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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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:

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: 

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:

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