Emotional Infidelity

Emotional infidelity is the new threat to loving relationships. An emotional affair starts as friendship, often with colleagues or seemingly harmless online relationships, and slowly progresses to something more. A gradual blurring of the lines between friendship and deeper intimacy draws even happily partnered people into relationships they never saw coming. 

Many of us have a vision of infidelity in which one partner starts a torrid sexual affair and selfishly lives a double life until it all comes crumbling down. Emotional infidelity couldn’t be more different, which leaves many couples vulnerable to its damaging effects.

A couple’s best defense against emotional infidelity is to learn about it, then fortify their relationship against it. However, if you’ve experienced emotional infidelity, there are also some key lessons to be learned from it that can make your relationship stronger.

Table of Contents

What is an emotional affair?

An emotional affair is one of those gray areas of relationships. It usually occurs when a person in a committed relationship forms a deep attachment to someone he or she is attracted to and pursues increasing intimacy, but without sexual activity. At least at the outset. Emotional affairs are often the precursor to full-blown sexual affairs.

Unlike a purely sexual affair, today’s affair looks—and begins—more like friendship than the no-strings-attached sex of years past. Today, both men and women are having emotional affairs that start with the heart and the mind.

How dangerous is an emotional affair?

These sexually charged but unconsummated relationships drain significant energy and excitement from a current relationship. They redirect a partner’s attention elsewhere. The strong feeling of connection and intimacy may or may not progress to sex. Regardless, the wedge in a person’s primary relationship is both noticeable and harmful. In fact, the lack of sex in an emotional affair can be more damaging than the affairs of days past, due to an intense build-up of unconsummated sexual energy.

What’s the difference between attraction and emotional infidelity?

We’re all living, breathing sexual beings. Attraction doesn’t end once we’re in a relationship. Even the most happily coupled people are going to feel the familiar buzz of attraction when someone catches their eye or laughs at one of their jokes. However, while feeling attraction is unavoidable, acting on it crosses the line.

Attraction is one ingredient of an emotional affair. In order for attraction to launch into an emotional affair, a person has to also develop intimacy and, eventually, a feeling of connection with that person that supersedes their current relationship.

In other words, attraction + effort + intimacy = emotional infidelity. Take away one, and all you’re left with is a natural instinct or a harmless relationship.

The 3 ingredients of an emotional affair

An emotional affair often begins with a feeling of wanting more from someone you are sexually attracted to and energized by in your day-to-day life.

According to a comprehensive book on the subject, Not “Just Friends” by Dr. Shirley Glass, an emotional affair is marked by three distinguishing qualities:

  • Close friendship and emotional intimacy. An emotional affair often begins as friendship and gradually drifts into something more. While friendship alone isn’t enough to qualify as cheating, a feeling of shared closeness and understanding is the starting point for an emotional affair.

  • Sexual Attraction. An emotional affair is fueled by feelings of attraction between two people.  

  • Secrecy. Here’s where friendship and attraction cross the line into emotional cheating. In an emotional affair, each person stops sharing certain aspects of the friendship with his or her partner, and starts confiding more in the “friend” and less in his or her partner.

5 signs a partner may be having an emotional affair

Picking up on the signs of an emotional affair isn’t always easy. Many people wonder how they didn’t know sooner. Others worry that their relationship paranoia is unfounded (and it may be). Ultimately, only you can know what your gut feeling is telling you. Here are some red flags that may warrant a closer look:

  • He/she seems distant and distracted, and when questioned about it, gets angry or defensive.
  • He/she has suddenly changed the way he spends his time: He might be at work constantly, or spend all night on the computer. Suddenly, a new focus is eating up all of his time, but you get few details when you ask about it.
  • He/she has become more involved in paying the bills or has transferred bills to the office, so you do not see call or computer logs, bank transactions and so forth.
  • He/she has suddenly started exercising, putting more effort into dressing and grooming, or wants you to do these things.
  • He/she has suddenly lost interest in sex or is highly sexually charged, in a way that you haven’t experienced in years or ever.

6 relationship weak-spots for emotional infidelity

Most people don’t set out to have an emotional affair. Rather, it just happens, usually as a friendly relationship snowballs into something more meaningful.

A common myth is that only people in unhappy relationships have emotional affairs. In fact, many men and women who commit emotional infidelity report that they were happy when they became involved with their affair partners. Rather than seeking out love (or sex), unfaithful partners gradually blur the boundaries between friendship and intimacy over an extended period of time.

That said, there are a variety of factors that can predispose a couple to emotional infidelity. Some of the more common relationship weak-spots include:

  • Unresolved issues in the relationship that are either ignored or not resolved in a way that’s satisfying to both partners.

  • Long or regular intervals of time spent apart, often because of work or other obligations.

  • Child-centric marriages that prioritize parenting and neglect a couple’s relationship, with few opportunities for romance and alone time.
  • Unsatisfying or infrequent sex, often a result of incompatible libidos or sexual preferences.
  • A lack of shared interests and opportunities to simply have fun together.
  • An unequal balance of power in the relationship; for instance, if one partner carries most of the housework and childcare responsibility or has all of the financial decision-making power.

Why is work such a danger-zone for emotional infidelity?

Perhaps the riskiest place for finding unexpected chemistry with another person is the office. In today’s age of dual incomes, many of us work long hours that keep us away from home and partners.

Work provides a perfect place for bonding. Working long days and nights towards shared goals can create an intimacy that’s hard for anyone to compete with—including a partner. There are also long lunches, happy hours and business trips, which are all rife with temptation if two people feel an attraction brewing.

 In her book Not “Just Friends” Dr. Shirley Glass reported that 46 percent of women and 62 percent of men cheated on their spouses with someone they met through work. Many people feel that a connection grows slowly and almost effortlessly at work. Plus, work-related excuses are all too easy to justify time spent away from home, off-hours phone calls, or simply close relationships with the opposite sex.

Why is the Internet such a danger-zone for emotional infidelity?

When two people meet in a chat room or strike up an email relationship, it’s easy to begin idealizing each other and blur the line between fantasy and reality. An intense sense of intimacy is quickly fostered. Sharing personal details and desires is often easier over the Internet than it is face-to-face. The instant gratification of these technologies stimulates reward centers in the brain, and it's easy to find oneself craving the quick hit of an instant connection or lamenting its absence.

Even without the senses driving attraction, the mind goes into overdrive and imagines that this is the perfect person and the perfect relationship.

Soon, a person may feel like an online friend “knows” them better than a partner does. A person may feel freer to explore other parts of themselves, while real life (and a real relationship) feels stifling. This artificial sense of intimacy can begin to consume a person’s thoughts, which becomes all the more exciting because it’s a secret.

Can a person really cheat without sex?

Absolutely. The brain is the largest sexual organ and most affairs being in the mind.

Attraction is magnified by an emotional connection. When one partner starts sharing himself or herself with another person, it chips away at the foundation of their relationship—and starts building a foundation for a new relationship.

Part of what makes a couple’s relationship special is the information they share only with each other. Some of it is seemingly meaningless daily details, like how bad the morning traffic was or what they had for lunch. Other times it’s deeper desires, fears and goals. As an emotional affair progresses, less and less of a person’s sharing goes to his or her partner, and more goes to the affair partner.

In fact, not having sex may give the relationship even more power. You’re able to idealize the other person and fantasize about what sex would be like. This only adds fuel to the fire. Just like primary relationships, affairs that start out slowly and build a connection before progressing to sex are often the most difficult to break off—and the most damaging to the other relationship.

Flirting: 4 questions to know whether it’s harmless or harmful

Each person defines flirting differently. For some people, flirting is part of their personality and they do it, often unconsciously, with everyone from store clerks to family members. For other people, flirting is a sign of sexual interest and opens the door to temptation.

Flirting is generally harmless if the person doing it doesn’t attach any significance to the behavior. Flirting alone isn’t likely to interfere with a relationship. However, if flirting is happening because of sexual attraction and joins with those other ingredients of emotional infidelity—secrecy and increasing intimacy—it’s cause for concern.

Some helpful questions to explore whether or not flirting is harmless include:

  • Would I act this way in front of my partner?
  • Would I be ok if my partner acted this way with someone else?
  • Do I have ulterior motives when flirting, such as hoping to get to know someone better or to get noticed?
  • Do I look forward to flirting with a particular person?

Do people in happy relationships cheat?

In her book Not “Just Friends” Dr. Shirley Glass reported that 82 percent of unfaithful people started out being acquaintances, neighbors or coworkers with their affair partners. In other words, people who are unfaithful to their partners weren’t looking for a relationship or seeking out strangers in a bar; it just happened.

Just about anyone is vulnerable to an emotional affair. While Glass admits that couples who are extremely connected—sexually, psychologically and intellectually—are the least likely to commit emotional infidelity, reasonably happy people cheat just like unhappily partnered people do.

Usually, emotional infidelity occurs when the lines of communication in a relationship temporarily weaken or a couple doesn’t share a sense of clear boundaries about what is and is not acceptable behavior. Someone who is happy at home can suddenly find themselves overly-attached to someone they spend a lot of time with at work. Or, a normal feeling of sexual frustration in a long-term relationship is suddenly eased by a new and exciting attraction. 

7 ways to safeguard your relationship against infidelity

A few tried and true strategies can help a couple prevent emotional infidelity before it starts. Safeguarding against an emotional affair is the best way to minimize the risk that either person will unwittingly fall prey to it:

  • Talk about emotional infidelity, so both partners are aware that cheating can happen without sex.

  • Discuss how the workplace and the Internet can be conducive to emotional affairs.
  • Think twice about reconnecting with past partners, whether after a reunion or via the Internet. Social networking sites and email have made it easy to track down former partners, and intimacy can develop quickly in these mediums.
  • Agree to share more about your day, as well as your desires and your frustrations with each other than you do with anyone else in your life.

  • Choose friendships with people who support your relationship.Friends who encourage you to leave a relationship rather than problem-solve are dangerous to the relationship.
  • Understand that attraction to other people is normal; it’s not a sign you’re in the wrong relationship.
  • Have realistic expectations for your relationship. Long-term relationships are often more loving than exciting. Likewise, the butterflies of new attraction always wear off eventually.

Should a couple share everything—from cell phone and email passwords to financial records—to encourage an open, honest relationship?

Transparency is important in any relationship, from the professional to the personal, but especially in our romantic relationships. If you wouldn’t say or do something in front of your partner, it’s generally best not to say or do it in front of anyone. 

That said, accessing each other’s email accounts, cell phone and bank records to track each other’s every move can prove counterproductive to establishing trust. There’s something about having total access to password-protected domains that says, “I’m waiting to catch you doing something wrong.”

Plus, one or both people may feel as though they are being “tracked” or managed like a child. This isn’t healthy for your relationship and it also isn’t great for your sex life, since attraction grows from the charge of two individuals.

Even when in a relationship, each person is entitled to have some privacy. Sharing everything is sharing too much.

Nurture an atmosphere of mature trust in your relationship by finding a happy medium:

  • Keep passwords and other essential information, like bills and financial statements, in a safe place so your partner can access them in an emergency. If you don’t feel comfortable with this arrangement, pick a trusted friend or family member to keep the information.

  • Leave your email open sometimes on the computer to show you’re not hiding anything. Leave your cell phones with each other when you go for a run or take a shower. This creates openness and trust.
  • Stop text-messaging, emailing or calling old flames, even if you’re responding to their messages. Say, “I’m in a relationship now. I wish you all the best.”

Is it ok to snoop on a suspicious-acting partner?

Who hasn’t snooped every now again at a partner’s cell phone or looked through a pile of bills on the counter, while he’s run out on a quick errand? It’s only natural to be curious—and to look.

However, snooping because you think your partner is cheating on you is a different matter entirely. Usually, if you’re spying on your partner, you suspect something is wrong. There are two possible outcomes:

  1. You discover evidence of infidelity.
  2. You find nothing, and either trust this discovery or continue to feel suspicious.

The real question to ask yourself is: Why are you snooping in the first place? Repeatedly snooping on a partner is an indication that the relationship is in trouble. If you suspect something, talk to your partner about it. If you’re still not satisfied, only you can explore whether you bring trust issues to the relationship or if your partner is truly giving you reason to question his commitment.

How to approach a partner when you’ve found proof of infidelity

Whether by chance or because you suspected something was wrong and snooped, finding evidence that your partner has cheated is a heart-breaking discovery. The initial shock is likely to trigger feelings of anger, sadness and everything in between.

And as difficult as it may seem, it’s best for you (and your relationship) to wait until you feel calm to approach your partner with the evidence. Once you are ready, here are some tips to make the conversation go as smoothly as possible:

  • Write down your thoughts and goals for the conversation.
  • Choose a time to talk when you are alone and free of distractions.
  • Admit what you discovered to your partner—do not try to trap him by asking if there’s anything he wants to tell you.

  • Express how the discovery made you feel. Focus on your feelings, rather than accusations or blaming.
  • Consider the possibility that there is a reasonable explanation.

  • If your partner admits to inappropriate behavior or infidelity, thank him for his honesty and agree to continue the conversation later if emotions escalate (which they likely will). Don’t try to get every detail then and there.

  • If your partner denies or tries to rationalize your discovery, continue to observe and speak to him again if you discover another red flag. If you believe your health is at risk, because of STDs and unsafe sexual practices, take precautions to protect yourself or tell your partner directly that you are worried about your sexual health.

Coming clean: How many details should you share about an emotional affair with your partner?

After an affair is discovered, betrayed partners often want to know everything—from start to finish—about a partner’s infidelity. It can feel overwhelming to the partner who strayed to answer questions and provide details that are only going to create more hurt and anger.

However, a person who commits any kind of infidelity owes it to their partner to be honest and upfront about the relationship. A quick, no-nonsense admission is the best move you can make for your relationship. Attempting to minimize, hide or slowly reveal the truth of an affair will do further damage to your relationship, perhaps irreparably.

Come clean about the affair by detailing:

  • When it started.

  • Who initiated.

  • Whether it turned sexual.

  • What communication was shared, whether texting, emails, calls or letters.

  • What lies of omission you told: Have you been sharing lunches or late nights at the office with this person? Do you communicate with this person when you say you are working on the computer late at night?

  • What lies of commission you told: Did you fabricate any stories to be with this person? Did you say a purchase was for one thing, when it was really a gift?
  • Have you ended the affair or do you plan to?

Top 10 emotions a betrayed partner may feel after an admission of infidelity

Emotions often run wild after an affair has been disclosed or discovered. Many people describe the feeling as unreal—as if they are living someone else’s life, since so much is called into question after a partner has been unfaithful.

In the immediate days and weeks after learning of a partner’s infidelity, a betrayed partner may go numb or may recover quickly, depending on the details of the relationship. More commonly, betrayed partners feel:

  • Extreme anxiety and/or panic
  • Depression (including sleep and appetite changes)
  • Anger

  • Sadness
  • Fear of losing your partner

  • The desire to divorce or leave your partner

  • Rapidly shifting emotions

  • Obsessive thinking about the affair

  • Increase in sexual desire for your partner

  • Disgust at the prospect of sex with your partner

  • Lack of trust

Though these emotions can feel powerful and overwhelming, it’s important to know that they will subside with time. Avoid making any rash decisions in the first couple of weeks after learning of a partner’s infidelity. Also, try to resist saying harsh words you’ll regret. You’ll benefit from a calmer perspective once the initial shock has worn off, then both of you can decide what—if anything—the future holds for your relationship.

6 ways to manage feelings of anger, obsessive thoughts and outbursts at the partner who cheated

Some people react angrily when they learn of a partner’s infidelity. Others respond calmly. Most people find that they swing between the two extremes in the days, weeks and, sometimes, months following the discovery of a partner’s infidelity. 

The aftermath of infidelity is often a confusing and difficult time for both partners. Here are some strategies to manage your emotions now, for a better chance at repairing the relationship later:

  • Discuss some details about the affair soon after you find out, but wait to have a full discussion until both of you have calmed down.
  • Walk away from an escalating argument. Once you say something, you can never take it back. Agree to resume the conversation later.

  • Obsessive thinking is a normal response to trauma, but it’s not healthy to verbalize everything you are thinking. Each time you start obsessing over unanswered questions, write them down in a journal or notebook.

  • When you are feeling calm and balanced, set up a time to discuss your most pressing questions with your partner in a controlled setting.

  • Schedule worry times for yourself. Agree that you will allow yourself to think about the affair, and other disturbing thoughts about it and your partner during these times—perhaps one hour a day.

  • Practice thought-control at other times when you feel yourself obsessing. When you’re having unwanted or overwhelming thoughts, force yourself to think of something else, like an event you’re looking forward to or a good friend.

How can a couple deal with lingering loyalty to the affair partner?

After an affair is revealed, the partner who’s been having another relationship may feel conflicted about cutting off contact with the person. This feeling of attachment is complicated by the fact that affair partners often work together or otherwise see each other on a regular basis. 

Lingering loyalty or connection to the affair partner feels outrageous and hurtful to the betrayed partner—and rightfully so. If you’ve agreed to stay together and work on your relationship, it’s essential to re-establish trust and end all contact with the affair partner. However, both partners play a role in easing back into their relationship and allowing the affair relationship to fade away in importance:

  • The partner who had the affair should recognize that comparing the affair relationship to the primary relationship is unfair. You’re comparing an exciting, secret relationship that has no constraints to a real-life, long-term relationship. They can’t compete and the affair would likely lose its luster once it became part of daily life.
  • The partner who was betrayed should realize the affair wasn’t planned. No one ever imagines a relationship will ultimately cause so much pain and anguish. This is especially true in cases of emotional infidelity, which often begins innocently and gradually. As long as there’s a clear commitment to this relationship, give the other partner some time to get over the normal feelings of attachment to this person they grew close to.

What if one or both people are not sure they want to stay together after emotional infidelity?

Emotions run rampant after disclosure of an affair and many people aren’t able to get a grip on themselves, let alone what the future of the relationship holds. It’s best in these times to adopt a wait-and-see approach.

In her book Not “Just Friends” Dr. Shirley Glass recommends that a couple wait three months before making a final decision about the relationship. Feelings of ambivalence and uncertainty are common in the weeks after the discovery of infidelity, and they can cloud both partners’ commitment to the relationship.

Rather than feeling like you have to reach a conclusion quickly—especially amid so much confusion—start working towards repairing the relationship and give yourselves three months to get your bearings.

8 strategies to regain trust after infidelity

The days and weeks after an admission of infidelity are among the most vulnerable and disorienting a betrayed partner will ever feel. It’s up to the person who strayed to re-establish a basic sense of safety and trust immediately, if the relationship is to be salvaged:

  • Tell the affair partner the relationship is over.

  • Make a clean break from the affair partner. This includes all email, phone and face-to-face contact. You cannot be friends.

  • If you work together, limit interactions and conversations to be strictly business.
  • Agree to share with your partner any unexpected encounters or additional communication with the affair partner. Volunteer the information, instead of waiting to see if your partner will find out.

  • Be accountable for your whereabouts, by saying where you are going and what time you will be home. It may feel overbearing at first, but it is essential to rebuilding trust.

  • Avoid settings that could lead to temptation or inappropriate behavior, such as happy hours, and events with lots of single people or friends who are bad influences.
  • Agree to tell each other your deepest thoughts, feelings and desires, and no one else.

  • Commit yourself to your relationship. Or, if you’re feeling unsure of things at the moment, commit yourself to your commitment. 

Can there be a silver lining after an emotional affair?

Absolutely. After the pain of infidelity has been mined and trust has been firmly restored, a couple can learn some important lessons that will help solidify their relationship. The irony is that sometimes an infidelity can be a catalyst for creating an even better relationship, by bringing hidden and repressed issue to the surface.

A starting point for discovering the silver lining of an emotional affair is to discuss what the unfaithful partner liked about himself or herself while having the other relationship. Are aspects that can be fostered in your relationship? For instance, maybe he felt romantic and generous, and can start to surprise you with little gifts. Or, maybe you felt sexy and attractive, and can find ways to elicit those feelings in your partner.

Other relationship strengths that can grow out of one partner’s infidelity include: 

  • •    A clearer sense of appropriate boundaries for friendships and other relationships.
  • A shared vision of what commitment means.

  • A closer, more honest relationship, in which you share more of your deepest desires and fears with each other.

  • A renewed sense of priority for your relationship and each other in your lives.

  • A united front after having come through a difficult time together and being stronger because of it.

6 ways to improve flirtatiousness and sexual excitement in a relationship after infidelity

Once the dust has settled after a disclosure of infidelity and a couple wants to try to make the relationship work, it’s important to begin creating an atmosphere of warmth and affection. Often, it will take some effort, especially on the part of the betrayed partner, but reconnecting sexually can be an important route to healing:

  • Be appreciative. Notice your partner’s efforts to do nice things, whether it’s emptying the dishwasher or complimenting you on how you look. You may not feel ready to forgive yet, or say something nice in return, but expressing appreciation or a simple thanks will help encourage healing.
  • Take the initiative. If each person is waiting for the other to break the ice or plan some quality time together, it may never happen.
  • Reminisce together. Recall how you first met or your wedding day. Look at photo albums or videos and remember the good times.
  • Look to the future. Think of better times ahead, too. This may be nothing more than a bump in the road on your long journey together, whether it’s having children, grandchildren or planning a once-in-a-lifetime trip.

  • Bring back courtship. Start dating each other again. Plan romantic outings or give little gifts and notes to show thoughtfulness and revive excitement. Act like you are getting to know each other all over again (perhaps you are).

  • Renew your vows. A vow renewal ceremony can be done privately, in front of family and friends or even as a second honeymoon, to symbolize your renewed commitment.