Is Emotional Cheating Real? What To Do If It Happens

In today’s interconnected world, relationships have evolved in myriad ways, and while physical infidelity is well recognized, another form of betrayal, often less visible but equally impactful, has emerged — emotional cheating.

As a psychologist in private practice, the topic of emotional cheating or emotional affairs comes up often.  Just this past week, a client’s girlfriend became upset when she discovered that the client “liked” his ex’s social media post.  Over the years, several of my married clients have also shared with me that they’ve secretly reconnected with an old flame on Facebook; and, while most of them say that it’s fine to do, the majority of them have acknowledged that their partners wouldn’t like it if discovered.  Another current married client of mine frequently has lunch with a male co-worker she finds attractive because that co-worker and she have a lot in common.  As I’ve shared with my clients, these sort of behaviors on their own may not lead to a physical affair, but the motivation to experience a deeper connection with someone other than your partner is still problematic.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen the profound and painful effects of emotional affairs on relationships when they continue, become something more or are uncovered by a partner.

So, what is an emotional affair? At its core, an emotional affair occurs when one partner forms a deep emotional bond with someone outside their primary relationship, often in secrecy or with excluding their partner in the process. This bond can be as intimate, if not more so, than a physical relationship. It’s characterized by sharing personal insights, seeking emotional support, and forming a connection that typically belongs in a committed relationship.

So, what are the signs of emotional cheating?  Recognizing emotional infidelity can be challenging since it doesn’t carry the overt markers of physical cheating. However, some signs might indicate its presence:

Secrecy and Privacy: If a partner is hiding conversations or meetings with a “friend,” that is a red flag.

  1. Emotional Distance: A sudden emotional withdrawal from the primary relationship can indicate that emotional energy is being directed elsewhere.
  2. Talking about the other person: If your partner frequently mentions a particular person, sharing their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, it might be a sign of an emotional connection that’s gone too far.
  3. Defensiveness: When confronted, the partner might become defensive or dismissive about the relationship, insisting that it’s just a friendship.

But Is emotional cheating really cheating?  This is a complex question. Some would argue that without physical intimacy, it isn’t cheating. However, from an interpersonal perspective, and from what I’ve experienced as a psychologist with clients, the emotional bond and intimacy shared in an emotional affair can be as, if not more, damaging to a relationship or marriage than a physical one. Emotional affairs can erode trust, create feelings of betrayal, and destabilize the primary relationship’s foundation. In essence and in my opinion, if a relationship’s boundaries are crossed, regardless of the nature, it constitutes cheating.

So, what causes emotional cheating or emotional affairs?  Several factors can lead to emotional infidelity:

  1. Unmet Emotional Needs: When emotional needs aren’t met in the primary relationship, individuals might seek fulfillment elsewhere.
  2. Seeking Validation: A new connection can provide validation, especially if someone feels undervalued in their primary relationship.
  3. Life Transitions: Major life changes, like a new job or moving to a new city, can create stressors and vulnerabilities that lead to emotional affairs.
  4. Digital Connectivity: The digital age has made it easier to connect with others, blurring the lines between innocent friendships and deeper emotional connections.
  5. Getting Older:  Most physical affairs happen in middle age because people miss their younger selves, or they feel less attractive or desirable with age.  Emotional affairs can also become attractive during this phase of life for the same reasons.
  6. Escape and Boredom:  An affair (physical or emotional) temporarily allows one to get away from the children, the bills and the mounting and mundane responsibilities.  It can also be exciting to connect with someone deeply with no obligations or strings attached.

So, what should you do if you’ve become too emotionally connected to someone other than my partner?

  1. Self-Reflect: Think through what’s causing you to seek out a strong emotional connection with someone outside of your relationship or marriage?  What’s missing within you and/or within your current relationship? By gaining insight and self-awareness, you’ll be in a better position to make need changes.
  2. Stop and/or Set Boundaries: Once you realize what’s motivating you to seek a connection with someone outside of your relationship, setting boundaries or discontinuing contact with that individual s advised.
  3. Communicate with your partner: By reconnecting with your partner, and by working through the things you don’t like or the apparent problems in your relationship, you can get back to a solid place again as a couple.
  4. Seek Professional Help: Communication alone might or might not be enough to resolve relationship conflicts or struggles.  When the problems in your relationship, and/or the drive to seek a connection with someone other than your partner is too strong or too complicated, working with a couple’s or marriage therapist is also advised.

In conclusion, emotional cheating, while lacking the physicality of traditional affairs, carries significant emotional weight. It’s essential for individuals and couples to recognize its signs and understand its implications. Self-reflection, open communication, setting boundaries, and seeking professional help when needed can prevent emotional affairs and heal relationships affected by them.

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Emotional Cheating
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Emotional Cheating
Emotional Cheating
Emotional Cheating

Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D. “Dr. Mike” is a clinical psychologist in private practice.
He can be reached at 703-723-2999, and is located at 44095 Pipeline Plaza, Suite 240, Ashburn