In its cutesiest form, an emotional affair looks like the earliest seasons of The Office, when Pam was still engaged to Roy: Cuddly, sweet, a picture of two people so obviously meant to be together. But the problem with this cuddly vision of an emotional affair is that you tend to forget that…well, it’s still an affair. So, given that the vision remains cuddly, nonetheless, it seems we need to clear up a few lingering questions: Exactly what is an emotional affair? Is it still considered cheating? And, um, am I in the midst of one?
First, to address the question of “What is an emotional affair?” the answer can be tricky. According to relationship and sex therapist Tammy Nelson, PhD, an emotional affair can be any kind of relationship outside the marriage or committed partnership that’s ongoing and may even lead to a sexual or romantic affair.
According to marriage counselor Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, even though an emotional affair doesn’t mean you’re hopping into bed with someone else, it is most certainly considered cheating. Furthermore, it can sometimes be even more detrimental to a relationship than physical cheating might be. “When someone is having an emotional affair, deep feelings are involved, whereas when someone has sex with another, it can just be about sex,” says Thompson. “That being said, it’s also hard to tell when you are having an emotional affair, which can happen both quickly and over time. They can sneak up on people: One day you simply realize you’re very close to this other person outside your main relationship.”
“When someone is having an emotional affair, deep feelings are involved, whereas when someone has sex with another, it can just be about sex.” —marriage counselor Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT
There are definitely blurred lines with emotional affairs that happen in online chats, on websites, and via social media, because it’s easy to get connected with someone you may never meet in person or have any kind of real-life relationship with—so, you think, “It couldn’t possibly lead to an emotional affair.” Since identifying whether you’re in an emotional affair or not can be confusing, below the experts offer seven telltale signs so you can stop potentially relationship-ruining behavior before more damage is done.
7 signs you’re having an emotional affair with someone, whether you realize it or not.
1. They become the first person you want to talk to when something’s important
“You long to talk to or share with this other person about big or small things more than your partner,” says Thompson. “Likewise, when you want to share that you’re having a hard time or have something to celebrate, it’s with this other person.”
2. The other person is constantly on your mind
Emphasis on constantly. While the occasional sex dream about your co-worker or otherwise letting your brain wander a bit is generally benign, a given relationship becomes problematic when the person dominates your headspace more than the person you’re with.
“You might have a lot of fantasies about this other person that take you away from being present with your partner,” Thompson says. “Or you might find you are comparing this other person to your partner constantly.”
3. You confide in them about your relationship
“Do you tell this person things you no longer tell your spouse or partner at home?” Dr. Nelson asks. “If you find you are bringing personal things to your outside person, this might be further along than you think.”
4. You feel more valued by this person than your partner
Connecting emotionally with another human is what we all want on some level, so when you find someone who listens to your problems while your long-term partner dozes off, you may detach from one, only to attach to another.
“When you’re having an emotional affair, you often feel seen and heard in a way that feels life-giving and life-changing,” says Thompson. “It’s seductive and the feelings can be addictive. You just want more.”
4. You find excuses to meet up with or call them
Take note if you find yourself making any little excuse to get in touch. Thompson also says to be mindful if you’re suggesting solo meet-ups versus group hangs, further implying a one-on-one emotional intimacy is developing.
5. You worry about being caught engaging with this person
Even if you haven’t technically “done anything,” you start feeling paranoid that your partner will notice you texting them all the time. Thompson says a gut feeling of guilt could be an indicator that your intentions are, well, less than pure.
“There’s a difference between privacy and secrecy,” says Dr. Nelson. “You don’t have to tell your partner everything, but ask yourself, why aren’t you telling them about this person?
6. Other people point out how often you interact with each other
If your loved ones or colleagues start noticing the intensity of your interactions with this person, take note.
7. You can’t help bringing up this other person to your friends and family
If you’re doing this, ask yourself three questions: Am I unhappy with my partner? Am I unhappy with this specific relationship? Am I just experiencing boredom in my relationship?
“An emotional affair is usually an indicator that some aspect of your current relationship isn’t working,” says Thompson. “There’s a reason you don’t want to turn to your partner for comfort and support in the way you turn to this other person. Also, remember that affairs are so enticing because they’re not fully real: If you were in a fully committed relationship with them, the excitement may be gone.”
Once you come to the realization that one or several of these signs of an emotional affair ring true for you, and you realize you’re engaging in one, Dr. Nelson says you’d be wise to fess up. “Tell your partner whats happened and have an honest conversation” she says. Otherwise, if your partner finds out on their own, you may soon not have a relationship to speak of.
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