationship and if you need to figure out what you really want and to make a sound decision whether to continue the relationship or move forward.”