It started innocently enough. You’re chatting up a new coworker in your office. You share flirty banter over lunch. You even confide in them about personal problems in your marriage. Now you’re secretly sending late-night text messages and thinking about them all the time.
They’re just a close friend, right? Or have you crossed the line? If you’re asking yourself these questions, you might be engaged in emotional cheating.
What is emotional cheating?
“Emotional cheating is establishing a close emotional connection with someone other than your primary partner,” said Srinivas Dannaram, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Thunderbird Medical Center in Glendale, AZ. “Whereas close friendships have boundaries and openness without secrecy, emotional affairs involve romantic flavor, secrecy and emotional tension, which exists from the beginning or develops over time.”
Most emotional affairs start as platonic friendships, which can make it even more difficult to discern when you’ve crossed the line. A seemingly innocent friendly connection can suddenly transform into an emotional affair.
“The trigger for emotional cheating in a relationship may be unconscious, where you develop an emotional attachment or dependency on someone else due to unmet emotional needs from your partner,” Dr. Dannaram said. “It may also result in a conscious effort to fill in time, especially when there is a temporary physical or emotional gap between partners.”
Why is emotional cheating harmful to relationships?
When you think about being cheated on, you probably imagine your romantic partner hooking up with someone else (having a physical affair). But emotional intimacy and cheating can sometimes cut deeper, and even worse, this breach of trust can erode the very foundation of your primary relationship and your commitment to one another.
“Over time, this process disrupts the overall emotional investment you’ve made with your partner or spouse,” Dr. Dannaram said. “This leads to less emotional bonding, eventually questioning the purpose of your relationship and weakening emotional reciprocation and support.”
Signs of emotional cheating
So … how do you know if you’re involved in an emotional affair? Though it’s not always easy to identify, here are 10 signs of an emotional affair to watch out for:
- You share things with the other person that you haven’t shared with your partner.
- You confide in the other person about the intimate details of your relationship troubles.
- You’ve become more detached and emotionally disconnected from your partner.
- You think about the other person all the time.
- You are less intimate with your partner.
- You lie to your partner about your relationship with the other person.
- You compare the other person to your partner.
- You fantasize about a romantic relationship with, or dream about the other person.
- You hide or delete texts, emails or social media messages on your phone, computer, etc.
- You become defensive and sensitive when your partner questions your relationship with the other person.
What to do about emotional cheating?
If you identify with some of the signs of emotional cheating, how do you begin to address them? Dr. Dannaram shared some steps:
Be honest with yourself.
Acknowledge that you’re becoming emotionally involved with someone other than your partner.
End the emotional affair.
To bring yourself back to the reality of your committed relationship with your partner, break off the relationship completely, rather than setting boundaries to continue this relationship.
Reflect on what is missing in your current relationship.
Identify what you were getting from this other person that you weren’t getting in your current relationship. You may even want to involve a licensed behavioral health specialist to help.
Discuss your emotional needs and reasons with your partner.
Whether or not you decide to let your partner know about your emotional affair, you do need to let your partner know that your relationship needs work. You might be surprised to find that they feel the same way. Be open and clear about what you both need in your relationship – emotionally, physically and intellectually—then make each other’s needs a priority.
Recommit to your relationship.
Agree to spend more time together, dedicated to each other and your romantic relationship. Provide emotional support to one another. Check in regularly and talk to your partner about what’s happening in your life. Enjoy dates with each other and find new ways to have fun together.
Work with a professional.
Marriage counseling can be a safe environment for you and your partner to work through any challenges you’re having in your relationship. You can find a licensed mental health specialist by visiting bannerhealth.com.