What Is Emotional Cheating? Experts Explain
It can be just as devastating as a physical affair.
Ask anyone what cheating looks like and they’ll probably tell you it’s having sexual contact with someone other than your partner. Infidelity occurs in many relationships and marriages, and is one of the leading causes of couples getting divorced. But while a physical affair can be devastating, what can wreak even more havoc is emotional cheating. Whether you’re the one having an emotional affair (or your partner is), you’ll need to know how to navigate these rocky relationship waters so that you make the best decision for you and your partnership.
What is emotional cheating — and what isn’t emotional cheating?
Emotional cheating is harder to pinpoint, partly because it doesn’t have the same physical parameters that a traditional affair does, according to David Tzall, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist. “An emotional affair is more than just talking about your relationship to another person,” he says. “An emotional affair is when you are seeking out your unmet emotional needs through someone else.” Whether it’s because your partner is clueless or simply doesn’t care, the feeling that someone just “gets you” can be intoxicating and cause you to look outside of your relationship for validation, recognition, and comfort.
So, is there sex involved in emotional infidelity? While emotional affairs don’t always start off physical, they can lead to it. “Emotional infidelity doesn't include sexual contact, but it's often a matter of time before it does,” suggests Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and relationship coach in Boulder, CO. But even if sex doesn’t enter the equation, an emotional affair can be gut-wrenching to an unsuspecting partner, says Laura Doyle, a relationship coach and New York Times bestselling author. “Having your partner share their most intimate thoughts with another person, and creating intimacy together, is devastating,” she says. “An emotional affair toys with your sense of reality and self-worth.”
Tracy Taris, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and relationship expert and author of Many Voices ONE TRUTH, agrees. “For some people, emotional cheating can be just as damaging as the type of infidelity that involves physical, phone, or texting sex,” she says. “Having sex produces oxytocin, the bonding chemical, and the brain also releases it during emotional intimacy, too.”
Emotional cheating examples
You look forward to going to work each day — and it’s certainly not to spend time with your boss. Or maybe you recently lost a parent and don’t want to share those intimate and intense feelings with your partner. Those moments when you turn to someone else other than your partner to give you emotional support are what make up the core of emotional infidelity.
But what are some other examples of emotional cheating? You’ll know that things are starting to cross the line into an emotional affair when simply thinking of that other person brings a smile to your face, but any time you’re trying to keep the relationship (and your true feelings) under wraps from your partner, you’re definitely in cheating territory, according to Taris. “The closeness you share with that person is a secret,” she explains. “Or you pretend you don’t have a partner, or you find ways of not mentioning the fact that you do have a partner when you are communicating in an emotionally intimate way.” And if there’s an underlying erotic energy present when you’re talking to them, that’s a surefire sign that you’re being emotionally unfaithful.
Affairs (emotional and otherwise) occur every day, and even celebrities are not immune to them. While we tend to hear mostly about physical affairs, there have been cases of emotional ones as well that make for fine examples of emotional cheating. In her memoir, Open Book, Jessica Simpson said that she had an emotional affair with Johnny Knoxville. And while he never admitted to a physical affair, Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine said that he “crossed the line” with model Sumner Stroh while he was married to wife Behati Prinsloo.
What are signs of emotional cheating?
There are a whole lot of red flags waving when you’re in the throes of emotional cheating — and you might not even realize it. “Signs can include spending a significant amount of time talking or messaging with someone else, often in secret, sharing personal details or confidences with someone else that should be reserved for one's partner,” says Tzall. “You might be lying to one's partner about the nature of one's relationship with the other person, having strong emotional or psychological reactions to the other person, and going out of one's way to spend time with the other person, or making plans that exclude one's partner.” And while the nature of your relationship isn’t sexual, that might not stop you from thinking about the other person while you’re having sex with your partner.
Feeling happy when you connect with that person (and not with your partner) can also be a sign of emotional cheating. “You tell that person things you would normally tell your partner, especially if you don’t share the same info with them,” says Taris. “And when you’re upset, you think first of sharing it with the person who is not your partner, rather than your partner.”
How do you deal with emotional cheating?
If your partner has been in an emotional affair, it can hurt just as much as if they were physically unfaithful to you. “Being the victim of any kind of affair is a heartbreaking sucker punch to the stomach, and strong enough to topple you over,” says Laura Doyle, a relationship coach and New York Times bestselling author. “It's terrifying to think that the person you trusted to be faithful has betrayed your bond.”
“Forgiving can be difficult, but it's important to remember that forgiveness is not about forgetting or condoning what happened,” says Tzall. “Instead, it's about letting go of resentment and anger so that you can move on with your life.” Thing is, forgiving takes time and it's an ongoing process, so allow yourself to process your feelings and give yourself time to heal. You might need to seek the support of friends, family, a therapist, or go to couples counseling so that you can work through your feelings.
But if you’re the one having the emotional affair, you’re going to need to really decide if you want to stay in your current relationship or not. And if you do decide that your partnership is worth saving, you’ll need to fight for it. “The only way to stop emotional cheating is to get the person 100% out of your life,” advises Fisher. “Once feelings have developed, they can always come back, so don't fool yourself into thinking you still can be friends.” After all, your partner won’t be able to heal if they know you still have contact with them. And mending your relationship may require proof, like allowing your partner to see that you aren’t speaking to the person through your phone or private accounts.
Above all, show regret for what you’ve done. “You need to be remorseful for your hurtful behavior,” adds Fisher. “You broke your commitment by emotionally crossing the line with another person.” Doing all of this can help the healing process, and hopefully you and your partner can be on the path towards reconciliation if that’s what you both want.
Emotional cheating can feel exciting in the moment, but at its core, it reflects a sadness since it shows that something is missing in your partnership. It’s up to you to determine what means more to you and ultimately do the right thing, not just for your relationship, but for yourself.
David Tzall, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist
Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed psychologist and relationship coach in Boulder, CO
Laura Doyle, a relationship coach and New York Times bestselling author
Tracy Taris, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and relationship expert and author of Many Voices ONE TRUTH