Emotional cheating & emotional affairs explained

When you have sex with another person while in a relationship, the verdict is pretty cut and dry. You’ve cheated. But what about catching feelings for someone else? Does having an emotional affair with someone actually count as cheating? Is 'emotional cheating’ even a thing? This type of infidelity can be confusing, so we spoke to a relationship counsellor at Relate to find out what exactly it is.

A young woman is giving a presentation. She is having an emotional affair. This is a wide-angle image.

What is an affair?

To understand the difference between emotional cheating and a ‘traditional’ affair, we should probably define ‘affair’. An affair means a sexual relationship that’s happening whilst one or both parties is in a committed relationship. An extramarital affair is an affair taking place between married people, outside of their marriage.

Although it’s important to note that this is basically us just asking google to define affair. In the real world, everyone has different interpretations of what an affair means to them. For some, even flirting with the gender you’re attracted to is considered a betrayal.

What is emotional cheating?

After what is an affair? Comes the more complicated question of emotional cheating. 

Emotional cheating (or emotional infidelity, or an affair of the heart…) basically means crossing the emotional intimacy boundary with a person, without having sex, when you’re already with someone else.

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

What counts as an emotional affair?

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

  • You’re emotionally invested in this person. You think about them a lot, turn to them for emotional support, share relationship problems, and make efforts to see or speak to them. Maybe even more than your partner.
  • You flirt with intention. Flirty behaviour can sometimes be a personality trait but this flirting is with the intention of getting that person’s attention.
  • You hide the relationship from your partner. Whether you think it’s just a platonic friendship or not, you’re purposefully 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 pretend like they don’t exist, either online or in person. You’re not averse to a bit of DM sliding on Twitter so flirting can continue in private.
  • You feel guilty. This is probably the biggest sign of them all.

If you’re struggling but you want to protect your relationship with your partner, read our article ‘how not to cheat’ here.

Is emotional cheating actually cheating?

This is where we dip into a bit of a grey area. It’s actually healthy to have close friendships outside of your relationship. But if you’re looking elsewhere for emotional intimacy, it’s probably a sign that something isn’t right. You might want to reevaluate your relationship and see where the problem is. Regardless of whether or not you’re technically cheating.  

What counts as cheating will ultimately depend on your relationship boundaries. Have a think about what yours are. To help you do this, it’ worth thinking about how 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 having separation between church and state?
  • Fantasising about someone else? Would you be a bit miffed or are fantasies fine, welcome 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* minds are boggled at this one.

Once you know what you feel comfortable with, communicate that to your partner. They may feel differently, so make sure to respect their wishes as well. Doing something that doesn’t cross your boundaries but does theirs is a bit… selfish.

If you think you’re having an emotional affair

“Start by being honest with yourself,” says Peter. “The fact that you’ve started to have doubts points to the fact that you’re not in a healthy relationship.” 

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 other 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. Our article ‘I’ve cheated on them’ might help with that.

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

It can suck to suspect that your partner is being unfaithful. In fact, it’s totally normal to feel a bit hot-headed. But try not to throw accusations, shout, and get angry as it could make things worse. Wait until you’ve cooled down a bit before confronting them. If you need more advice, then read our advice for dealing with arguments here.

“Are you worrying about something that is real,” Peter asks. “Or is it that you don’t trust them?” It’s best to have a reasonable conversation if it’s the former. If it’s 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



By Nishika Melwani

Updated on 31-Dec-2021