How Emotional Cheating and Physical Affairs Differ

Sharing a physical connection with another person isn't the only way to cross boundaries in a relationship.

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The traditional definition of cheating is that one person in a committed relationship is sexually involved with someone other than their partner or spouse, but with cell phones, the internet, and social media all part of our everyday lives, the definition has been expanded to also the feelings and/or thoughts that comprise emotional infidelity. Cheating now includes intimate correspondence with someone while on a phone, meeting someone over the internet or at work, and maintaining a close emotional relationship with someone other than your partner.

What Is Emotional Cheating?

Emotional cheating is a type of infidelity where one partner shares emotional intimacy and connection with someone other than their partner. This connection crosses the boundaries of a healthy, platonic relationship and assumes a breach of trust within the primary relationship.

With such a broad definition, it can be difficult to pinpoint what exactly emotional cheating entails so we've outlined some clues to look out for and delved into the dangers it poses on a romantic relationship.

Emotional Affairs vs. Physical Affairs

The primary difference between a physical affair and an emotional affair is actual, physical contact. Usually, cheating involves people meeting face-to-face and then engaging in physical sex. With an emotional affair, there may be a meeting, but it can occur on a cell phone, a computer, or a lunch date with someone other than a partner, and there is no physical intimacy. Many of the people who are emotionally cheating don’t consider it to be infidelity. Their thinking is that, because there is no actual physical contact, the behavior can’t be considered cheating.

For example, Janice reconnected with Dean, an old high school boyfriend on Facebook. The two started messaging back and forth and were soon sharing intimate details about the problems in their marriages. This sharing led to them forming an emotional attachment due to their feelings of mutual support. Before long, Janice and Dean are reliving their old courtship and wondering why they ever broke up because they have so much "in common." They long to see each other and feel a rekindling of what they felt as teenagers. Before long, both are expressing love for the other. And there you have it: Janice and Dean aren't cheating in the traditional sense, but they've formed an emotional attachment and are engaged in an emotional affair.

The end result is that the unfaithful partner is paying more emotional attention to someone other than their significant other, and they are removing themselves from the commitment they made to their primary relationship.

The Signs of an Emotional Affair

An emotional affair begins with the exchange of personal information. As the people involved become more acquainted, the information becomes more personal and things slowly start to snowball from there. Some signs of emotional cheating include developing nonsexual intimacy like consistently turning to the third party for comfort or connection instead of the primary partner, oversharing inappropriate details about the primary relationship with the third party, making comparisons between the primary partner and the third party, becoming defensive of the secondary relationship to others, and feeling the need to be secretive about the secondary relationship (whether that be choosing to hide it completely or consciously reducing its significance).

Additionally, if you find that interactions with the third party are leading to a reduction or loss of interest in being emotionally or physically intimate with your partner or contributing to a lack of desire to spend time with them, there may be cause for concern. Sexual attraction can also be a clue, though isn't required for an emotional affair to exist.

These are just a few signs of an emotional affair, but the boundaries can often be fuzzy and vary depending on the parties involved. Personal feelings and intuitions can often be a great litmus test. If either partner feels like a bond with someone outside of the primary relationship is eroding or undermining the primary relationship, then chances are it is.

Consequences of an Emotional Affair

Some argue that an emotional affair is harmless because it is more of a casual relationship than traditional cheating. However, the intimate nature of the communication, plus the emotional investment made by the people involved, places an emotional affair on the same level as, or worse than, traditional cheating.

While it is healthy and normal for people to have friendships outside their marriage or romantic partnership, an emotional affair threatens the emotional bond between partners and causes a disconnect. Friendships are based on attraction in that we are drawn to various qualities of our friends but healthy friendships don't threaten a relationship. Rather they add richness and enjoyment to life. When an attraction turns into an obsession or into an affair, however, it can become harmful to everyone involved, and nothing is more detrimental to a union than the breakdown of the emotional bond that romantic partners share.

In short, an inappropriate emotional connection or attachment can be just as dangerous to a relationship as a physical affair. Emotional affairs can often be gateway affairs to other types of infidelity and are just as likely to lead to divorce or a breakup as physical affairs.

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