While physical infidelity is pretty easy to define, emotional cheating can be a tricky situation. What constitutes emotional infidelity can vary from person to person and the line between platonic friend and romantic connection can be a slippery slope if you’re not careful.
What is certain is that emotional cheating can be just as damaging to a relationship as a physical affair, depending on how your partner handles the aftermath. That’s why it’s important to understand what exactly emotional infidelity is and what some of the signs might be. That way, when it comes to handling this situation, if it ever comes up in your relationship, you can feel confident in how you conduct yourself and move forward.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What Exactly Is Emotional Cheating?
Emotional cheating can be tough to define because each person has their own boundaries of what they would consider acceptable in their relationship. In short, however, emotional infidelity happens when you establish an intimate connection with someone who’s not your partner.
Unlike merely being attracted to someone else or having a harmless crush, with emotional cheating you start turning to someone else for emotional support instead of your partner. While it’s totally fine to lean on friends in times of need, in an emotional infidelty situation there’s usually some romantic connection or sexual tension that pushes a relationship into affair territory.
Emotional cheating can take a number of forms: Your partner could develop a close relationship with someone at work and spend lots of time in person with them. Or, your partner could connect with someone over social media and establish a digital connection. Even if nothing physical happens, the depth and intimacy of conversation can push these relationships down a path that leads toward emotional cheating almost without people realizing that’s happening.
Signs of Emotional Cheating
There are some clear signals that indicate your partner has established an intimate emotional connection with someone else. Here are some of the big warning signs:
- Something just doesn’t feel right: You know in your gut that something just feels off in your relationship even if you can’t quite explain it.
- Your partner keeps bringing up another person: When someone is emotionally intimate with another person, they often can’t help themselves and mention this person all the time through little anecdotes and stories that seem way more interesting to them than they do to you.
- Your partner always seems to be on their phone: If your partner is constantly texting or DMing without being open about who they are in constant contact with, this may mean that they don’t want you to know what’s really going on.
- Your partner doesn’t share much with you anymore: Since your partner is being emotionally intimate with someone else, they don’t need to share their highs and lows with you anymore—so they don’t.
- Your partner seems less interested in you physically: If the emotional affair is turning into a crush or a romantic situation, your partner will likely pull away from sexual intimacy and be less affectionate with you.
What to Do if Your Partner Has Been Emotionally Unfaithful
If you suspect that your partner is having an emotional affair, don’t panic or jump to conclusions. While some situations may be tough to overcome, know that it’s natural for people in long term relationships to seek out intimacy, especially if that’s been lacking in your own relationship.
Emotional cheating doesn’t need to be a relationship death sentence. However, depending on the nature of the affair, it could be necessary to move on.
Here’s a step-by-step process for handling the situation:
Address the distance head-on
You can’t solve a problem you don’t talk about, right? Be direct with your partner about feeling ignored. You might say something like, “I feel lonely when we’re together and you spend time texting other people.” Then, offer a suggestion of creating some opportunities to connect without your phones.
Your partner’s response to this will be telling. If they get defensive and upset, you may realize that your needs are just not that important to them. If they’re willing to work together to make time to connect, you know your relationship has a chance.
Fight the urge to find proof
You might really, really want to snoop through your partner’s phone, email or DMs to see what exactly is going on. Don’t. Do. It. Seriously, don’t. Whatever you find will only make you feel bad, first of all. Then, if you want to bring it up to your partner you will need to tell them that you snooped, which is a huge breach of trust. Focus on addressing the distance in your relationship and changing what’s become the status quo, not on this other connection that your partner may have formed.
Discuss and set boundaries
It’s important to define what’s crossing the line when it comes to intimacy in your relationship. Even if there’s no signs of cheating, emotionally or physically, all couples can benefit from having an honest conversation about boundaries. Are you comfortable with your partner grabbing drinks with a coworker one-on-one? Is it okay if they sleep in the same bed as their childhood best friend, who also happens to be super hot now? Is DMing their ex to talk about their feelings out of bounds?
There are no right and wrong answers here. What matters is that you come to an understanding with your partner about what you’re each comfortable with—or not—and that you can trust each other to respect those boundaries.
Figure out your relationship’s next steps
Next, it’s time to decide if you’re going to continue with your relationship. Whether or not your partner has officially admitted to emotional cheating, you need to decide if you’re able to get over the fact that they were intimate emotionally with someone else. You should evaluate their response to your feelings of distance and how much effort they have put in to remedy the situation.
If your partner continues texting someone else every night while you’re watching TV or doesn’t seem interested in you physically or emotionally anymore, even after you’re tried to address the situation, it may be time to move on.
If you decide to stay together, you and your partner should work together to understand the root cause of your distance from each other. You might consider working with a therapist (together or separately) to help you rebuild intimacy and trust. Make a plan for rebuilding your closeness and check in with each other about your progress.
If you decide to break up, you’ll need to work on rebuilding trust for future relationships. Your trust was broken and you should give yourself the time and space to heal before jumping into a new relationship.
Feel Your Feelings
Emotional cheating is a tough situation for the person on the receiving end of the affair. Don’t beat yourself up for your partner straying—sometimes people just grow apart and set the stage for someone else to emotionally swoop in. In many cases, the person having the affair doesn’t mean to get so caught up in things. Emotional affairs really can sneak up on people.
What matters most is that you take care of yourself and try to reserve self-judgment and blame as you navigate this situation. Love really can conquer all so if you want to make things work with your partner after an emotional affair, know that it’s possible to come out the other side stronger and more connected than before.
But if this kind of affair is a deal breaker for you, know that you don’t need to force yourself to get over it. Take care of you.