What is an emotional affair?

Does having an emotional affair with someone actual count as cheating? Is an 'emotional affair' even a thing? This type of infidelity can be confusing so we spoke to a relationship counsellor at Relate.

guy and girl on the back of a truck

Are you stepping over the boundary?

I’ve never heard of emotional infidelity…

It’s an odd one. Emotional infidelity (or emotional cheating, or having an emotional affair…) basically means crossing the friendship/relationship boundaries with a person, without having sex, when you’re already in a relationship with someone else.

How bad is that, you ask? Well, Peter Saddington, a counsellor at relationships charity Relate says, “Evidence suggests that most partners are more distressed by emotional infidelity than physical sexual contact.” Emotions can run deeper than meaningless shagging.

So what counts as an emotional affair?

Good question. It can totally depend on your relationship! But there are some basic signs to look out for if you think you, or your partner, are getting on a little too well with someone else:

  • You’re emotionally invested in this person. You think about them a lot, share personal thoughts, share relationship problems, and make efforts to see or speak to them.
  • You flirt with intention. Flirty behaviour can often come as standard but this flirting is with the intention of getting certain sexual/flirty/attentive responses.
  • You hide the relationship from your partner. Whether you think it’s just a platonic friendship or not, you’re keeping this person secret…
  • You message them a lot. It could be by email, text, Facebook or WhatsApp, but you message them constantly and, more importantly, make sure your partner doesn’t know about it.
  • You act like you’re single. You don’t talk about your partner and act like they don’t exist, either online or in person. You’re not adverse to a bit of DM sliding on Twitter so flirting can continue in private.
  • You feel guilty. The big one.

But… is it actually cheating?

This is where we dip into the grey area of cheating. Yeah, sorry. What counts as cheating will ultimately depend on your relationship boundaries.

Have a think about what yours are. How do you feel about the following?

  • Having sex with someone else? Big no-no? Deleting their number asap? Or are you open to open relationships?
  • Drunkenly kissing someone at the work Christmas party? Totally innocent and the drink’s fault or are you throwing their clothes out the window?
  • Hiding messages from your partner? Bit fishy? Or just keeping private messages private
  • Fantasising about someone else? Would you be a bit miffed or are fantasies fine, exciting even, as long as you don’t act on them?
  • Feeling more emotionally connected to someone else, texting them lots, opening up to them more than your partner, thinking about them constantly? Um… ok, even *our* heart, brain, and genitals are all very confused.

Once you know your boundaries you should communicate them with your partner and vice versa. They may be different, but you should always respect your partner’s first and foremost. Doing something that doesn’t cross your boundaries but does theirs is a bit… selfish.

Oh. I think I’m having an emotional affair…

“Start by being honest with yourself,” says Peter. “The fact that you have started to have doubts says there is a problem.”

Take a step back and evaluate what’s happening.

  • What exactly are you doing that’s making you feel uncomfortable?
  • How do you REALLY feel about it/this person/your relationship?
  • Why do you think you’re engaging with this person in this way?

Taking time to reflect on what’s happened and how you feel about it may help you know what to do next.

If you want to stay with your partner then you need to have an honest conversation with the person you’re emotionally invested in and take a step back. Once that’s done, sit your partner down and talk through the feelings and issues you’re having.

If you want to end it with your partner, it’s best to do it sooner rather than later.

I think my partner’s having an emotional affair, what do I do?

It can suck to suspect that your partner is being unfaithful, and it’s ok to feel hot-headed, but try not to throw accusations, shout, and get angry as it could make things worse.

“Are you worrying about something that is real,” Peter asks. “Or is that you have suspicions?” It’s best have a reasonable conversation if it’s the former. If the latter then getting an outside perspective may be helpful first. But, ultimately, honest and calm communication is always best.

If you’re still worried about your partner’s behaviour or need more support then contact Relate.

Next Steps

  • Relate is an affordable relationship and sex counselling service. 0300 100 1234
  • Do you want to understand your relationship better? Love Smart helps you work it all out.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 20-Dec-2016