If someone is in a committed, traditionally monogamous relationship and still decides to sleep with someone else, that’s clear and present infidelity. But, what if there is no sex involved in the indiscretion? What if talking to and spending time with another person is as far as the extra-relationship dalliance goes? While a person may blame a one-night stand on a momentary lapse of judgement, an emotional affair can extend much more deep in terms of significance. So what is emotional cheating, exactly? Well, there’s often feelings and intimacy involved, and it’s something that’s developed over time, not overnight. And, most crucially, it can be destructive to a relationship.
Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD, defines emotional cheating as “betraying your partner by investing emotional energy into another person from whom you are getting gratification and emotional intimacy.” Still not sure about it? Keep reading to further clarify whether emotional cheating counts as traditional cheating, why people do it in the first place, signs to look out for, and how to overcome it if it happens to your relationship.
What is emotional cheating, and does it count as infidelity?
Short answer? Yes—according to Dr. Saltz, at least. “Most people would be every bit as devastated by their partner feeling attached to and highly emotionally involved with another person,” she says, comparing the situation to physical cheating. The main component of emotional cheating, she adds, is secrecy. So, a good litmus test for whether a relationship might be veering into emotional cheating territory is to ask yourself if you’re keeping it mum out of fear of hurting your partner. Because if so, that means, at least on some level, you feel there’s something worth hiding in the first place.
“Most people would be every bit as devastated by their partner feeling attached to and highly emotionally involved with another person.” —Gail Saltz, MD
Want a second opinion? Licensed psychologist Heather Z. Lyons, PhD, believes the answer to what is emotional cheating is up to the couple’s discretion. “A couple needs to decide what feels like an affair to them and work to define the boundaries of their relationship,” she says. “This needs to be explicit, because they can’t read each other’s mind.”
Why do people emotionally cheat?
Dr. Lyons says that emotional affairs don’t usually relate to the strength or weakness of the relationship. “The most common reason that infidelity occurs is an opportunity,” she says. Another common reason for emotional affairs, she adds, is a partner not being able to fully express themselves in the relationship. Perhaps there are parts of their identity that are easier to express to someone else, either because they feel ashamed or pigeonholed in their relationship.
Signs of emotional cheating
Since the answer to what is emotional cheating looks different in every relationship, being able to spot it happening will be highly varied as well. That said, here are some signs Dr. Lyons and Dr. Saltz recommend looking out for.
- Meetings and conversations with another person are kept a secret.
- The person says or does things with this other person they wouldn’t do with their partner.
- There is a lot of time spent with another person.
- There is a comfort and closeness with another person.
- Personal details are shared with the other person but not with the partner.
How to overcome emotional cheating in your relationship
Because emotional cheating is a form of betrayal, Dr. Saltz contends it holds the power to end a relationship. That said, there are strategies you can invoke to mend your relationship and work through it. Below, check out five tips to do just that.
1. End the emotional affair, and take responsibility
If you’re the one doing the emotional cheating, the first course of action is to end the emotional affair—like really end it. “No halfway, no kind of, no being friends,” Dr. Saltz says. “It has to end or you will still be in it and cannot build back your partner’s trust.” The other key thing to do is to fully own your mistakes, she adds. It’s the only way to get past it.
2. Figure out why it happened
“To repair your current relationship and to avoid this happening again, it would behoove you to understand what drove the behavior in the first place,” Dr. Saltz says. Get to the bottom of why you or your partner had the emotional affair. Could it be due to a relationship that’s failing? A desired boost of self-esteem? Repeating the pattern of a parent who cheated? Have conversations and introspect in order to get to the bottom of the issue.
Dr. Lyons adds that perhaps the partner who cheated had difficulty expressing their needs in the relationship. If so, she recommends having a discussion about that to see whether there’s a capacity in the relationship to accommodate those needs to avoid repeating the same pattern moving forward.
3. Rebuild trust
“The biggest obstacle to your relationship surviving is the betrayal, so you must be thoroughly open and trustworthy to build it back,” Dr. Saltz says. “This means doing what your partner needs.” Whether it’s coming home right after work, breaking off all contact with the other person, or whatever else they need to be able to trust you again, commit to it. And remember, rebuilding trust after betrayal takes time. Be patient.
4. Communicate your feelings with each other
The difference between couples who recover from infidelity (emotional or physical) versus those who don’t has to do with the approach, Dr. Lyons says. “In couples that recover, the injured partner—the one who discovered the infidelity—discloses and expresses their needs in the relationship. The offending partner—the one who had the affair—is then able to affirm and express understanding of the pain they caused rather than becoming defensive.” So instead of belittling, blaming, defending, or withdrawing, both partners would be wise to openly communicate their needs and feelings with each other.
5. Work with a professional
If there is a lot of blame from the partner who is hurt or withdrawal from the partner who had the emotional affair, not all is lost. Rather, Dr. Lyons recommends working with a couples therapist. “Couples therapy, particularly therapy that can help partners recognize their emotional reactions to the breach of trust and violation of assumptions in the relationship, can help facilitate these factors that help couples move past cheating,” she says.
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