According to relationship experts, the best guidance here comes with understanding the differences between deep, intimate friendship (or platonic intimacy) and deep, intimate situationships (or unlabeled relationships that are more intense than a platonic friendship).
At its most distilled, platonic intimacy is the emotional intimacy that exists between good pals. “The people we have emotionally intimate friendships with are the people who see us for exactly who we are,” says Zoe Kors, intimacy expert and resident sex and intimacy coach with Coral, a sexual wellness app. “These are the folks you might use as a sounding board,” she says.
Usually, you care about their perspective, vent to them, and process your feelings with their help—and vice versa. But (and this is important!), while you might call these people your best friend, platonic soul mate, or PIC, they're nonetheless just friends, and you have no intention to take the relationship to another emotional or sexual level.
“Someone not being honest and transparent with their partner about the things they discuss or reveal to their friend is one of the main symptoms of emotional cheating.” —Zoe Kors, intimacy expert
So, when does platonic intimacy shift into emotional cheating? According to Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, relationship expert and licensed therapist, cheating is any breach in the boundaries of your relationship, and emotional cheating involves developing a deeper emotional bond with someone than your partner(s) would be comfortable with.
It also commonly involves a degree of secretiveness. “Someone not being honest and transparent with their partner about the things they discuss or reveal to their friend is one of the main symptoms of emotional cheating,” Kors adds.
Key differences between platonic intimacy and emotional cheating
First, let’s name the similarity: Both emotional cheating and platonic intimacy involve emotional intimacy. And to be clear, “emotional intimacy is a normal, healthy part of all kinds of relationships,” says Kors. Caraballo agrees, adding that “it’s an important ingredient in people feeling like they have a community and support system."
The key differences between platonic intimacy and emotional cheating, then, is the appropriateness and sometimes depth of the emotional intimacy therein, says Kors. “The difference hinges on whether or not you are engaging with someone in a way that threatens the stability of your primary relationship,” she says. This threat can take a number of forms, but Kors points to violating a partner's trust or allowing romantic or sexual undercurrents to grow as main points of contention.
3 signs of emotional cheating
1. You’re keeping secrets from your partner
“Healthy relationships are founded on trust and transparency, and secrets betray that trust,” says Kors. As such “keeping secrets is the very definition of cheating,” she says. This does not mean that you need to share every single thing with your partner. “But it’s a big red flag when you have any kind of relationship that needs to be hidden from your partner,” she says.
If you find yourself glossing over the depth of your dynamic with someone, deleting text conversations with them, or otherwise sneaking around to contact them, you may well be cheating.
2. You're spending more time with this person than your partner
There will be times in life when you spend time with someone else more than you spend with your partner. For instance, maybe you and your partner are in a long-distance relationship and you have a roommate. Or maybe you have a co-worker you sit next to five days a week, and you don't live with your partner. In general, though, Kors says to consider the amount of time you spend with someone else compared to your partner as a litmus test.
Ask yourself: Has the amount of quality time I spend with my partner decreased since I grew close to this person? Do I spend more time with this person than my partner (and like it)? Do I prefer spending time with this person to spending time with my partner?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you’re in murky territory. “If tending to your friendship distracts you from your partner, and depletes the time and energy that you would spend on your partner, something is off,” says Kors.
3. Your gut (or groin) is telling you that you're in cheating territory
Emotional cheating may be an affair of the heart, but usually it’s your other body parts that register the cheating first. “Typically, emotional cheating is coupled with active deception, which can create feelings of guilt and shame,” says Caraballo. If you get an anxious belly when you think about the nature of your relationship with your non-partner, that’s your body telling you something.
Kors also recommends paying attention to the kind of sexual responses you have when around this person. Do you get a tingle? Does blood rush to your cheeks (or elsewhere)? “Developing sexual desire toward your friend threatens the stability of your relationship,” says Kors—especially if you find yourself seeking out the rush.
How to stop your intimate friendships from moving into emotional cheating
If you are getting close with a friend, and you want to make sure you are on the same page, invite them to have a conversation about the nature of your friendship. “Start by articulating what you appreciate about them as a friend," says Kors. "Describe what they bring to your life, what you gain from your relationship, and what it means to you to have a clearly defined friendship that doesn’t threaten your romantic partnership.”
Texting or articulating these sentiments gives them space to share the same, she says, which, long-term, can help you create a bond that is mutually nourishing but still operates within the boundaries of your romantic relationship.
What to do if you think your partner is emotionally cheating on you
There’s nothing quite as painful as thinking your partner has allowed another person to become the co-lead of their life. But rather than sitting in the anxiety of the unknown or checking your partner’s phone or email for evidence of infidelity, talk to them.
Avoid the blame game, suggests Kors, and “try to have a broader conversation about what it means to be intimate, what the nature of friendship is, and what they need in order to feel safe in the relationship and what inspires trust." Setting a broader context creates a container in which to work through any of your current (or future) jealousies with care and respect.
Equally important as initiating these discussions is listening to what your partner says during them… really listening. After all, it’s possible your partner really is just friends with this person and is reveling in having someone to share their love of fishing with, for example.
Ultimately, “these kinds of conversations can be hard, but they are made so much easier when you approach them with patience, openness, and sincerity,” says Caraballo. And if you can’t bring those things to this conversation, that may be a symptom that the person in question isn’t the right mate for you, anyway.
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