Interview with a psychologist

What Is Emotional Cheating and Why Does It Hurt So Much?

Usually when we hear the word “cheating” we think of a steamy scene from a Hollywood movie. There’s a lot of heaving and panting, and sweating from all the heaving and panting, plus moaning, and more heaving and panting.

But, cheating doesn’t always look like that. Sometimes real life doesn’t look like that.

The word cheating can also mean something else though; it can mean emotional infidelity. This is a kind of cheating that is very subtle, but it is definitely very real. It can also be very destructive and be just as damaging as adultery.

The problem is that emotional infidelity can be so subtle that it seems harmless. When a person is cheating emotionally on their spouse of significant other, it just doesn’t like their being unfaithful. In fact, it can seem so harmless that we may not even be aware of the damage it is causing to our relationship, and ourselves.


What is Emotional Cheating?

emotional cheating


Let’s make sure we have a clear definition of what we’re talking about: emotional cheating is when a person forms a deep emotional connection with someone other than their partner. It doesn’t have to involve a sexual component, although there may be sexual undertones, but the core of the dynamic is emotional.

It can exist in many forms. For example, secretly texting another person and sharing very personal thoughts and feelings is one very common form of an emotional affair. It seems so harmless because it’s just texting, but it’s not. It’s secretive, intimate, and therefore inappropriate.

The person is satisfying an emotional need they have, but they’re doing it with someone that is not their romantic partner.

Another type of emotional infidelity can also emerge between two colleagues. This is quite common. We often develop strong bonds with people we work with, especially over a sustained period of time. This is perfectly natural.

However, sometimes the stress and pressures of work lead to people sharing very intense emotions. Those feelings can create a sense of closeness and intimacy that rivals the intensity of a romantic relationship. That’s when things can cross the line.

Emotional Affairs vs. Physical Affairs

what is emotional cheating

Antonio Guillem/

Does an emotional affair have to contain a physical element? No. Emotional affairs are mostly mental, not physical. A person can have an emotional affair with someone that is completely platonic. There doesn’t have to be a physical attraction at all.

It is very different from a purely physical affair and in some ways, it is more dangerous. When a person is cheating emotionally, it means that they have genuine feelings for someone else; not just primal urges. Primal urges are shallow, but an emotional affair is deep and has meaning.

Sure, each of us can have deep emotional connections with various people in our lives: parents, siblings, grandparents, close friends. Those emotional relationships are natural and each one has a qualitatively distinct emotional profile.

But the kind of emotional cheating we are talking about here is when our partner is allowing another person to be a substitute for us.

The emotional experiences they’re sharing with that other person…they’re supposed to be sharing with you!

In other cases, even though there is no sexual contact, there may still be some sexual chemistry. It’s flirty. It’s playful. There may even be some physical contact that happens like light touching. In fact, if a stranger walked by, they would assume the two were dating.

So, what’s the big deal? If no one is gyrating in the sack with someone else, what’s the harm?

Well, the big deal is that it hurts the other person in the relationship. When your partner is so deeply connected to another human being on an emotional level, it can make us feel hollow. Like we’re not good enough. Like our partner doesn’t actually need us as much as we thought…as much as we need.

And that is a very painful thing to feel. Your partner shouldn’t make you feel that way. When two people are together and in a committed relationship, they protect each other from harm, not cause it.

It can also be embarrassing if other people see that your partner has such a deep level of closeness with another human being (that is not you). That hurts.

We want other people to know that we are the primary focus of our partner. That we have someone in our lives that is so completely devoted to us. Not someone that throws their emotions around to anybody with a great smile.

Is it as bad as a physical affair? Well, yes and no. No, emotional cheating means they aren’t in bed with someone else (yet). And that is a good thing, no doubt about it. But there is still a level of intimacy that feels very violating.

Where Can Emotional Affairs Happen?

what is an emotional affair


We’ve already mentioned work. Emotional affairs often happen in the workplace because the adrenaline from working on an important project can sometimes confused for physical attraction.

Of course, social media also offers many opportunities for an emotional affair. We can meet and chat with people from anywhere in the world. That expands the number of possible partners to around 7 billion. Seriously? As if there wasn’t enough temptation in the world already.

The problem with social media is that people post photos and videos of themselves that are highly unrealistic. They make themselves look like super models or super successful entrepreneurs with lots of muscles and private jets. It’s easy to get captivated by that persona, even if it is fake.

And if work and social media wasn’t enough, now comes the Metaverse. Honestly, I’m not even sure I know what the Metaverse is. Apparently, it’s somewhere on our phone. People can create avatars of themselves that look like anything they want, and then walk around in simulated cities and talk to each other. I think.

So, the Metaverse is where we can create a version of ourselves that is even more super fantastic than a heavily Photoshopped selfie. This makes it all too easy to turn an emotional affair into a virtual sexual tryst. Great. Don’t you just love technology?

But the bottom line is still the bottom line: it doesn’t matter if it is in some digital fantasy world or not, it’s still emotional cheating, and it’s still wrong.

Emotional Cheating vs Friendship. Does it Count as Infidelity?

emotional infidelity

Antonio Guillem/

Don’t get platonic emotional cheating confused with a friendship. A friendship is different… for a lot of reasons. One, it’s not flirty. Two, it doesn’t have a bunch of sexual energy being transmitted back and forth. Three, a friendship doesn’t create a wedge between you and your partner. Conclusion: friendship is not infidelity.

It’s perfectly okay for our partners to have friends. In fact, we should encourage it. Having friends is important for our mental health and doing things that maybe our partner doesn’t like to do, like fishing or playing golf.

Just because they’re our partner doesn’t mean they have to give up all those boring hobbies. The emotional fulfillment a person gets from a friend is a lot different than the kind of emotions that are shared between a couple.

How to Know if Someone is Emotionally Cheating?

So, you might be asking yourself, “how do I know if my partner is having an emotional affair?” There are a few signs to look for.

Take a look at the emotional cheating signs below. Respond to each question with a simple “yes” or “no”. Don’t overthink, just go with your first reaction.

  1. Do they prefer to do things with that other person that you would normally want to do?
  2. Do they share very personal information with that person that they don’t share with you?
  3. Do they seem more irritated with you after they spend time with the other person?
  4. Do they keep the two of you from meeting?
  5. Do you feel like a third wheel when, and if, you are all in the same room?
  6. Does their connection with that other person make you feel hurt?

In my opinion, the last question is the most important one. However, if you answered “yes” to several of these questions, then your partner may be too emotionally involved with someone that is not named you.

You are supposed to be the center of their feelings, not someone else. Yes, that sounds selfish, but it’s not.

When you make a commitment to someone it’s about the heart and soul. If your partner is sharing too much of their heart and soul with another person, that is simply not right.

What are the Consequences?

real cheating

Antonio Guillem/

Unfortunately, the consequences can be terminal… as in the relationship is terminated. There is no way to sugar-coat an emotional affair. In all seriousness, it is a violation of trust. It is painful to endure and it cannot be ignored.

If you don’t take action, immediately, and firmly, then maybe you get lucky and the affair dies-out on its own. But, do you really want to take that risk?

So, don’t make that mistake. There is a strong likelihood that it will not pass.

Even if you can put an end to the infidelity, getting over it is still not simple. It can cause lasting harm that may never be resolved. Forming other trusting relationships may become very difficult. There is too much left-over tension.

This is why people have to be protective of the relationship they have now. Even if your partner unknowingly slips into an emotional affair with another person, it won’t make the damage disappear.

Why Emotional Cheating Happens?

emotional affair

G-Stock Studio/

If someone is having an emotional affair, why are they doing it? Well, there’s a few possibilities. First of all, it may not be your fault. Don’t be too quick to blame yourself.

There are a lot of people in the world. Sometimes we just meet someone that we have a natural chemistry with. It happens. Based on the law of probability, it’s going to happen sooner or later.

It might just be that your partner met one of those people. You know how it is: the conversation flows so easily; people finish each other’s sentences; have the same goofy sense of humor. It happens.

These are all natural occurrences in life. Most likely what has happened is that your partner has let their guard down and allowed their feelings to flow a little too easily.

Or maybe not. Sometimes a person has an emotional affair because something is missing. Maybe they have grown apart with their partner. Maybe two people have become so obsessed with their careers that they don’t spend any quality time with one another.

Or maybe, and I am sorry to say this, but maybe two people have just fallen out of love with each other. This is very unpleasant to admit, but it happens. We all change over time as we get older. How many of us are really the same people at the age of 40 as we were at 26?

How to Move Forward?

emotional attraction


We can try to forgive, or at least be understanding. Since emotional cheating is so subtle and most of us may not even know it is happening, our partner may not either. Most likely they did not do anything to intentionally hurt us.

It’s possible that they just kind of let their boundaries slip. It’s not completely their fault, but at the same time, what has happened cannot be ignored.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that they do not love you anymore or that the relationship is over. It just means that life can get complicated.

Sometimes things don’t always go perfectly. But don’t worry. It’s not the end and there are many things that can be done to pull things back to where they once were.

Step one

To move forward, the first step is to make sure your partner knows what “emotional cheating” is. A lot of people may not realize what it is or the harm it can cause. So, make sure they know what it is and how hurtful it can be.

You could try a subtle approach first by making a humorous comment about their relation with that other person. Something along the lines of, “remember, in this country you’re not allowed to have two spouses” or “that’s fine, but we’re not taking her/him on vacation with us.” It’s subtle, but also drops the hint that there is something on your mind.

Using humor can be a very effective way of delivering a message without all the seriousness of a tension-filled sit-down conversation that begins with “we need to talk.” Whenever I hear those words, I know nothing but trouble is coming my way. That’s when I remember to cut the lawn, or my neighbor’s lawn.

Step two

emotional texting examples

Roman Samborskyi/

If step one doesn’t work, then it’s time to have that conversation. Pick a good time to explain that something is bothering you and you would like to talk about it. Take the opportunity to clear the air and get everything out on the table.

1) You describe what you see happening, and 2) how it makes you feel.

Giving examples is an excellent idea. Make sure they understand how much it hurts you and damages the beautiful relationship you have together.

Step three

In that conversation, try to uncover why they needed to have such a deep emotional connection with another person. Was it just something that happened because of natural chemistry, or is there something missing in their relationship with you?

Make sure your partner shares their feelings freely. But watch out. This particular type of conversation can become mentally exhausting, especially if your partner is not used to talking about deeply personal matters.

Step four

Look for different ways to reconnect with each other. This can be as simple as taking a staycation at a nice hotel or resort. You don’t have to make a big deal out of it and spend a whole week somewhere. Just a weekend in a place nearby can work wonders.

During that time, make sure you have fun. Try to bring back the joy of your relationship with each other. Don’t turn this time away together into an extended talk. The air has been cleared already so get past that.

How to Protect Your Relationship?

unfaithful meaning


Rule number one: be aware. You may have heard about military soldiers needing “situational awareness?” Well, we all need something called “relationship awareness.” Don’t let things slip by unnoticed. Trust your instincts.

If you “feel” that your partner seems distracted and they are not giving you the kind of affection they normally do, then take a step back and conduct some analysis.

If it helps, keep a daily journal that includes observations of your relationship. This can help you catch the early signs of emotional cheating.

The bottom line is that relationships don’t just sail smoothly over the ocean waves without ever experiencing any perils. Be observant, take charge when you need to. Protect your relationship like a mother bear protects her cubs; minus the claws and sharp teeth of course.


emotional affair signs

Alejandro J. Vivas/

Now, I know I probably sound like an expert on all of this, but not totally. There are a lot of different ways of thinking about emotional cheating and everybody has a different view. So, let’s try this exercise: I have described two scenarios below. Read each one and then comment on one of them below. The main question I want to know is: do you think that is emotional cheating, and how should it be handled?

Scenario #1:

Your partner spends a lot of time watching videos of young girls prancing about in short shorts and low tops. He literally can watch those videos for an hour straight and usually ignores his other responsibilities around the house. Afterwards, he seems a bit less interested in you.

Scenario #2:

Everyday your partner comes home from work and talks about their colleague. They did something funny, or they did something really well, but it is always something. You can hear in their voice that they admire that person, maybe just a little too much. Then one day, your partner mentions an out-of-town conference that the company is sending them both to attend.

The picture on the front page: Kmpzzz/

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