Emotional cheating happens when you establish a close, intimate connection with someone who isn’t your partner.
You also keep this relationship close to your chest, unlike a healthy, supportive friendship.
This type of attachment may not seem threatening or problematic, since you don’t plan on getting physical. Yet emotional cheating can begin to erode the foundations of your relationship and weaken your commitment to your partner.
People define cheating in different ways, so emotional attachments may not automatically come to mind when you consider infidelity. Here’s how to recognize emotional cheating — and avoid it going forward.
Generally speaking, emotional cheating happens when your closeness to someone else disrupts your investment in your partner. You focus on the connection you have with them instead of on your existing (usually monogamous) relationship.
Note: Emotional cheating can also happen in nonmonogamous relationships if you keep the intimacy you’re developing secret or cross other boundaries you’ve outlined with a partner.
Specific behaviors associated with emotional cheating vary.
You can usually tell a connection has passed the point of friendship when you:
- spend more time talking to (or thinking about) the other person than your partner
- avoid mentioning them to your partner
- know they’re attracted to you
- notice physical signs of chemistry around them
- feel less physically or emotionally attracted to your partner
- share frustration or dissatisfaction with your relationship with them
- wish your partner could be more like them
- avoid open communication with your partner
Other key signs include hesitating to tell your partner about the bond you’ve developed.
If they know the other person exists, they might have no idea they’re anything more than a co-worker, friend’s roommate, or casual social media connection.
You might feel unsure how to bring up the emotional attachment or simply avoid telling them because you want to keep it to yourself.
At the same time, you might have an explanation ready to describe your relationship if needed: “We spend a lot of time talking about our art, but there’s no attraction there.”
In the beginning, emotional cheating can feel a lot like friendship.
This kind of situation might develop when something creates unwanted space between you and your partner.
Perhaps they picked up a new hobby you don’t have any interest in or got a promotion that requires them to work a few more hours each week. Maybe a physical or mental health issue makes it tough for them to connect emotionally.
These scenarios don’t mean the blame lies with them — your actions and choices are yours alone. Still, it’s natural to desire connection and emotional support, and you might not know how to tell your partner you feel ignored.
Yet when you turn to someone else to fulfill your need for intimacy, you deny yourself and your partner the chance to work through the issue productively and strengthen your relationship.
After an argument with your partner, you go out for a walk and text your co-worker. The two of you often take breaks and lunches together, and in recent weeks your conversations have started to become a little flirtatious.
“We had another fight,” you say. You’ve been keeping them up to date on your recent relationship tension.
They respond right away: “Again? I’m sorry. Feel free to vent.”
You explain briefly, concluding with, “They never seem to understand where I’m coming from.”
“That sucks. Well, you know I’m always here for you. :)”
“Thanks for listening,” you say. “Talking to you always helps.”
You do feel better, but you dread the next fight, since you know the situation hasn’t been resolved.
What if you’re on the other end of things? You might have a creeping sense of uneasiness that something isn’t quite right but have a hard time explaining exactly what’s wrong.
They engage when you start conversations. When you kiss them or try to cuddle, they don’t pull away, but during sex, it often seems like their thoughts are somewhere else. They use their phone more than usual and keep it with them all the time.
Your interactions also stay pretty superficial. They share memes and social media posts or tell you about funny things that happened at work but they say little about anything serious. When you try to connect more intimately, they seem annoyed or brush you off.
There’s nothing wrong with cultivating intimacy with friends of any gender. In fact, maintaining friendships outside your romantic relationship can serve as a key sign of a healthy relationship.
You might even share certain details about yourself or your relationship with these friends, and you may not always tell your partner what you’ve confided.
It’s often helpful to talk through situations with friends, both to vent and get insight on what to do next.
A key difference, however, lies in the fact that friends play a supportive role, not a leading one.
In a healthy romantic relationship, you’ll usually turn to your partner first, whether you have exciting news or need help weathering an upsetting setback. While you shouldn’t depend on your partner to meet all of your emotional needs or be your “everything,” a partnership does require mutual trust and support.
Here’s a test
Would you feel comfortable with your partner looking over a conversation you had with a friend? (They should never go through your phone without permission, of course.)
- If you can answer “Yes,” your friendship is likely nothing more than that.
- If you feel so uncomfortable with the thought of them seeing your conversations that you delete them immediately, you might want to take a closer look at that friendship.
One final note: If you believe telling your partner about an outside friendship would put your safety at risk, you aren’t cheating.
Friendship can provide some of the emotional support you need (and deserve), but consider talking to a therapist, too. A therapist can offer guidance with recognizing the signs of abuse and safely ending the relationship.
Social media can make it easier to engage in emotional cheating.
You might build up casual rapport with a long-time follower or commenter. You start off by liking each other’s photos, but eventually, you find yourself talking to them more and more.
Social media also offers the opportunity to look up and rekindle “missed connections” — an ex, a college crush, a casual fling partner.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with connecting over social media. Still, if you find yourself having regular conversations with someone you feel ever-so-slightly attracted to, it’s worth exploring what you’re getting from this interaction.
You might also want to examine the connection a little more closely if you hesitate to share it with your partner.
Micro-cheating involves any behavior that approaches or brushes up against relationship boundaries but falls short of actually crossing them.
Maybe you’ve stayed friends with an ex-partner and continue to greet them with lingering hugs when you meet up. Or you might exchange flirty jokes with your partner’s roommate when your partner is in another room.
In other words, emotional cheating can fall under the umbrella of micro-cheating, but micro-cheating doesn’t always involve emotional intimacy.
Once you recognize you’re investing more energy outside the relationship than in it, a good first step involves turning off the tap.
Put an end to the DMs or text messages, keep interactions with your co-worker strictly work-related, and avoid one-on-one hangouts.
Have a (brief) conversation to let them know you’ve realized your involvement is compromising your relationship and explain you’ll be taking several large steps back.
Once you’ve accomplished that, it’s time to talk to your partner about the underlying concerns fueling the behavior.
It’s very normal to struggle with addressing intimacy issues and other relationship problems, especially when you worry your partner might brush off your concerns or react negatively.
Avoiding these issues won’t make them go away, though. A conversation might feel uncomfortable, but it’s the best way to work toward regaining emotional intimacy.
When you talk, remember to stick with “I” statements to avoid sounding judgmental or accusatory. You might start, for example, by saying:
- “I feel distant from you lately, and it makes me want to turn to others for support.”
- “I worry you don’t care about me anymore, and that makes me feel lonely.”
You might feel afraid of telling your partner you’ve started to develop feelings for someone else. You know the sparks have faded, but how can you explain you want to move on without hurting them?
It’s not always possible to do this without causing pain. But no matter how much the truth might sting, own it. Being honest now will almost always prevent more pain down the line — for both of you.
Any number of factors can contribute to relationship distance, so the signs listed above don’t always indicate emotional cheating.
If something feels unpleasantly different in your relationship with your partner, it’s always best to talk about it.
Stick to describing specific behaviors you’ve noticed to have a more successful conversation:
- “I feel hurt and shut out when you tell someone else about how you’re feeling, but not me. For me, sharing emotions is an important part of a healthy relationship.”
- “I feel ignored when we’re home together and you spend a lot of time texting. What do you think about setting some phone-free times so we can focus on each other?”
It’s perfectly possible your partner did engage in some emotional infidelity without realizing it. You might feel tempted to snoop around or check their phone. Instead, focus on their responses and willingness to change.
Do they immediately apologize and open up? Explain they’ve been feeling down lately? Say they felt some distance but didn’t know how to bring it up?
If so, there’s a good chance they also want to work toward getting your relationship back on track.
Creating boundaries around emotional cheating isn’t easy, because a lot of the behaviors involved often show up in close friendships.
The best way to set healthy boundaries is to openly discuss what you consider a betrayal of trust.
Sit down together and create separate lists of behaviors you don’t feel comfortable with, such as keeping secrets, making flirty comments, or regularly putting someone else first.
Then talk through your lists. Make sure you both have the chance to share. If you disagree on whether a specific behavior is problematic, speak up honestly so you can talk through your viewpoints and find a solution.
What if you love your partner and still feel attracted to them, but develop feelings for someone else at the same time?
Crushes are completely normal, but if your feelings persist and you have some interest in opening up your relationship, talk to your partner.
They may not be on board with nonmonogamy, but a conversation can help you get more insight on the best path forward.
If you realize monogamy isn’t for you but they don’t feel comfortable with nonmonogamy, ending the relationship may be the best option.
This can be a difficult choice to make. Remember, though, that while your needs are valid, so are your partner’s. Staying in an unfulfilling relationship and investing your energy in someone else does neither of you any good.
Frequent, honest conversations can help you rebuild trust and address relationship issues as soon as they pop up.
Good communication can even help you resolve some challenges, like lack of intimacy, before they become a matter of concern.
If you know your partner has feelings for someone else, you may not want to continue the relationship, and that’s OK.
Not all relationships work out, and breaking up can give you both the opportunity to find someone you can fully invest in.
When you both want to build a stronger partnership, professional support from a relationship therapist can help you navigate the effects of emotional cheating, rebuild trust, and work on communication and other skills for healthy relationships.
Intentional or not, emotional cheating can cause plenty of pain.
The key to bypassing these murky waters? Plenty of deep, emotional heart-to-hearts and honest sharing.
Communication helps you grow closer as partners, and a stronger relationship makes it less likely you’ll feel the need to turn elsewhere for support.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.