By Dani-Elle Dube
It starts like a friendship, but then somewhere along the way it grows into something more.
You might not even be sure what to call it, so you just continue to call it a “close friendship” when in fact, it’s a little more intimate and complicated than that.
There may not be any physicality involved (now), but the emotional aspect is still there and if this connection happens to be with someone other than your current partner, it’s not a good sign.
What you’re having is an emotional affair – and yes, it’s still considered cheating.
What is an emotional affair?
Despite common belief, infidelity does not only involve sex. While some affairs can be just physical, or physical and emotional, there are such relationships that don’t always involve the physical and sexual aspect of a “typical affair” – and in these cases it’s emotion-based.
What does this mean?
Well it means you confide in someone who isn’t your current partner (an outsider, if you will) and it creates an inappropriately close dynamic that should only exist with someone you’re in a relationships with.
In short, it’s emotional intimacy that has a high probability of leading to sexual intimacy down the road, and it’s dangerous waters to be navigating say registered psychologist Nicole McCance and relationship expert Shannon Tebb.
“It is definitely [considered] cheating and sometimes it’s just as worse as a sexual [affair],” Tebb says. “A lot of times these emotional affairs can start out as online friendships or with colleagues. They like the feeling of having someone to talk to if they’re working long hours and sharing their day-to-day frustrations and even their dreams. But this can get risky if you find that you are attracted to the person even a little bit because then there’s always that temptation of wondering what the next level is.”
“It’s surprising to me that there are people out there who don’t think [emotional affairs] are just as painful or destructive to a relationship as a physical one,” McCance adds. “I’ve seen it with many couples where it’s actually been considered worse than a physical affair. A physical affair can be just a one-time thing and you can chalk it up to a mistake, but an emotional affair takes an investment and time and I think it takes a lot of secrets and lies and that’s the most painful thing for the hurt partner.”
Signs you’re having an emotional affair
Engaging in such infidelity may not be obvious at first, or some may not even consider it cheating in the first place.
But if you’re not sure if a friendship with a colleague, for example, is crossing the into emotional affair territory, there are some signs to pay attention to that will help you determine if you’re engaging in emotional infidelity.
According to Tebb, these are some of the things to look out for:
If you or the other person shares frustrations and intimate details about your/their marriage or relationship: “When you do this, you’ve now created an opening where this person can move in and fill your needs that you’re lacking from your partner,” she says.
You or the other person is over sharing: “Either of you are sharing things with each other that you wouldn’t share with your partner or friends or the other way around,” Tebb says.
If either of you engage in flirting or sexual banter: “There’s sexual innuendos when you two talk or you’re sharing pictures of yourself dressed up – you’re just trying to get the other person’s reaction and you’re testing the boundaries,” Tebb explains.
You contact the other person at weird times, or vice versa: “You’re contacting them outsides of what would be considered normal friendship hours,” Tebb says. “Maybe they start texting you on the weekends or evenings and/or you find yourself waiting for their texts and you’re anticipating their texts and you become excited with each contact with them. You look forward to their attention and connecting with them.”
You’re being sneaky: “Doing things in secret or sneaking around is another indicator you’re doing something wrong,” Tebb points out. “You’re hiding information or you can’t or won’t tell your partner that you’re going out to lunch with this other person. So if you’re lying about where you are and why you’re going to be late, you need to assess that and realize the damage it can do.”
If it’s still not clear, then Tebb says there’s one sure way to know that you’re having an emotional affair and not a normal friendship: when you start to fantasize about the other person.
If that’s the case, you have to figure out what’s more important: your family and the life you’ve built or that hour of gratification.
“Ask yourself, ‘How would your partner feel if they read your messages,’ for example?” McCance says. “If it was just a friend – because we do have opposite sex friends – then your partner should be cool with what they’re reading on that text. But if you’re hiding that text, there’s a reason. There’s something there – this attraction. So the key words here are attraction and desire.”
What to do if you suspect your partner is cheating on you emotionally
If it turns out you are emotionally cheating on your partner and you become aware of it, Tebb says the best thing to do is end it right away.
“Take a few steps back and not let it go any further,” she says. “Be very open and honest with the other person and tell them that you are married and working on your marriage. Let them know you appreciate their friendship and make it clear that it’s not going to go any further than this. You never know what that other person is thinking because they can have that intent that you’ll leave your relationship for them.”
Of course, there’s the other side of the fence: the hurt partners. If this is the category you find yourself in, there are a few things you can do that can help you and your relationship in this situation.
“First, if you suspect your partner is having this type of affair ask them if it is actually happening,” McCance says. “It’s definitely harder to catch because your partner can just tell you it’s a friend from work and they have to talk to them. But just let them know the insecurities you’re feeling, specifically tell them how you feel and try not to place blame. The moment you blame, they’re going to become defensive and you probably won’t get a lot of the truth out of them and they might even withdraw [from you] more.”
Tebb also suggests that if things cannot be repaired on their own, then try couples therapy. If the partner who has done the emotional cheating continues to be disconnected from the relationship and spend time with other people, however, then it may be time to consider a separation or divorce.