Is Having an Emotional Affair Cheating? The Signs and Stages of Emotional Infidelity

February 28, 2022

Do you suspect your partner is having an emotional affair? Or maybe you are struggling with a growing emotional connection within a friendship. When does an uncomplicated friendship cross that critical line into emotional cheating? 

Unlike the rules about physical infidelities, an emotional affair is far more complicated. It’s not always black and white. 

Clearly, sex is easy to define because it’s physical. Emotions are much more muddled and often not logical. They live on a spectrum, and there can be significant differences in perception between one person and another. One person’s friendship is another person’s emotional affair. 

What is an Emotional Affair?

A sexual affair revolves around a physical act. Emotional cheating revolves around an emotional one. As marriage therapist Sheri Meyers described for the Huffington Post, “An emotional affair is essentially an affair of the heart.”

Meyers goes on to detail how emotional infidelities go beyond sharing a social connection with someone. It’s a connection that eats into the time, energy, and intimacy shared with the primary partner. 

An emotional affair includes fantasies. They may be sexual, but not always. You start to daydream about spending time with your new friend, or you start planning the next conversation. Especially if the connection is lacking elsewhere in your life, it’s easy to fall in “love” with the intimacy someone else is offering. 

According to the authors behind, “The Gray Area: Exploring Attitudes Toward Infidelity and the Development of the Perceptions of Dating Infidelity Scale,” infidelity exists on a spectrum including three specific types of behavior: ambiguous, deceptive, and explicit. 

When emotional affairs begin, they often start as ambiguous and benign. Over time they become increasingly deceptive, as boundaries are broken. Eventually, they run their course to become more visible and explicit.

The researchers of this 2013 publication explained, “Emotional infidelity involves developing an emotional connection with an individual other than one’s current partner.”

Furthermore, they determined an emotional affair “can result in strong feelings of betrayal and jealousy,” and “This emotional connection may occur with or without sexual behavior.”

Importantly, an emotional affair doesn’t require physical contact. In today’s age of cell phones, instant messaging, and DMs, that’s often all that’s necessary to launch an inappropriate extramarital relationship. Someone can begin emotionally cheating with a new friend living thousands of miles away.

Other Characteristics of an Emotional Affair

While not always the case, an emotional affair may also include disparaging remarks about the significant other. It goes beyond just venting to friends and moved into uncomfortable new territory. 

Slowly as conversations evolve, you are no longer just seeking unbiased advice. You are seeking confirmation that something is wrong with your primary partner. These thoughts and words can cause significant damage to the original relationship.

A large part of emotional cheating is the perception of the primary partner. Do you feel uncomfortable with the growing connection your husband or wife has with another person? What’s your gut reaction when that new friend comes up in conversation? 

That is a critical indicator that you feel discord in your relationship. Maybe the friendship has crossed a line and moved into a category better defined as emotional infidelity.

Or, maybe, you feel 100 percent on board with the new addition to your partner’s social circle. Because there are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes emotional cheating, it often comes down to personal opinion.

On the flip side, what if you are the one texting late at night and growing closer to a friend. How do you know if it’s gone too far? Are you comfortable sharing your text messages, DMs, and conversations with your partner? If not, it could be an indication that your new friend has gone well beyond the bounds of friendship.

Remember, affairs often start as innocent friendships with no immoral intention behind them. As conversations progress, the connection deepens, emotions rapidly evolve. As we will see, there is more than one stage of emotional infidelity.

Research on Infidelity

Young woman using cell phone to send text message on social network at night.

Most research on infidelity is focused mainly on the sexual definition of cheating. Modern studies have only just begun to broaden the scope to include non-sexual understandings of extramarital affairs.

  • The statistics on how many people have cheated vary significantly: Between 30 to 60 percent of married men report cheating. 
  • 20 to 50 percent of married women report cheating.

The unmarried statistics are similarly stacked:

  • 75% of men have cheated
  • 68% of women have cheated

What about emotional affairs? Research into this is relatively new, but it looks as if fewer people admit to having an emotional affair. This may be thanks to the undefined nature of emotional cheating, especially when compared to sexual infidelity. 

According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, approximately 45 percent of men and 35 percent of women report having an emotional affair at some point in their life.

A Few Colorful Examples of What an Emotional Affair Looks Like

Because an emotional affair can land anywhere on a vast spectrum, a few examples are handy to help clarify the circumstances. Does your new relationship look like one of the following examples?

An emotional affair with an ex-boyfriend (or girlfriend)…

Benji still talks to his ex-girlfriend, Li, even though he is dating someone new. Their relationship ended on good terms, so it’s not as if he’d completely cut off communication. Months into his new relationship, Benji begins to reach out to Li for advice. He’s having some frustrations with his new girlfriend and knows Li is an excellent resource. 

Soon, they are talking daily about more than just relationship advice. Benji misses Li’s laugh and doesn’t tell his new girlfriend they are talking every day.

An emotional affair with a coworker…

Danielle shares an office with Brian, and they have to deal with the same difficult manager together. They often leave the office at lunch to rehash office politics. Danielle starts relying on Brian for emotional support, both at work and while at home.

Danielle’s husband has begun to notice she no longer messages him during the day. Danielle talks about work less frequently, and when she does, she always references something Brian said. Her husband is now suspicious.

An emotional affair with a friend….

Leah has been with Karen for a decade. They both have big friend networks, and it’s not unusual for them to spend time apart. Leah was recently introduced to a new woman by her friends. The latest introduction shares her interest in philosophy. 

Increasing Leah finds herself only talking to this new woman whenever she is out socializing. They spend hours together lost in the debate, and their conversations stick with Leah long after she has gone home to Karen.

Leah has noticed she is spending significant portions of her day now thinking about her next conversation with this new friend.

Differences Between Healthy Friendship and Emotional Cheating

What is a healthy friendship? 

  • A quality friendship is having someone you can be yourself around. 
  • It’s someone who you can share experiences and ideas with. 
  • A good friend is a safe space where you can get vulnerable and open up to. 
  • On your worst days, they listen, they are present with you, and they care about you.

Obviously, the boundaries between friendship and more-than-friendship start to blur.

  • A non-platonic relationship goes beyond friendship. 
  • It’s when that friendship starts to hurt the primary relationship. 
  • A friendship goes from healthy to questionable when it’s no longer operating in the open. 
  • It’s when one person begins to fantasize about the other.
  • It’s when the first person you call is no longer your primary partner.

Sometimes, a comparison helps clarify the difference. Look at the original relationship versus the developments within the friendship. Has the romantic relationship begun to crumble while the friendship blossoms? Have the intimate connections shared with a friend overpowered those shared with the original partner? Where does all your energy go these days?

Healthy friendships can have all the signs of deep, intimate connection but lack the fantasy, the deceit, and the discomfort. 

If a friendship sits well with both partners, it’s terrific. A friendship starts to cross the line when it begins to disrupt the intimacy, routine, and connection between the original partners. 

How Emotional Affairs Can Damage Your Relationship

Cheerful business persons standing close, talking in office hallway

Typically, the effects of an emotional affair are gradual. While you might not notice the damage on day one, by several months in, you start to see the cracks. 

Emotional affairs can have just as much negative impact on a relationship as a physical affair. 

First and foremost, emotional affairs damage trust between two people. It can break down trust in several ways, including deceit, disrespectful comments, and emotional pain. 

For example, if one person fails to disclose their growing friendship with their partner, this is deceit. Or, if they begin to use the new friendship to complain about their primary partner, this causes distrust.

If your partner hurts you by fostering a new relationship with someone else, you are going to feel pain, and it’s going to be challenging to overcome.

Emotional cheating destroys one intimate connection in favor of another. Meaning, it weakens the foundation that the romantic relationship was built on, as one partner begins to form that same connection with someone else. 

The damage caused by an accidental or intentional emotional affair can have long-lasting effects if left unresolved. In the worst-case scenario, it can end up leading to so much psychological damage that it ends the relationship. 

If a relationship survives an emotional affair, it comes with a price. Typically respect, confidence, and trust have all been damaged in the process. It takes a lot of hard, emotionally intense work to rebuild.

Relationship or marriage counseling is the best way forward. Relationship counselors can help create a safe space for both parties to discuss what happened and move forward. 

Using their professional experience and years of training, a therapist can help each person explore their needs, desires, and pain. A relationship counselor is a mentor and emotional guide following the hurt and injury caused by emotional cheating. 

What are the 7 Stages of an Emotional Affair?

Many relationship experts and therapists have written on the different stages of an emotional affair. Bonobology and Torn Asunder by Dave Carder are two such resources. 

The following stages of an emotional affair come from Bonobology:

1. Platonic and Benign Friendship

All friendships have to start somewhere, and they typically begin with a benign introduction. A new colleague, a new addition within your social circles, or a quick conversation between two people at a coffee shop are all easy examples of where a friendship may begin.

In the early stages, the friendship stays within black and white boundaries. You get acquainted, make small talk, and learn a little about each other. There are no expectations nor fantasies for the future.

2. Pushing The Boundaries

With more contact and interaction, there are sparks. You both find out you love that local bar with the Whiskey collection, or you obsess over the same television show. Suddenly there is so much more to talk about than just pleasantries. 

These conversations start pushing the boundaries of an average coworker or acquaintance relationship. It starts to get more and more exciting every time you see each other, or you see they’ve messaged you. You feel emotionally invested in the other, even if you still don’t feel like you are emotionally cheating.

3. Banking on the New Relationship

The energy has shifted from the original relationship to the new one. When you might have been thinking about your romantic partner, you find yourself thinking about your friend. You spend more time, or at least more mental space, with this second person. In this stage, your significant other may begin to notice changes in your primary relationship. 

4. Advances into Physical Infidelity

While sexual indiscretions do not always happen within an emotional affair, the journey from friendship to infidelity does often take a nose dive into more physical actions. This physical fourth stage is when it’s no longer about emotional support, and it becomes all about fulfilling sexual desires. 

5. Closest Confidant

When your new friend becomes your closest confidant, it’s stage five. Instead of asking your significant other for their opinion, you turn to your not-so-platonic friend. When you need emotional support, your original partner doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.

At this stage, you start making decisions on what’s best for your new relationship and ignore the old one. For example, you decide not to take an exciting new job closer to your child’s daycare, only because you’d miss spending so much time with a coworker. 

6. Growing Discomfort 

This sixth stage is tumultuous and uncomfortable. Your old relationship is falling apart, and it’s hard to find anything satisfying about your partner. All their former quirks have become severe offenses. You feel a growing resentment towards them and continuously complain about them — especially to your new friend.

As the divide deepens, you find it incredibly challenging to hold it all together. If you’ve been telling lies, you might start slipping up. If you’ve been trying to balance the emotional needs of both people in your life, you can’t keep it up anymore. At this stage, you can expect some earnest conversations with your primary partner.

7. Separation or Reconciliation?

The final stage is when it all comes to ahead. Because maintaining both relationships is no longer feasible, there can only be one going forward. Some of this decision is yours, but much of it lies with your primary partner. They may not want to reconcile, or they may feel you can overcome these past indiscretions. This stage is painful, and often more than one person is hurt.

8 Signs Your Partner is Having an Emotional Affair

Recognizing an extramarital emotional affair is about gut reactions and strange behavior. In your heart of hearts, do you believe something has changed? 

Emotional Affair Infographic: 10 Signs You're Having An Emotional Affair

Here are a few suggestive signs of an emotional affair:

1. Conversations Become Uncomfortable

Perhaps you have noticed that specific conversation topics are increasingly uncomfortable to have. It may have become challenging to talk about your partner’s new coworker, and every conversation ends in an argument. Or maybe, when you ask questions about bizarre behavior, the discussion is quickly deflected.

If your relationship went from an open, honest, and frank space to an uncomfortable and confusing one, consider the underlying reason for it.

2. Hide Texts and Messages

A healthy relationship is one where each partner has a separate life with separate friends. You might not always know who your significant other is talking to, and that’s ok. But if you notice they have stopped answering their phone in front of you, something might have shifted.

Do they only text when you are looking? As soon as your partner starts hiding friendships, it will mean they’ll also protect the conversations, DMs, and text messages of that friendship. 

3. Strange Schedule Changes

Has your partner stopped calling you on their lunch break or started staying after work? Do they stay up late on their phone long after you’ve fallen asleep? There are many potential reasons behind these schedule changes but check-in with your gut feeling. It may suggest the transition of a healthy friendship into a non-platonic one.

4. They Can’t Stop Talking About Someone

Is your gut telling you that so-and-so’s name keeps coming up in conversation a little too frequently? If your partner isn’t aware their new friendship has crossed boundaries, they may openly talk about it.

Suddenly it can feel like the only opinions that count are coming from this new person. Or the only excitement anymore is when so-and-so is around. Step back, and consider if this is the beginning of emotional infidelity. 

5. You Feel A Growing Distance

Over the last few weeks or months, have you sensed a growing emotional distance? This may be a sign of an emotional affair in the making. As your partner turns their attention towards another, they require less and less attention from you. They may be seeking intimacy from a new relationship, which is sapping the energy out of yours.

6. Growing Defensiveness

When you ask questions about their schedule or who they are messaging, your partner becomes defensive. When you casually bring up the friend’s name, your partner becomes agitated. Your partner may even begin to gaslight you in their attempt to deflect attention away from their blossoming new friendship.

7. More Arguments Than Usual

Are you both just arguing far more than usual? If so, something is off, and it may be a developing emotional affair. Little things will launch into massive fights, and there is never a comfortable resolution. It feels as if everything is wrong, but you can’t figure out the problem. A new relationship can start to tear apart an old one. 

8. They Become Completely Distracted

When you are used to your partner’s full attention, it’s self-evident when that starts to change. You’ll quickly see how their phone takes over date night or how they no longer pay attention to meaningful conversations.

An emotional affair will start to eat up the attention span of someone. Suddenly you aren’t the center of attention, even if you are standing right in front of them.

Can You Recover from an Emotional Affair? 

If one or both parties conclude an emotional affair is going on, there are two ways forward: separation of reconciliation. 

Neither is easy. Both are emotionally draining. Both take a lot of energy. It can become quite messy.

Ultimately, the victim (i.e., the partner not emotionally cheating) will be the determining factor in whether or not the relationship moves forward. Did the offender cross an uncrossable line in the relationship? Does this person feel that the relationship can and should move forward after these emotional indiscretions?

As study after study has determined, men often consider sexual infidelity much worse than emotional relationships. On the other hand, women typically perceive emotional cheating much worse than sexual relations. There are volumes of work picking apart the theoretical and evolutionary reasonings behind this typical opinion.

That said, for women, it may be more challenging to overcome the indiscretions of an emotional affair compared with a physical one. And vice versa for men.

But, relationships can and do recover from periods of emotional infidelity. So how do they do it?

Recovery, if both parties choose it, requires months (if not years) of rebuilding trust, respect, and confidence. Open communication and patience are two of the most significant requirements during recovery stages post-emotional cheating. 

If there isn’t open communication, it can be difficult for the victim to restore confidence in the underlying foundation of the relationship. Can they believe what their partner is saying or doing? 

On top of this, patience is a must. Reconciliation isn’t an overnight process. There will be ebbs and flows as the journey progresses. Trust isn’t rebuilt with a single apology. There has to be consistent forward momentum, meaning new patterns, new routines, and maybe even new friends. 

If you’ve experienced an emotional affair, either as a cheater or victim, consider speaking with a couple’s counselor.

Whatever you have to discuss, they will have the tools to work through it. They can help process the pain, rebuild the trust, and overcome this complicated episode of emotional cheating. Again, it won’t be easy, but it can feel supported with the help of an experienced therapist.  

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