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What Is Emotional Cheating? (The Truth You Should Know)

February 9, 2024

Finding out that your partner is cheating is one of the most devastating things that can happen to you in your relationship. But what about if they didn’t actually have sex with the person they were becoming close to?

In this article, I’m going to give you everything you need to know about emotional cheating. We’re going to go through what it is, examples of what it looks like, and what you can do if you find out that your partner is having an emotional affair. 

What Is Emotional Cheating and Is It Still Cheating?

Emotional cheating can seem like it occupies an ethical gray area. After all, if you didn’t actually have sex with someone else, it can’t be that bad, right? To answer that question (spoiler alert: yes, it is cheating and it really is that bad), let’s think about what we mean when we talk about cheating in a relationship.

Infidelity or cheating is the act of being unfaithful to your partner.1 This means that you have done something that broke an explicit or implicit promise you made to them about the nature of your relationship.

Being in a relationship means that some things are saved just for the pair of you. If you’re in a monogamous relationship, this includes sex. But sex isn’t the only thing that couples routinely expect to be reserved just for their partner. Giving something that your partner thinks is just for them to someone else is an act of disloyalty. It’s cheating.

Emotional cheating means forming (and maintaining) a close emotional connection with someone who isn’t your spouse.2

It’s really difficult to say exactly where the line is between “close friends” and “emotional cheating.” There’s no single thing that offers a clear-cut “this is cheating but that isn’t” distinction. Every relationship is different and every couple will have their own definitions of what it is ok to share with others and what is just for them.

Examples of Emotional Cheating

Given that it’s so difficult to define emotional cheating, it’s often easier to understand it by looking at some examples of things that other people might consider parts of an emotional affair. 

Remember that some people will be perfectly happy with their partners doing some of these things, but other people would consider it a serious betrayal.

1. Saying “I love you”

Telling someone other than your partner that you love them in a romantic sense is usually considered an example of emotional cheating. Unless you’re in a polyamorous relationship, it’s reasonable to assume that you’re the only person that your partner is in love with.

Unfortunately, even such a straightforward example gets complicated when we think about how we sometimes behave with our close friends. For example, you might say a casual “love you” to your BFF when you head home after an evening talking.3 So, it’s not the words themselves that are the problem.

Although it’s hard to draw the line from the outside, the person saying that they love someone knows very clearly whether they’re declaring platonic affection or romantic love. One way to distinguish between the two is to ask whether you’d also be able to say “I’m falling in love with you.” If so, it’s romantic love.

2. Discussing what a relationship between you would be like

If you’re talking to a close friend and creating a shared fantasy about what a potential relationship between you both would look like, that’s almost certainly emotional cheating.

This is true even if you have no intention of leaving your partner. You’re sharing an image of a potential alternative life and fantasizing about being with another person. More importantly, you’re sharing this fantasy with that person and creating an emotional connection around the life you could potentially have.

Making plans for a future life is one of the ways that many of us bond with our partners. We share our dreams and the things we want to achieve. This is the first step toward making a concrete life plan and working together to achieve it. That’s something most people would expect to share only with their life partner.

Sharing a fantasy relationship with someone else can also make it harder to deal with problems in your current relationship. If you’re having an emotional affair, it’s easy to imagine that the other person wouldn’t do any of the minor things that annoy you about your partner. 

3. Sexting and sending intimate pictures

sexting and sending intimate pictures

This is right on the edge of whether it’s emotional cheating or sexual cheating. Having sexual conversations, discussing ways that you’d like to touch or be touched by someone else, and/or sending intimate pictures is usually considered cheating, whether you actually make physical contact or not.4

Again, this is about forming a close connection with someone who isn’t your partner.

How Do You Know If You’re Emotionally Cheating?

As I’ve mentioned, it can be hard to know exactly where the line is between having a close friend and emotional cheating. Here are some signs that you might be on the wrong side of that line.

1. You feel guilty

The first question to ask yourself is how you feel about your own behavior. Do you feel relaxed and happy about the way you feel about the new person in your life? Or do you feel guilty and uncomfortable?

2. You have an attachment to someone else

When you’re emotionally cheating, you feel a strong attachment to the other person. You might struggle to identify the boundaries in your relationship with them. You might want to turn to them in moments of stress and feel comforted by their attention and care.

3. You prioritize time with them above time with your partner

If you are finding excuses to spend time with another person, especially if this means spending less time with your partner, you might have moved beyond friendship and into emotional cheating.

One of the (many) reasons that having an emotional affair causes a problem for your relationship is that it takes time and energy away from building a closer relationship with your partner.

If you’re choosing to devote your time to someone else in preference to your partner, that’s a sign that you’re not focused on your relationship.

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4. You’re keeping secrets

you're keeping secrets

One of the clearest signs that you’re having an emotional affair is probably the simplest. Are you comfortable being completely open and honest with your partner about what you’re doing and how you feel?

There’s nothing wrong with keeping a few secrets in a relationship. There will be some things in your life that are truly private, that you might not want to disclose to anyone, ever. Those will usually be about things that happened in your past.

If you find yourself wanting to avoid telling your partner about something that you’re thinking, feeling, or doing now, that’s not a good sign. If you’re keeping secrets because your partner would be hurt by the truth, you’re probably treating them in a kind or respectful way.

Signs Your Partner Is Emotionally Cheating

Unfortunately, there’s often no clear-cut evidence that your partner is having an emotional affair.

1. They’re on their phone a lot

If someone is having an emotional affair, they might start to spend a lot of time on their phone. Having an emotional connection with someone takes time to build and maintain. This means that they’ll be talking as much as they can.

If your partner suddenly starts spending a lot more time on their phone than they used to, that might be a sign that they’re having an emotional affair. It’s especially concerning if they start hiding their messages, or being more secretive.

For example, if they used to leave their phone on the table when they left the room but now they take it with them, that might be a sign that there might be some messages or calls coming in that they don’t want you to see.

2. They’re constantly distracted

If your partner is emotionally cheating, they’re going to be devoting more of their attention and emotional energy toward the person they’re cheating with. This means that they’ll often be paying much less attention to you.

You’ll probably notice this as them seeming constantly distracted and as if they’re thinking about something else when you’re together. They might not remember things you talked about or even be mentally ‘checked out’ in the middle of a conversation.

Some people are just naturally a bit more distracted than others. If your partner has been easily distracted throughout your relationship, it’s probably not a sign that they’re emotionally cheating. If this is a new development, it can be more worrying.

3. They talk about someone a lot… and then suddenly stop

they talk about someone a lot and then suddenly stop

Most people don’t start an emotional affair out of nowhere. They start by finding someone interesting and fun to hang out with. They’ll often talk about this cool new friend because they’re excited and they haven’t yet started having deeper feelings or moving towards an emotional affair.

When those feelings do start to develop, they might stop talking about them as much. They might feel awkward and guilty and not want to let you know how much they’re thinking about this other person. 

4. They don’t confide in you as much as they used to

They might keep thinking that they’ve already told you something important. This is because they’ve told the person they’re having the emotional affair with. They remember the sense of emotional release from having shared their feelings but forgot that it wasn’t you that they had told.

Even if they haven’t become confused about who they’ve been talking to, they might still stop confiding in you as much as they used to. They’re pulling away from you emotionally because they’re focused on building a connection with this other person. 

What Can You Do When Your Partner Is Emotionally Cheating?

Discovering that your partner is having an emotional affair can sometimes be even more devastating than realizing that they’ve had a physical affair.5 While you can sometimes dismiss physical affairs as “just sex,” an emotional affair is by definition something more meaningful.

Relationships can recover from emotional cheating, but it might not be easy. Here are some of the things that you can do to try to rebuild a relationship in the aftermath of an emotional affair.

1. Take some time for yourself

When you realize that your partner has betrayed you by having an emotional affair, you’re probably going to have a lot of strong feelings to deal with.6 It might bring back past pain and do real damage to your sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

Make sure that you take the time you need to process those feelings. Don’t allow your partner to rush you into working on your relationship or making a decision about whether you’re willing to stay with them. Be your own top priority for a while.

2. Activate your support network

It’s times like this that you’re going to really need your wider support network, so let the people who love you know that you’re going through something awful. You don’t have to tell everyone exactly what’s happened, but try to reach out to a few people who will keep you safe, supported, and protected.

I’ve put this tip before talking to your partner deliberately. For most problems in a relationship, the most important step toward fixing them is talking to the other person in the relationship. It’s only by working together that you can solve it. I think that emotional cheating is a little different.

Emotional cheating is a huge breach of your trust, but it’s also a slightly nebulous concept. In my experience, when one partner has been engaged in an emotional affair, they’ll try to minimize what they did and you’re left feeling confused about whether your feelings are reasonable or valid.

This is where your support network becomes invaluable. They’re going to be able to give you some external validation that your feelings and reactions are reasonable and that it’s ok for you to feel the way you feel.

3. Talk to each other

Once you’ve taken some time to understand how you’re feeling and you’ve activated your support network, it’s time to have a serious talk with your partner about what has happened, why, and how it has affected both of you. Then you’ll be ready to start looking at how you can start to rebuild.

This means that you’re going to need to talk about a lot of uncomfortable things. There will be a reason your partner turned to someone else for their emotional connection. You’re going to need to work together to understand the cracks in your relationship if you’re going to rebuild it.

Your main focus here has to be on being completely honest with each other. If there are things that you’ve put off telling him because it might make him unhappy, this is the time to get it all out. If either of you is holding things back, you’re not going to be able to rebuild the trust that you need.

Being completely honest doesn’t mean that you have to be cruel or brutal, and you certainly shouldn’t accept cruelty from them. Use your I statements and make sure that you describe their behavior and your feelings, not the other way around.

For example, it might be unhelpful (though honest) to say “Of course I didn’t want sex. You spent all evening texting her and treating me like a piece of furniture. You didn’t care about me at all. You just wanted sex for yourself. You would probably have been imagining I was her.”

It would be completely ok to say “When you spent evenings texting other people while we were watching TV, I felt ignored and unimportant. That meant I didn’t feel special or sexy when we went to bed, which is one reason I didn’t want as much sex.”

4. Expect him to apologize

expect him to apologize

If you’re going to rebuild your relationship after any kind of betrayal, you need to know that your partner understands what they’ve done and why it was so bad. Until that’s happened, you’re going to find it really difficult to trust that he won’t do it again.

Expect him to give you a real, meaningful apology. This means that he needs to:

  • Explain what he did
  • Show that he understands how it affected you
  • Offer explanations without making excuses
  • Take responsibility for his own decisions and actions
  • Express remorse for what he did
  • Explain how he’s going to do better in the future

5. Look for ways to rebuild the relationship

If someone in a relationship is emotionally cheating, the relationship has lost its way somewhere. That’s not an excuse for having an emotional affair. There is no excuse for cheating on your partner and they had any number of other ways to deal with the situation. But it is important when you start trying to rebuild.

If you’re trying to put your relationship back together, you’re going to need to rebuild the trust, security, and connection that you once had with each other. You’re not trying to get back to just before the affair started. You’re trying to get to something that makes both of you genuinely happy.

Think back to some of the things that you loved doing with your partner when you were first dating. What gave you that sense of connection? What showed you that you could trust your partner?

Try setting aside time together where you can focus on rebuilding your relationship. 

6. Go to couples therapy

If you’re struggling to rebuild your relationship after an emotional affair, it might be helpful to seek some form of couples therapy. This will enable you to work together on your relationship and give you some invaluable support as you find ways to reconnect.

FAQs

What causes someone to emotionally cheat?

People have emotional affairs for the same reason that they have physical ones. Cheating is surprisingly rarely just about the sex. More often, it’s about wanting to feel special or exciting and feeling the need for an emotional connection with someone.

Can you love someone and emotionally cheat?

It’s possible to love your partner but still make the bad decision to cheat on them. Sometimes you might tell yourself that it’s not really cheating, but it is betraying your partner and damaging your relationship. If you realize that you still love your partner, you’ll need to stop.

Do emotional cheaters always know it’s wrong?

People who emotionally cheat often don’t think about the effect of their actions on their partner. Because they’re not physically touching anyone else, they can convince themselves that they’re not actually doing anything wrong. Many will know, deep down, that it’s not a kind or respectful thing to do.

Can a relationship recover from emotional cheating?

A strong relationship can often recover from cheating, whether it’s physical or emotional. It’s unlikely to be easy, however. Repairing a relationship damaged by cheating means addressing the underlying problem that led to the cheating and rebuilding the trust that was damaged.

Conclusion

Emotional cheating is still cheating. If your partner has been having an emotional affair, your feelings of hurt and betrayal are completely justified. It is possible to rebuild your relationship, but you’re both going to need to be willing to work hard to create the kind of loving, trusting relationship you deserve.

Did this article help clarify your views on emotional cheating? Let me know in the comments and make sure you share this article with someone who will enjoy it too.

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6 Sources:
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  2. Clayton, R. B., Nagurney, A., & Smith, J. R. (2013). Cheating, Breakup, and Divorce: Is Facebook Use to Blame? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16(10), 717–720. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2012.0424
  3. ‌Floyd, K. (1997). Knowing when to say “I love you”: An expectancy approach to affectionate communication. Communication Research Reports, 14(3), 321–330. https://doi.org/10.1080/08824099709388675
  4. ‌Schneider, J. P., Weiss, R., & Samenow, C. (2012). Is It Really Cheating? Understanding the Emotional Reactions and Clinical Treatment of Spouses and Partners Affected by Cybersex Infidelity. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19(1-2), 123–139. https://doi.org/10.1080/10720162.2012.658344
  5. ‌Sabini, J., & Green, M. C. (2004). Emotional Responses to Sexual and Emotional Infidelity: Constants and Differences Across Genders, Samples, and Methods. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(11), 1375–1388. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167204264012
  6. Haney, J. M., & Hardie, L. (2014). Psychotherapeutic Considerations for Working with Betrayed Spouses: A Four-task Recovery Model. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 35(4), 401–413. https://doi.org/10.1002/anzf.1073
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