When you think of cheating, your mind probably jumps to sex—and the thought of your partner in bed with someone else. But with the advent of dating apps, Snapchat, and constant communication at the tip of your fingers, experts say emotional affairs are becoming more prominent.
“There’s more opportunity to execute and orchestrate more kinds of affairs than ever before,” says Nicolle Zapien, PhD, dean of the School of Professional Psychology and Health at California Institute of Integral Studies.
An affair is defined as a perceived betrayal of a sexual or erotic nature, she explains. “It doesn’t necessitate touching, intercourse, or sex at all.” ‘Erotic’ and ‘sexual’ are also broad terms—and sometimes, an emotions-only connection can cross the line from ‘just friends’ to something more. Here, exactly what emotional cheating is, how to spot the warning signs, and what to do if it’s found its way into your relationship.
What is emotional cheating, anyway?
Having an emotional affair means you’re directing the emotional and sexual energy that you’d typically put toward your partner toward somebody else, in turn, taking away from your primary relationship, says Samantha Rodman, PhD, a psychologist in North Bethesda, MD. You might look forward to talking to someone else more than your partner, tell someone else those funny little things that pop up, or find yourself complaining about your actual relationship to your emotional affair partner.
Of course, in order for the behavior to be cast as true infidelity, it has to have the sense of betrayal and some sort of intimate, emotional, erotic, or sexual overtone, adds Zapien. But as you can imagine, that’s a gray area—and a lot of stuff falls into that category.
Sheri Meyers, PsyD, author of Chatting or Cheating sums it up like this: “The difference between platonic friendship and emotional affair usually involves three elements: secrecy, sharing intimacy, and sexual chemistry.”
The first stage is usually friendship, adds Rodman. That said, tons of people have friendships outside of their relationships, are attracted to other people, and even flirt with others—all in healthy ways that don’t compromise their relationships. “But [with an emotional affair] you always kind of know that there’s that attraction there—and that eventually can be led into a real full-blown emotional affair,” she says.
A rule of thumb? If you wouldn’t do it in front of your partner, or wouldn’t tell your partner about it, that’s a warning sign you’re teetering on the line of an affair.
What are the signs of an emotional affair?
Think your partner’s mind could be somewhere else? Over time, emotional cheating chips away at the deep connection you once shared, putting out the fire. After all, an emotional affair hogs all of someone’s energy, leaving the primary partner with very little. “There’s only so much emotional intensity to go around,” says Rodman. Consider these the red flags:
💔 They’re constantly talking about someone else
“Sometimes people have emotional affairs to get attention subconsciously from their spouse,” says Rodman. In fact, your partner may have already told you about their affair. Listen: Is your other half rambling about their awesome new coworker who they get lunch with every day? They may be trying to get you to notice or care, Rodman notes.
Ask about the person in question, and they might even snap back—a sign they genuinely care for the person and are dedicating emotional energy to them.
💔 Your relationship doesn’t feel alive
Maybe it’s hard to get in touch with your spouse when you used to text all day, you sit side by side on the couch with your laptops when you get home, or you just have that *feeling* something’s missing. In an emotional affair, you’re redirecting emotions, energy, and actions toward someone else. “As someone gets more invested with someone else, they withdraw from the primary relationship,” says Rodman. (Enter: that lack-of-a-spark feeling.)
💔 You sense lies
Your S.O. wasn’t where they said they were, you dig up sketchy receipts, your partner is always on their phone or email and gets cagey about it when you walk in the room. Real secrets are a big-time sign of an affair, notes Zapien. They’re the proof that a person’s resources are being spent elsewhere—away from you.
Can you work through emotional cheating?
You don’t need to have sex with someone else to break their trust—one of the most fundamental roots of a successful, loving relationship. And emotional affairs, just like physical ones, infuse an element of secrecy that’s hurtful and hard to bounce back from. “Infidelity cases are some of the most difficult to work through because you need trust and trust is broken inside of this scenario,” says Zapien.
You can work through any kind of cheating, Zapien says, but every affair, person, and couple is different. So what you do varies depending on you are and what your goals are.
Step one, though, is addressing the affair itself. No matter where you do it—at home or in the presence of a therapist—think of it as a conversation, not a confrontation, Meyers suggests. There are three key points to include:
This helps diffuse defensiveness and starts an ongoing discussion, Meyers explains. Then, take a look back at the past. “There’s a series of things that happen as a backdrop of an affair—it’s not just one party cheats,” Zapien says. Outline what both of you were disappointed about pre-affair (maybe one partner felt lonely in the relationship) then talk about solutions.
Creating ground rules for what’s allowed in your relationship and what’s not, building self-confidence, protecting special time together (a no-phone date night where you spend time truly connecting, for example), attending therapy, and even talking about opening up the relationship or agreeing on separating are all options, Zapien says. The solutions depend on the particular situations and issues at hand.
No matter what you choose, be prepared to put in the work. While it’s absolutely possible to rebound from an affair, Meyers notes that both parties have to willing to restore the commitment and work to find each other again.
This article originally appeared on Prevention US.
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