What Is Emotional Cheating — And How Do I Know If I'm Guilty of It?

Here's how to know if your "friendship" has veered into emotional affair territory.

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I have a close friend who I have been confiding in about my relationship with my partner. We have been together for a long time and have hit a bit of a road bump. As I have been opening up to my friend, I have found myself fantasizing about what life would be like with him. I am feeling the chemistry and apparently so is he. He recently told me that he has feelings for me and wants to be with me. Since nothing physical has actually happened, I have not told my partner. A girlfriend of mine says this is emotional cheating. What do you think? —My Cheating Heart


Your friend is not wrong. There are all different kinds of cheating. Having sex is a clear violation in most relationships. Emotional connections and what crosses the line tends to be more complicated. That said, there are some clear-cut signs that you are crossing that line into the land of emotional cheating.

What is Emotional Cheating?

An emotional affair is an affair of the heart. The most troubling aspect of the emotional affair, for the person who is in a committed relationship, is that it drains the primary relationship of time, energy, and focus. You are creating an emotionally intimate relationship with someone outside of your relationship. When you do this, that relationship ALWAYS suffers.

It also provides a distraction that prevents you from making the needed emotional, logistical and/or sexual corrections that the relationship needs. Emotional affairs are often the gateway drug to physical affairs.

Signs of Emotional Cheating

So how do you determine the difference between a really close friendship and emotional cheating? Can you be friends with someone who is of a gender that you are sexually interested in? At what point do you cross the line into emotional cheating?

Here are a few important signs that your friendship is crossing the line:

  • There is a sexual tension
  • One or both of you are flirting
  • You keep secrets about things that have been said or done with this friend from your partner
  • You don't want to share them with your partner
  • You cross boundaries that you and your partner have agreed upon
  • You spend more time thinking about them than your partner
  • You tell them about fights or personal information about you and your partner
  • Your text messages are flirtatious and involve a lot of emojis
  • You find yourself erasing communication with the other person because you don't want your partner to see
  • You share thoughts, feelings, and information with this person that you do not share with your partner
  • Even when you're in a room with your partner, you find yourself texting this other person
  • The time and energy spent on this other relationship is weakening the bond with your partner
  • When something good or bad happens in your life, the first person you want to tell is this friend, not your partner
  • You seek this person out for comfort instead of your partner
  • You frequently find yourself comparing this person to your partner
  • You use terms of endearment with this other person ("babe," "honey," "sweetie") or private nicknames

Why It Happens

Time and time again the thing I hear most when emotional affairs begin is "[they] really understand me in a way that my partner doesn't." Most often these kinds of affairs are a symptom of a bigger problem in your relationship. Typically that problem is a lack of connection.

In a groundbreaking study of men who cheat and women who cheat, researcher M. Gary Neuman found that only 7% of the time for women and 8% of the time for men did they cheat purely for sexual reasons. Over 90% of the time, regardless of gender, the cheaters cheated either because of a lack of emotional connection or a combination of a lack of emotional and sexual connection. Typically when people have emotional affairs that emotional connection is the gas pedal that propels the car.

Anytime you are feeling that kind of significant emotional connection with someone outside your committed relationship it is a red flag. It is time to take a look at what is lacking in your relationship and to take action to change. In order for your partner to be that person who you go to first to tell about your day and share your dreams and fears, you must foster intimacy. When you are text messaging, sharing inside jokes, thinking about your "friend" all the time, and feeling sexual chemistry you are unlikely to be putting much energy into your relationship with your partner. This is a recipe for disaster.

What to Do About It

If you want your relationship with your partner to work, you must stop the current patterns with your friend.

1) Take the friendship relationship out of the shadows. You can no longer keep secrets, have private intimate conversations, or share private information about your partner or relationship.

2) Involve your partner. If you think that you can have appropriate boundaries and keep things clean in the friendship, you need to talk to your partner about what has happened and, if you both decide that it's in the best interest of the relationship to maintain the friendship, start to include your partner.

3) Have better boundaries. Spell out to your friend the new rules of engagement. Make sure that you do not put yourself in a position to break those commitments. Don't party with them, hang out late at night in their house watching Netflix, cuddle on the couch with them, or do anything that blurs the lines.

4) End the relationship. If you feel that you cannot be emotionally disciplined, respectful towards your partner, and have good boundaries with this person, you may need to end the friendship.

5) Explore in your own heart why you may be sabotaging your relationship. Take some time to examine why you might be looking to harm your relationship.

Ask yourself:

  • Do you have commitment issues?
  • Do you feel worthy of the relationship that you are in?
  • Are you wanting to get out of the relationship but are too scared to do that?
  • Are you communicating your needs to your partner?
  • Are you setting your relationship up to succeed?
  • Are you being open and honest with your partner?
  • Are you asking for what you want?
  • Do you have unresolved resentment with your partner that you have not processed?

If you find yourself forming inappropriate emotional bonds with people outside of your relationship that violate your commitment to your partner, it is important to stop the behavior and gain insight into why you are in this position. Sometimes you can do that through soul-searching, journaling, and self-help books. Other times you might need the help of a professional therapist.

In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.

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