Emotional Infidelity: What It Is and How to Address It

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Have you ever gotten very close to someone who isn't your partner? You didn't have an affair because nothing physical happened, but it still felt like a boundary was crossed. Does it feel like you might have been cheating by spending so much time and energy on someone else? This is a real thing called emotional infidelity.

What Is Emotional Infidelity?

Emotional infidelity describes relationships that break the boundaries of exclusive relationships but are not sexual or physical.

But how do you know if you are having an emotional affair or forming a meaningful, important friendship? What is the difference between casually flirting with someone and having some fun or cheating on your partner? To find out how to identify emotional infidelity and to know when it's a problem, what causes it, and how to address it, we turned to psychotherapist Matt Lundquist.

Meet the Expert

Matt Lundquist is a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in couples counseling and relationships.

“As a couples therapist I'm a strong proponent of people in a relationship having meaningful, close relationships outside of marriage,” says Lundquist. “Couples need to talk openly about what features of those outside relationships are okay and continually examine those boundaries.”

How Common Is Emotional Infidelity

This question is tricky since even therapists tend to define emotional infidelity differently. "Emotional infidelity is a relatively new concept,” said Lundquist. “There is very real concern among therapists and others that the term is applied too broadly, often maligning healthy friendships, particularly those with the opposite sex, or the same sex for same-sex dating individuals.”

Some couples might define emotional infidelity as having a crush on someone else, even if it isn't acted on, while others might say it's only sustained, intimate communication with another person. Do people have to meet in person to have an emotional affair, or is direct messaging one another over Instagram a cause for concern? 

There are a lot of outstanding questions about emotional infidelity, but the fact that therapists are talking about the concept and trying to identify it means it's pretty common. One internet study concluded almost 80 percent of men and over 90 percent of women admitted to having an emotional affair at one point in their marriage. If you are going through this, you are far from alone.

How to Identify Emotional Infidelity 

Overall, said Lundquist, emotional infidelity is defined as, “relationships that break the boundaries of marriage or other monogamous love relationships but that don’t become, or at least initially are not, sexual.” But partners must determine for themselves what it means to break a boundary in their relationship. One person might not mind if their partner flirts over Facebook with someone but never meets up with them, while another person may find that extremely hurtful and call it cheating.

Here are some questions to ask yourself or your partner to help identify emotional infidelity:

  • Am I getting my romantic needs met with someone else? Even if touching isn't involved, if you are sexting with someone or getting aroused from your conversation, that can be a warning sign.
  • Am I concealing my relationship? If you are engaged in a new friendship that you can't talk about with your spouse or partner (or you don't feel comfortable revealing the extent of it) something is probably not quite right.
  • Do I turn to someone else for emotional support? Do you feel more comfortable talking to your male coworker about your problems than your husband? Do you find yourself confiding in someone who isn't your spouse over and over again?
  • Am I neglecting my partner's emotional or physical needs? If you are putting someone else over your long-term partner, if you would rather sext with a guy than have sex with your husband, that is a sign that you are engaged in emotional infidelity.

If you are channeling so much emotional, physical, or psychological energy into a relationship with someone else that your partner feels neglected, it's time to really analyze the nature of that relationship.

What Causes Emotional Infidelity

Like physical or sexual affairs emotional infidelity can be caused by a variety of reasons. Here are a few common causes.

Unmet Needs

If your needs aren't being met by your partner, you might look elsewhere to fulfill them. Maybe your partner is especially busy at work or is exhausted taking care of little kids and can't give you the attention you desire? Or maybe you married someone serious and scheduled, and you are craving some fun and carefree adventures? Many people crave novelty, which of course a long-term partner cannot provide.

Insular Marriages

Lundquist sees emotional infidelity occur when people don’t have meaningful relationships outside of their marriage. “Too often emotional affairs are a consequence of constructing marriage and family that are far too cut off from rich social connections outside of marriage,” he said. “Couples that actively work to build friendships with neighbors and within communities are less likely to see problematic relationships emerge in secret.”

Seeking Revenge

In some situations, a spouse may engage in an emotional affair as a way of getting back at their partner or dealing with unaddressed anger or issues. It’s a form of acting out, but in a way that might seem less serious than cheating physically. Also if someone is feeling distant from their partner they might seek closeness to others. 

How to Address an Emotional Affair

Lundquist believes the best way to deal with an emotional affair is to prevent it before it even starts. You can do that by paying attention when you start feeling distant from your partner or upset that a need isn't met. Instead of burying it, or pretending there isn’t a problem, talk to your person about it. It is a daunting task, but it is a lot easier than rebuilding trust after an emotional affair. “Much of my advice with regard to addressing emotional infidelity is in the realm of prevention,” he said. “Couples always go through periods of closeness and not being so close. The answer is noting and responding when the distance emerges, so it can be dealt with directly.” 

If you've engaged in emotional infidelity, be honest about what transpired. Don't pretend it wasn't a big deal because nothing physical occurred. Emotional affairs can be just as intimate if not more than physical ones. While it is important to talk about the affair and what happened during it, what is even more vital is for couples to figure out the underlying causes that led to it. “Often couples dealing with affairs, including the emotional kind, want to talk about the affair, the hurt, and the aftermath,” said Lundquist. “What’s needed in good couples therapy is to address what’s happened to the marriage itself—how has the marriage failed to meet everyone’s needs?”

If you're having a hard time talking about the situation or if you are getting nowhere, look for professional help to guide you along the journey. “Seek professional help when you’re stuck,” said Lundquist. “Infidelity of any kind is an indication that something is broken in the relationship. So, too, for emotional affairs.” 

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