What is Emotional Cheating?

Published on: 21 Dec 2021
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
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Updated on 1/11/2023

Cheating can be one of the worst of all betrayals in a relationship, and when it comes to emotional cheating, things become even more confusing and painful. The truth is, being unfaithful isn’t always about sex or a long-term, passionate, involved physical affair. The simple fact is up to 60% of marriages will be faced with some form of infidelity at one point or another. 

An emotional affair can be just as, if not more, harmful to your romantic relationship as a physical relationship can be. Intimacy isn’t always about physicality between two people, and when there’s emotional betrayal, it can be damaging past the point of any return.

 It is important to note that this article caters to a monogamous and more traditional type of committed relationship. It is important to be on the same page about what your relationship style is as a couple to set the appropriate boundaries. The moment your relationship lacks consent and violates the healthy relationship boundaries that have been communicated, the moment your relationship turns from ethical non-monogamy to cheating, 

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Learn more about emotional cheating signs, what you can do if you or your partner has brought an emotional breach of trust into your romantic relationship, and how online relationship counseling can help you learn how to get over infidelity.

Signs of Emotional Cheating

There are several emotional affair signs you should be aware of, especially if you suspect that your partner or spouse might be involved in an emotional relationship outside of your own. Jealousy can lead one to believe that emotional infidelity is taking place in their current relationship. It is important to keep this in mind when you evaluate whether or not your partner is emotionally cheating on you or not.

Typically, an emotional affair tends to start with the basic exchange of personal information. Then, as two people develop a deeper platonic friendship or connection, what started as innocent information swapping — like names and perhaps phone numbers or email addresses — can begin to culminate in a deeper level of intimacy.

Some common signs that your partner may be emotionally cheating on you can include: 

They turn to someone else for comfort

If your partner or spouse seems to be seeking levels of comfort from a person other than you, this may be a sign they’re having an inappropriate emotional affair. It also is probably crossing a boundary. Turning to a third-party instead of the person you’re supposed to be committed to can result in a massive breach of trust. Even if that comfort is in a non-sexual manner, consistently going to somebody else who’s not part of your committed relationship can be problematic and lead to distrust and fear about further betrayals.

They grow a deeper connection with someone else besides you 

Nurturing and developing a deep connection with somebody outside of your relationship can lead to oversharing and exchanging of personal, private details that are probably inappropriate. Much of the time, these exchanges would be sensitive in nature and probably incredibly hurtful.

They’re defensive or secretive about a relationship

If your partner seems to be defensive about an outside relationship, it might be because emotional cheating is going on. Secondary relationships that aren’t out in the open or that seem secretive can be a clear-cut sign of an inappropriate relationship. Even if that relationship isn’t physical, the fact that they’re defensive should probably be a red flag and can rightfully be concerning.

Sudden lack of desire

If your partner has a sudden or drastic change in their level of desire towards you, there might be cause for concern. A loss of interest in physical intimacy or emotional attachment can be the result of a deeper emotional affair going on. Sometimes sexual attraction can also be a part of this, but it’s not always necessary for an emotional affair to be happening.

Increased — and seemingly unexplained — irritability

Emotional cheating can cause incredible stress in a relationship. This stress can lead to increased irritability which can often feel confusing. You might notice your partner’s irritability increases after time is spent with the third-party.

They don’t want to “put the time or work” into the relationship

When an emotional affair is happening, it might mean your partner feels less motivated to work on your actual relationship. If you notice that you’re having more fights and arguments, disagreements, frustration, less emotional closeness, and loneliness in your relationship, there might be something more going on. Although it is important to know how to control anger in a relationship, the discontented feeling might be due to the energy and time your partner is putting into outside places. 

Openly comparing you to someone else

Does your partner compare you to someone else? Especially if they’ve been spending a lot of time with someone, if you get the sense you’re constantly being judged, there might be some validity for your feelings. If your partner consistently and blatantly drops hints that they wish you were more like somebody else, you have cause for concern.

Gift exchanges

Gift exchanges can be a sign of multiple breaches of trust in a relationship — both physical and emotional. Especially if you find that sentimental or meaningful gifts are being given, you might want to have a conversation with your partner about why they consider this appropriate behavior.

Hiding communication

Hiding communication like texts or emails, or changing a password on a laptop or computer, or becoming defensive if you ask to see a text or email (or any other exchange of information) can be a pretty significant sign of emotional infidelity. If you’re thinking an emotional affair might be going on, and your partner seems very secretive, you may be onto something.

Emotional Cheating vs. Physical Cheating

Physical cheating is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when a relationship crosses the line and physical contact — usually face-to-face meetings that involve sex or physical intimacy — takes place. Though the line that’s crossed can be more black and white and obvious with a physical relationship, that doesn’t mean that emotional cheating hurts any less. Both types of affairs can be extremely painful and difficult to overcome.

“Physical and emotional intimacy are the foundations of a relationship and while each person will respond uniquely, emotional and/or physical cheating will impact the relationship as each is a breach of trust and can lead to a breakdown of the relationship if not addressed.”

Talkspace therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH

Emotional Cheating vs. Friendship

Not all connections and relationships outside of a primary relationship will result in emotional cheating. Platonic friendships are possible and often necessary and beneficial. The biggest difference between a friendship versus an emotional relationship really just comes down to a basic emotional cheating definition. Boundaries crossed that are hurtful for one person in the romantic relationship.

Romantic partners should be one another’s priorities. Friendships can be in place, but they should be supportive of the primary relationship. Friendships will allow room for growth in a healthy romantic relationship while staying a constant source of emotional support.

Reasons Why People Emotionally Cheat

People might engage in emotional intimacy for a number of reasons. Ultimately, there’s generally a lack of respect — either self-respect or respect for the other person, or both — at play. Appearance seems to be one of the least likely reasons people cheat. In fact, only 12% of men say they’ve had an emotional affair with someone they consider more attractive than their wife.

Emotional cheating doesn’t always happen because one person is in love with somebody outside of their relationship, though. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that someone has stopped loving their romantic partner. Sometimes the decision to have an emotional affair can be conscious, but other times it’s the result of (either intentionally or unintentionally) allowing a boundary to slip slowly over time. It’s during this time that connections are developed, and an outside emotional relationship is strengthened.

Emotional cheating can also be a desperate (albeit inappropriate) attempt to get one’s needs met on a deeper level. People also commonly emotionally cheat when they are seeking an emotional connection or emotional protection that’s lacking in their primary relationship.

“If you or your partner have been emotionally cheating, oftentimes people will say that there is ‘something missing’ from their relationship.  It is crucial to take a look at what you are getting from that outside relationship so you can begin to discuss how to strengthen the communication and connection with your partner.”

Talkspace Therapist Jill Daino, LCSW-R, BC-TMH

What to Do About Emotional Cheating

Dealing with emotional cheating in a relationship can be excruciating. It can cause high amounts of pain and distress.

The first thing that needs to be decided is if you and your romantic partner are going to attempt to repair the relationship. You’ll both need to be willing to work hard to regain mutual trust.  Emotional affairs can be just as damaging to relationships as physical cheating can be. Further, rebuilding a sense of trust can be a long, difficult road that requires a lot of faith, dedication, and work.

If you’re the one cheating emotionally

If you were the one who had an emotional connection with someone outside your primary relationship, you’ll need to be willing to accept the fact that the road ahead of you is going to be rocky and uncharted. 

First, and foremost, you need to cut off contact with the person you’ve been emotionally connected to. Understanding the pain that you’ve caused your primary partner is going to be key in your relationship surviving. Along the path to repairing your relationship, you might also consider the following:

  • Ask your partner what they need from you to be able to trust you again
  • Be willing to go above and beyond in terms of helping them feel safe and secure in the relationship
  • Make the extra effort to let them know they’re special to you and that you’re committed to fixing your relationship
  • Be patient and don’t expect forgiveness overnight — while the road will be bumpy, it’s important for you to understand that your wounds have cut deeply
  • Plan date nights where you completely focus on what your partner loves and needs
  • Apologize…again and again if necessary, and mean it
  • Consider couples therapy or individual therapy to understand the root of your infidelity (yes, emotional cheating is a form of infidelity)

If your partner is cheating on you emotionally

If you’re the one who’s been emotionally cheated on, you need to decide if you’re going to be able to forgive your partner and move on. This is no easy task, and there’s no single way on how to get over infidelity. You need to give yourself the room and space to truly decide if you’ll be able to move on. You might wondershould you forgive a cheater?’

There’s no shame if you can’t  get over the betrayal, either. Be kind to yourself, do some serious soul searching, and decide what boundaries you’re willing to rebuild with your partner. In some cases, you may not be able to move on. That’s OK too. 

If you’ve decided that you do want to try to rebuild your relationship, some of the following tips might help:

  • Once you make the commitment to healing your relationship, remind yourself that it’s going to take time
  • Don’t blame yourself — even if you feel like you played some part in your relationship not being fulfilling enough for your partner, nobody deserves to be hurt and betrayed
  • Be open about what you need from your partner 
  • Be willing to communicate honestly with them
  • Go easy on yourself — remember that you’ve been hurt, and that healing might not be easy, but it can be done if you really want it
  • Try not to play the blame game — if there are real, deep relationship issues you need to sort out with your partner, you definitely should make every effort to do so, but throwing the affair in their face every single time you have a disagreement or argument will get you nowhere
  • Consider therapy — both individual therapy, as well as couples therapy, might be beneficial as you navigate this new path your relationship is on

Even the best relationships will go through the occasional difficult times. Granted, emotional cheating is a betrayal of epic proportions. That said, if two people are committed to making their relationship survive, it’s important to know that it is possible. It will take patience, hard work, and incredible forgiveness, but you can do it. 

1. Us C, Infographics P. 20 Important Emotional Affair Statistics – HRF. HRF. https://healthresearchfunding.org/20-important-emotional-affair-statistics/. Accessed December 7, 2021.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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