What Is an Emotional Affair, and Are You Having One?
It's common knowledge that being cheated on by a spouse or partner can be detrimental to our mental and emotional wellbeing. In many cases, cheating inevitably leads to a breakup or divorce. However, many couples are unaware that an emotional affair—a lesser-known predecessor of physical cheating—can be just as damaging to a relationship, if not more so.
What Is Emotional Cheating?
Psychologists and experts generally describe an emotional affair as an intense non-sexual connection (with someone other than your partner) that resembles the bond and emotional intimacy of a committed relationship or marriage.
There are various theories and debates regarding whether or not an emotional affair is considered “real” cheating or infidelity. Regardless of the answer, it’s safe to assume that emotional intimacy with someone who isn’t your partner can negatively impact your relationship. Not only can an emotional affair erode trust between you and your partner, but it can quickly deteriorate your marriage.
Emotional affairs can take various shapes and forms. Maybe he won’t stop texting his new coworker because she’s “going through a tough time.” Maybe she disappears to take regular calls from the personal trainer she sees twice a week. Whatever the situation, it’s worth acknowledging that emotional cheating can be just as hurtful as physical cheating.
What Causes an Emotional Affair?
If you suspect that your spouse is having an emotional affair, your feelings of hurt, anger, or other negative emotions are entirely justified.
Remember, an emotional connection is usually the precursor to a committed partnership. It makes sense that an emotional affair can cause couples pain and heartbreak in the same way that a physical affair might. Some may even argue that emotional affairs are more devastating. In some cases, emotional infidelity can open the door to physical cheating.
There are various speculations about why people pursue emotional affairs. Consider the following possible causes of emotional infidelity:
- A spouse feels rejected or unappreciated. Maybe she’s never in the mood; maybe he never initiates sexual intimacy anymore. Whatever the reason, if one spouse feels regularly rejected or overlooked by their partner in any aspect (emotionally, physically, or sexually), they’re more likely to experience loneliness and/or seek validation elsewhere.
- Your marriage is abusive or has a history of abuse. Toxic personality traits in one or both spouses can lead to an abusive partnership. For example, excessive jealousy can lead to unhealthy conflict, paranoia, and lack of trust. Likewise, an emotionally abusive spouse may pursue an emotional affair while attempting to gaslight the other spouse by insisting that they’re being paranoid, dramatic, or jealous over nothing.
- One or both spouses get bored in the marriage. Marriage is forever. For some couples, boredom can be an inevitability. Some spouses attempt to combat this boredom in unhealthy ways, including getting involved in another relationship.
- A spouse feels unfulfilled. This can occur on both a physical and emotional level. Maybe they feel trapped in the partnership or misunderstood. Whatever the reason, if a spouse tries and fails to receive needed love and validation from their partner, they may turn to another person to fulfill their emotional and/or physical needs.
- The spouse having the affair is confident they won’t get caught. Sadly, some people choose to cheat simply because they know they can. If a partner desires something and is confident they can obtain it without reaping negative consequences, they may seek an emotional affair.
- A spouse lacks impulse control. There are instances in which a spouse isn’t fully conscious of their actions and what they entail. For example, a partner may not give much thought to all the extra time they’re spending with a friend or coworker if the partner is prone to make impulsive decisions. This is especially common when a person is stressed or emotionally unwell, meaning that existing conflict in someone’s life can spur them to seek intimacy elsewhere.
- A spouse acts out of anger or revenge. Sometimes, some people may actively seek out opportunities for emotional or physical affairs to alleviate their anger, get revenge, or “prove a point.” Handling negative emotions (such as anger, vengeance, or jealousy) in unhealthy ways can lead to an emotional affair or other form of infidelity in a relationship.
Warning Signs of Emotional Infidelity
Many people who engage in emotional cheating may not even realize they’re doing it. This is one reason why it’s beneficial to be aware of the warning signs of an emotional affair—not just to recognize signs in your partner, but in yourself as well.
Consider these common red flags that you might be engaging in emotional intimacy with someone who isn’t your spouse:
- You tell them things you haven’t shared with your spouse.
- You regularly delete text messages, emails, or call logs from them.
- You confide in them about marital issues or vent to them about your spouse.
- You’re emotionally distant from your spouse.
- You lie to your spouse when you spend time with the other person.
- You compare your spouse to the other person.
- You think about them more than you think about your spouse.
- You get defensive or paranoid when your partner brings them up.
For Your Partner
Here are common warning signs that may indicate your spouse is involved in an emotional affair outside of your relationship:
- Your spouse seems withdrawn or distracted when you spend time together.
- Your spouse gets defensive when you mention the other person.
- Your spouse is frequently on their phone and/or hides or deletes messages.
- Your spouse mentions the other person a lot.
- Your spouse expresses spontaneous interest in new hobbies or projects.
- Your intuition tells you there’s something wrong.
- Your partner shuts down or refuses to discuss the person when you initiate a conversation.
- Your spouse seems to spend more time with the other person than you.
- Your spouse seems to value the other person’s opinion more than yours.
Can Your Marriage Recover from an Emotional Affair?
The ability to recover from any form of cheating or infidelity is largely dependent on the couple. Some spouses are unable to forgive and forget cheating. Sometimes, the cheater is the partner who ultimately gives up on the marriage or initiates a divorce. Still, some couples are willing to work hard on themselves and their marriage, and emerge stronger and happier for it.
The road to healing is often long and treacherous, but this doesn't mean that your marriage isn't salvageable. It simply depends on various factors: both parties must be willing to exercise open communication and work to restore the relationship. Each individual in a marriage needs to make the best decision for their emotional wellbeing and mental health. If one spouse feels differently than the other, the marriage may be beyond repair.
Here are some quick, healthy tips for couples who commit to recovering after an emotional affair:
- Be honest and exercise open communication.
- Share your feelings with your partner—even when it’s uncomfortable.
- Be open to professional help, such as couples therapy.
- Be patient. Remind yourself that real change doesn’t happen overnight.
- Accept responsibility. Don’t act impulsively or out of defensiveness.
- Communicate what you need from your partner.
- Be willing to move on. It’s okay if forgiveness takes time, as long as you’re working toward healing and committed to moving on. Avoid unhealthy behaviors, such as holding the past over your spouse’s head when conflict arises.
- Set boundaries. This requires the spouse in an emotional affair to set clear-cut boundaries with the third person. It also allows the partner on the receiving end to set boundaries while the other partner earns back trust.
- Commit to reviving the relationship. As awkward or painful as it might feel, it’s imperative to rebuild trust and intimacy following an affair. This means setting aside room for quality time, planning date nights, and working on issues in therapy if needed.
We’re Here to Help You Protect What Matters Most
Our experienced divorce attorneys at Burch Shepard Family Law Group exclusively practice family law. We understand how painful it can be to end a marriage, which is why our firm is devoted to helping families in need in Orange County. You can count on our comprehensive knowledge, informed legal counsel, and personalized attention to your case from start to finish.
Our compassionate team has forged a hard-earned reputation for combining ethical and assertive legal representation with a compassionate approach that helps us obtain a favorable outcome for our clients in court. Don’t settle for less than experience—and a successful track record to prove it—when seeking representation for your divorce. No matter your circumstances, we’re here to help prioritize your family’s needs and wellbeing.
If you’re filing for divorce, it’s important to choose experience. When you partner with our firm, you’re partnering with over a century of combined family law experience. Call (949) 565-4158 to request a consultation.