What’s the Deal with Emotional Affairs (According to a Therapist)

Two people holding hands

Emotional affairs are non-sexual, but intense emotional actions with someone outside of a committed relationship. They’re arguably more easily facilitated with the help of modern technology like dating apps or social networks. Unlike prior decades, those who have affairs don’t only relegate themselves to people in their direct proximity (such as work), but may establish real connections with others in far away places.

Emotional affairs are a type of infidelity (cheating). However, everyone has different opinions on what constitutes cheating, so there’s a lot of variation in what might be characterized as an emotional affair.

Signs of an Emotional Affair

Here are some signs you may be having an emotional affair:

  • You find yourself isolating from your partner and spending more and more time with your “friend”
  • You keep your conversations/contact with your “friend” secret or somehow diminish its frequency when talking with your partner
  • You may be feeling unappreciated by your partner and seek validation or affirmation from others
  • You find yourself fantasizing about the “friend” and what life could be like if you were with them (either romantically, sexually, or both)
  • You have trouble communicating your honest feelings to your partner, but less so with your “friend”
  • There are flirty or sexual conversations with your “friend”

The Impact of An Affair

Many social science researchers have examined the effects of affairs on those in a relationship, and as one might expect, affairs can lead to depression, rage and anger, and loss of self-esteem or self-confidence.

If you’re a partner that is being cheated on, whether that’s a physical or emotional affair, it’s likely that you might experience feelings of anger, jealousy, resentment and sadness. It’s not uncommon for partners of those who cheat to also struggle with self-esteem issues.

If you discover that your partner is involved with someone else, it’s natural to consider how you might not be living up to their expectations or hopes. However, this isn’t always the reasoning behind why some people cheat.

Many partners subjected to infidelity go through a period of shock or disbelief, followed by a lengthy grieving process — not unlike what we experience when a loved one dies. A partner might experience denial, anger, sadness, and ultimately acceptance.

And while it may be hard to imagine, some people who choose to have affairs also experience a range of negative emotions themselves such as guilt, shame, sadness, depression, or frustration.

Why do People Cheat?

Why people in committed relationships cheat is a question we’ve addressed before on the Talkspace blog, but there are a few additional reasons why someone might get involved in an emotional affair. That said, it’s important to note that everyone’s situation is different.

Because they can

It may sound harsh, but some people have emotional affairs because they can and want to. Some people believe that they won’t get caught (or that their partner might consider what they’re doing cheating) and therefore don’t hold fast to the commitments they’ve made to their partners.

Some in this category may also think that they won’t suffer negative consequences if caught (and sometimes they don’t), making infidelity a somehow tenable option for those looking for connection outside of their relationship.

They are missing something

Some people who cheat on their partners do so because they are missing something from their primary relationship. In some instances this is physical, but it can also be emotional.

For instance, if your partner never offers praise or expresses affection for you, it’s normal to crave that kind of attention. As such, it would be hard to resist the positive feedback of a friend or coworker. This can, unfortunately, turn into an ongoing need and expectation that this “friend” will continue to provide such support. This may also lead to the development of deeper feelings, or attraction, leading to an ongoing emotional affair.

They have impulse control issues

Sometimes people who have affairs might also have poor impulse control and emotional regulation. That is, they may be subjected to the same temptations that we all experience with other potential partners, but have a much harder time controlling their feelings for someone, more likely to act on those feelings, and more easily fall into destructive behavior.

This is also true for emotional affairs where boundaries are ignored or crossed routinely for the sake of a new, exciting connection.

What to Do if You Find Yourself in an Emotional Affair

If you recognize that you might be in an emotional affair and want to get out, it’s best to try and understand the needs that are being met by the affair, motivating you to keep going back, despite the risk. This is undoubtedly a difficult process and it might be helpful to consult a therapist for support. A therapist will help you sort through the complicated emotional situation and help you craft a plan for extraction. In some instances, it might also be a place to explore talking to your partner about the infidelity and identify other steps forward.

If you are the partner of someone who has been cheated on, the path forward can be difficult. Many report a loss of self-esteem, anger or rage, and depression. Deciding what next steps to take is incredibly difficult and your position may change day-by-day or moment-by-moment.

Either way, you’re entitled to your feelings and to receive support during this time. A therapist can aid you in your journey, independent of whether you stay with your cheating partner or not. And therapy can offer a safe space to fully explore the range of your emotions associated with emotional affairs.

Published by

Jor-El Caraballo

Talkspace Therapist