You might associate an affair with sexual intimacy outside of your relationship, but there’s also a gray area that can be just as damaging: emotional affairs.
An emotional affair is defined by elements of secrecy, emotional connection, and sexual chemistry that hasn’t been acted upon.
“Some feel it creates an even deeper chasm when it’s emotional rather than just physical,” says Joree Rose, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
At first glance, it can be hard to differentiate an emotional affair from a close friendship, but there are some key differences.
“A friendship is supportive and [involves] someone you may see a few times a month,” says licensed therapist Katie Ziskind. An emotional affair, on the other hand, tends to involve someone you see regularly, often with great anticipation.
Think along the lines of a co-worker, that person who’s always on your bus in the morning, or your favorite barista (though it’s totally possible to have relationships with all of these folks without it being considered an emotional affair).
According to Rose, it all comes down to transparency. If you’re purposefully hiding information about your conversations or interactions with this person from your partner, it may be more than a run-of-the-mill friendship.
Yes, depending on the situation.
Texting can make emotional affairs extremely accessible, Rose explains, because it can start off simple and harmless. But it can easily slip into something deeper, especially if you’re texting with the person throughout the day.
You might find that the ease of texting leads you to end up communicating more with this person than your partner.
If you’re leaving your partner on “read” but rapidly responding to someone else throughout the day, it might be time to take a step back and look at the relationship.
Just like texting, social media can be a slippery slope when it comes to an emotional affair.
A connection that starts off purely platonic can grow, especially since it doesn’t involve the many layers of interruptions, distractions, or issues that a committed relationship deals with, such as co-parenting, the kids, careers, housework, finances, and in-laws.
What about looking up an ex?
Whether this constitutes a type of emotional affair or cheating comes down to what you and your partner have agreed on. If you haven’t yet, consider carving out some time for a conversation about what is and isn’t OK with each of you.
If you haven’t had this conversation but know your partner wouldn’t like you regularly checking up on your ex, you’re probably getting into shaky territory.
“It’s common for things to start innocently, where two people might think they are just being friendly,” notes Anita A. Chlipala, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in infidelity.
But over time, things can turn physical if you aren’t maintaining appropriate boundaries.
If you start to develop feelings and factor in the increased passion and infatuation due to the secrecy involved, it can be easy to slip into a physical affair.
Trying to decipher whether your partner is having an emotional affair can be tricky. For one, if they are having one, they might not be forthcoming to you with their feelings regarding the other person.
But these signs might suggest that something’s up:
- Increased secrecy. Your partner may suddenly change their phone security settings or start taking their phone when they go to the bathroom when they didn’t before.
- Withdrawal from the relationship. They might be on their phone more frequently or texting later at night than usual. They might not seem as excited to see you when you get home, or be less inclined to ask about your day.
- Changes in sex drive. Sure, you might notice a decrease in your sex life. But a sudden change in the opposite direction may also be a sign. “One of the ways a person who is having an affair may make up for their guilt is to initiate more sex so as to not bring suspicion that anything may be wrong,” Rose says.
It’s important to remember that all of the above can happen for a variety of reasons, many having nothing to do with infidelity. If you feel like something’s off, an open, honest conversation is a good starting point.
Rose recommends using something called the nonviolent communication framework, or compassionate communication. It’s a psychologist-developed conversation style that avoids blaming or attacking the other person.
Here’s a look at the four key steps of this approach, along with some talking points specific to raising concerns about a potential affair:
- Observe the situation. “I’m noticing that we’ve been really disconnected, especially around sex. It feels the phone has become a main source of your attention, and I’m also sensing some inconsistencies in the stories about your day.” Notice how there’s no blame, says Rose, only “I” statements coming from a place of observation.
- Name how the situation makes you feel. “When I feel disconnected or sense something else is going on with you, my mind starts to wander to the dark side, and I’m feeling scared and insecure.”
- State what you need to alleviate the feelings from the situation. “When my mind won’t stop racing and I’m feeling nervous about your whereabouts, I need greater clarity and comfort about what’s going on.”
- Make a specific request directly related to the situation. “Right now, can we please have an honest conversation about my concerns and fears, and will you please do your best to be open and honest with me, even if it’s hard?”
Emotional affairs are hard enough to detect in a partner, but things get even more complicated when you’re the one involved.
Here are some general signs to watch for:
- sneaking around to talk and spend time with this person
- disclosing more to them than you do with your partner
- creating opportunities to spend extra time with them, either online or in person
- reaching out to your friend more often instead of turning to your partner
Also take note of what’s arising in your body, Rose emphasizes. Our physiology is often a helpful source in understanding what we’re feeling.
When things cross the friendship boundary, you might notice an increased heart rate when around the other person, butterflies in your stomach, or even sexual turn-ons or erotic thoughts.
Bottom line: If you wouldn’t want your partner to know what you’re doing, it might be time to take a step back.
Telling your partner about your emotional connection to the other person could cause a great deal of distress in your relationship, Rose says, especially if you don’t want to lose the relationship. But being open with them is the only way forward.
When having this conversation, prioritize honesty and accountability.
Be honest about what’s been going on. However, avoid implicating your partner or blaming them for you behavior. It’s crucial that you own your behavior, even if you feel like it was motivated by something your partner did (or didn’t do).
If you have concerns about how to approach the conversation, consider reaching out to a therapist. They can help you better understand the issue at hand and come up with effective ways to talk about it.
If you’ve realized you’re in the midst of an emotional affair, the next step is to evaluate how you want to move forward. Do you want to be with your partner? Or do you want to continue the emotional affair?
Start by being honest with yourself as to why you’re having the affair, Rose says.
- “Is it simply the novelty that’s appealing to me?”
- “Am I seeking something deeper that’s lacking in my current relationship?”
- “Is there part of me that hopes my partner finds out and breaks things off so I don’t have to?”
“Without this deep self-reflection as to what is lying underneath the behaviors, it’ll be hard to break from it, or hard not to seek another affair partner in the future,” Rose adds.
If you feel like breaking things off isn’t an option, “tell your partner so they can make an informed decision about whether to stay or go,” Chlipala advises.
An emotional affair isn’t necessarily a death sentence for your relationship. But it will likely put a dent in things for a while.
“Relationships can survive,” Chlipala says, but it will involve rebuilding trust through transparency.
Here are some initial steps you can take to salvage the relationship:
- Answer your partner’s questions. This means being 100 percent open and transparent about what did or didn’t happen in the affair.
- Demonstrate concrete actions. What actions are you going to take to reestablish trust? How will you demonstrate to your partner that you’re taking accountability for your actions?
- Plan for future check-ins. As you and your partner recover, make time in the coming weeks and months to check in on how you’re both feeling.
There’s no surefire way to prevent affairs or other breaches in trust in a relationship. But actively working on the relationship while maintaining open conversation about needs, wants, desires, and what’s lacking will help you bypass a lot of issues that tend to lead to affairs in the first place.
It’s also important to make sure you’re both on the same page about what constitutes cheating. Micro-cheating is a real thing, Chlipala points out, and the problem is that partners don’t always agree on what is cheating and what isn’t.
Is meeting an attractive co-worker for happy hour OK? What if a friend or co-worker continually texts late at night? Should you respond, or no? What is allowed at a bachelor or bachelorette party?
Talk through these kinds of scenarios with your partner so you both know what you expect from the other person.
Emotional affairs can be tricky to identify and navigate. But making a commitment to open, honest communication with your partner can go a long way toward either preventing them or making it easier to work through the aftermath of one.