An affair's an affair, and if you find your partner in one, it's time to let it go. But what really counts as an affair these days? The "old school" definition is when the person you're in a relationship with engages in a sexual or almost sexual encounter with another person. But in the modern world, sex or any type of physical intimacy doesn't even need to be in the picture. The concept of an emotional affair is coming to light, and it might be even more insidious than your run-of-the-mill affair!
If you’re confused about what constitutes an emotional affair, read on. This article features a detailed explanation of what is an emotional affair, including the most obvious signs that your partner is in one.
What Is An Emotional Affair?
An emotional affair is a form of betrayal of one’s spouse, but it doesn’t involve physical intimacy. Instead, a spouse engages in a form of emotional intimacy that mimics what one might expect to receive from their partner.
Emotional affair vs close friendship
The lines between an emotional affair and a close friendship are decidedly blurred.
Whereas physical intimacy is clearly defined, the definition of emotional intimacy is based on the interpretation of both parties.
An important distinguisher is how the behavior affects your marriage. Does it make you feel less close to your partner? If so, there’s a greater chance you’re having an emotional affair.
If you feel guilty or worried about your partner finding out, that’s another telltale sign.
Ultimately, the difference between an emotional affair and a close friendship is whether or not your partner feels betrayed. Some 93% of people consider sexting to be cheating, according to a recent poll by Bustle. But if both you and your partner are in the 7%, you could sext someone else without it being considered an emotional affair.
We’ll explore some more behaviors which could be considered part of an emotional affair shortly.
Is an emotional affair a big deal?
Studies suggest that most people consider an emotional affair to be a big deal.
In a 2015 study considered to be the largest on infidelity, some 65% of women and 46% of men said they’d be more upset about that than a purely sexual affair.
There are several explanations for this.
For starters, there’s only so much emotional energy one person has to give. So, if someone’s spouse was having an emotional affair, it would mean they had less energy to contribute to their marriage. Financial support is also classified as a part of an emotional affair. If this were the case, that would be another scarce resource that a victim of an emotional affair could potentially be missing out on.
Secondly, some people believe that sex is “just sex”, whereas the emotional intimacy born from true love is hard to find. For this reason, a purely sexual affair might not bother some people as much as an emotional affair that undermines the love they receive from their spouse.
An emotional affair also often makes the victim feel as if they are lacking in some way. The victim usually assumes that this is why their spouse went to someone else for emotional intimacy. Indeed, this study confirms that most emotional affairs take place due to some form of emotional intimacy lacking in the marriage.
Ultimately, every couple is free to agree on their definition of cheating, and most want exclusivity on their partner’s emotional support as well as sexual exclusivity.
Psychologist Gregory Kushnick explained it well when he said: "A universal definition of cheating is less important than what a couple jointly defines as constituting a deviation from the agreement."
To dive deeper into this idea, see our guide on what counts as cheating in a relationship.
Stages of Emotional Affairs
The stages of an emotional affair aren’t set in stone. It depends a lot on how the two people know each other - and what type of emotional intimacy is being exchanged.
This study of emotional affairs suggests that the two participants are most likely to be friends first (38% of respondents). The other common situations are that they’re a complete stranger (20%) or an ex-partner (20%). The same poll suggested that 62% of emotional affairs take place face-to-face, while 38% happen via technology.
Either way, here are some stages that would be likely to occur if you were to engage in an emotional affair.
A new person comes into your life or returns after a long hiatus. There’s no romantic interest at first, but you communicate well and get along as friends.
The more time you spend with this person, the more you notice their admirable qualities. Most likely, you begin to build a deeper friendship. This person begins to feel like someone you can really trust.
The need for secrecy
At some point, one of you will cross a boundary. You or they will say something that you don’t want your spouse to know about. But you wanted that to happen and you’re glad it did.
It’s at this point you realize that this person can give you a form of emotional intimacy that you’re not getting from your spouse.
You want more of that, but if you’re going to continue pursuing it, you know you’re going to have to hide it.
Guilt usually creeps in at this stage. This is when you know you’re in a full-blown emotional affair.
At some point, you’ll both acknowledge how good it feels talking to each other. Maybe you’ll admit the problems in your marriage to this person. Perhaps you’ll even talk about being together one day.
Usually, at this point, you’ll agree on the terms that can keep this emotional affair going. It will usually involve a promise not to let the partner(s) know what’s happening.
The longer an emotional affair lasts, the deeper the bond that is likely to form. You may begin to feel emotionally dependent on this person, and they will often feel the same way.
At this point, one person might push the other to progress into a full-blown physical affair. They might even want you to leave your partner to be with them.
In such a case, you’ll usually have to decide between continuing the affair or ending it to focus on rebuilding your relationship(s).
Emotional Affair Signs
For the following example, we’ll assume your partner is having an emotional affair with a friend. (For what it’s worth, women are more likely than men to cheat in this way.)
Anyway, here is a list of the most common telltale signs that this is happening.
1. This person knows sensitive information about your partner
Does this friend know about the big fight that you two had? Does he know about your partner’s deepest weaknesses and desires? Does he know some secrets that even you don’t know?!
Maybe he even knows some personal things about you and your sex life?
If this friend knows anything you’d rather he didn’t, that’s a big sign that his friendship with your partner has strayed into the territory of an emotional affair.
2. Your partner turns to this person for comfort
If your partner turns to this friend for comfort when you’re not available, that’s one thing. If she turns to him for comfort after a fight with you, that could make sense on some level. If she turns to him instead of you for comfort about something unrelated to your relationship, that’s a worrying sign that they’re having an emotional affair.
3. Your partner hides her text conversations with this person
There are many different ways your partner can hide a text conversation from you. The basic level is making sure you’re not watching when she’s messaging someone. This isn’t a huge red flag as everyone deserves their privacy.
But what if she’s deleting messages or giving this friend a pseudonym in her phone contacts? Or perhaps she’s using secret contact details to get in touch with him? At that point, it’s clear that your partner feels she has something to hide.
4. Your partner lies about hanging out with this friend
This is another sign she has something to hide. There would be no reason to lie about hanging out with this friend or calling him on the phone if he was “just a friend”. Of all the emotional affair signs, this might be the most worrying.
5. Your partner acts differently around this friend or when talking about him
Most likely, she’s going to be tenser if she’s worried about you discovering the emotional affair.
6. Your partner prioritizes this friend over you
Your partner might have a compelling reason why she has to see this friend instead of doing something with you. Still, you can count this as a warning sign of an emotional affair, especially if it happens multiple times. Most couples understand that they should be prioritizing each other’s well-being over people they consider ‘just friends’.
7. Your partner hints that you should be more like this friend
This is a clear sign that this friend is giving her the emotional intimacy that she believes she can’t get from you. If your partner is bold enough to drop these hints, your best bet is to listen to her and actually become more like her friend.
If you can give her the support she gets from him, there’s every chance she’ll cut the emotional affair. That’s a far better strategy than getting angry at your partner or her friend for the relationship they’re building.
8. Your partner stops expressing their emotional needs
When your partner is lacking emotional intimacy from you, she’ll usually tell you what she needs. Several times if she needs to.
If she starts to get that support from someone else, she’ll often stop complaining to you. She’s getting her needs fulfilled now, so she’ll save herself the drama of begging you for the support you don’t want to give.
This is more likely than her hinting that someone else is doing it better than you.
9. Your partner seems detached around you
If your partner is getting her emotional needs met elsewhere, it’s common that she’ll emotionally detach from you. This detachment might also occur as a result of her feeling guilty about the affair that’s occurring behind your back.
10. Your partner’s libido drops
When a woman becomes emotionally detached from a man, her desire to have sex with him plummets. This is especially true when she’s becoming attached to someone else. If she is still having sex with you, perhaps you notice that it’s not as passionate as in the past.
11. Your partner and this friend exchange gifts
It’s rare for friends to do this outside of birthdays and Christmas. In fact, it’s arguably inappropriate when one or both people have a romantic partner.
12. Your partner is more irritable towards you after connecting with this friend
Your spouse is most likely to be comparing you to her affair partner in the moments after connecting with him. Plus, there’s every chance that this third wheel has been talking trash about you. So, if she always seems annoyed at you after hanging out with this friend, there’s a good chance she’s enjoying her emotional affair with him.