Most people understand the concept of a physical affair. It usually involves sneaking around behind your partner’s back and having a physical and sexual relationship with someone else. Determining whether this is cheating is usually pretty cut and dry.
In just about everybody’s rule book, being sexually intimate with someone outside your relationship (without that person’s knowledge) is considered cheating. However, there’s another type of affair called an emotional affair, and it’s more nebulous and difficult to define.
The simplest answer is: In a physical affair, you hand over your body. In an emotional affair, you hand over your heart.
Basically, it’s when the trust, companionship, and long, deep talks of fears and joys are not with your companion, but a third party. One of the things that makes an emotional affair hard to define is that there’s no hard-and-fast rule about what is or isn’t allowed within a relationship or when it crosses the line from friend to affair partner.
Is it an affair if you occasionally catch up with an old ex over Facebook? No, I don’t think it is. (You can see more of my thoughts on that topic here). However, if you’re constantly texting, scrolling through all their social media accounts, and looking forward to the next time you talk, you have waded into dangerous water. Here’s more you need to know:
1. Understand the Signs
To be able to identify an emotional affair, you need to know what the signs are. The biggest red flag to watch out for is secrecy. Are you keeping this relationship, or the amount of contact you have with this person, a secret from your partner? If so, this usually means that you know your partner wouldn’t approve of or be happy about your relationship with the other person.
Being partners means that you share your lives with each other. If there is now another part of your world that is private from your significant other, this is where the affair germinates.
The author of “The Everything Great Marriage,” Sheri Stritof, lists some other warning signs:
-You’re withdrawing from your partner.
-You’re preoccupied and daydream about your “friend” more and more.
-You’re not interested in being emotionally or sexually intimate with your partner.
-The amount of time you and your partner spend together is less.
-When confronted about the apparent emotional affair, you respond with “We’re just friends.”
-You find yourself anticipating when you can communicate or be with your friend again. Alone time together is important to you.
-You’re sharing your thoughts, feelings, and problems with your friend instead of your partner.
-You find reasons to give your friend personal gifts.
-Your friend seems to understand you better than your partner does.
-You’re keeping your friendship a secret from your partner.
If you nodded your head to one of those signs, I wouldn’t worry too much. However, if you find yourself nodding to three or more signs, you could be courting disaster in your relationship.
2. Is an Emotional Affair Different for Men and Women?
As always, the answer is yes and no. If you ask most men, they would say that a physical affair is worse than an emotional one. There’s a definitive act they visualize that may play on repeat in their heads.
When asked about this, Rick Reynolds, Founder of Affair Recovery put it this way. “In the midst of my affair, I believed it to be the physical aspect of the affair [that was worse], but, in retrospect, my opinion has changed. Long before the physical began, the emotional affair thrived. After the affair ended, it wasn’t the sexual component of our relationship that was last to fade, rather the loss of the friendship seemed the greatest loss.”
In a 2012 study, C.J. Carpenter found, “Contradictory to the typical evolutionary/biological model used to measure sexual motivations in men & women, there was almost no difference in the type of infidelity that men and women found distressing. Instead, they were more concerned with the extent that their partner’s behavior threatened their relationship.”
I know that I’ve heard from a lot of women that they would feel more betrayed by an emotional affair than a physical one. The physical affair could have been a drunken, half-remembered one-night stand (still bad), but the emotional affair is more insidious to them.
You were telling your hopes and dreams to someone else. You stopped looking at your current partner as supportive, someone you bounce ideas off. Worse, when your partner knows that you were sharing intimate details or bitching about your relationship, it feels like a complete betrayal. It was long thought out and continuous, and your partner now knows that maybe even during sex you were thinking about this other person.
3. Can You Have an Emotional Affair Online?
Oh boy, can you. Whereas before the internet, your emotional affair partner might have been a coworker or neighbor, now it can literally be anyone, anywhere.
When I was in my early 20s and Friendster and Myspace were the go-to social platforms, I met many people I would chat with, share information with, and sext with. Yes, some of these women were married. I couldn’t even tell you how or where I initially met them, but I remember that I was their secret. I never met any of them in person and eventually fell out of touch with them, but I know now that they were having an emotional affair.
As a couple, you also need to communicate what is and is not cheating. Is looking at porn cheating? I would wholeheartedly say no. Is paying for a cam girl for a year and telling her about your relationship problems considered cheating? Now we’re in murky waters. I’d probably say yes.
To me, cheating is anything you’re keeping secret that would create problems in your relationship if your partner knew about it. If you’re in an open relationship, having sex with someone else isn’t cheating, as per the boundaries you’ve laid down. If you start “working late” so you can chat online to your old flame for hours every week, you’re hurting your current relationship by continuing this one.
With all the different types of social media, it’s easy to connect, share, and hide your relationships. Because of this forced separation, it may not feel like you’re doing anything wrong. However, the person you’re with is supposed to be your sounding board and confidant. Not Karen from accounting.
4. What do You do if Your Partner is Having an Emotional Affair?
If you see your partner withdrawing from you, or they’re always hiding and locking their phone, you may suspect something. Look again at the above signs and see if they apply to your situation. Sheri Shritof continues her advice to watch out for these signs:
-Your partner starts withdrawing from you or criticizing you.
-Your partner acts secretive or hides their phone or shuts down the computer screen suddenly when you’re around.
-Your partner is interested in certain technology or hobbies seemingly out of the blue.
-Your partner seems to always work extra hours on a “project” with “a friend.”
-This friend of your partner’s gets mentioned a lot. You seem to hear much about this person’s opinions (and yours seems to count less and less).
-Your gut tells you something is going on. You’re normally trusting and do not get jealous easily, but this definitely feels off to you.
-When you try to discuss any of these things with your partner, it is met with defensiveness, or you’re made to feel crazy.
Now, nothing happens in a vacuum. Meaning, an emotional affair doesn’t just appear out of nowhere when everything is awesome. An emotional affair usually filling some sort of hole or need.
How are you communicating with each other? Are you spending enough time together? How do you feel about your relationship? While it sounds a bit trite, counseling and therapy are a great way to work on these things. It can give you a neutral third party to help you communicate better with each other, lay down some ground rules, and understand where your partner is coming from.
If Ignored, Emotional Affairs Can Only Get Worse
If ignored, these emotional affairs, while rough in their own right, can easily turn into physical affairs. Understand as well that even if you’re working on addressing some of these problems, the other party may not feel as if they’re doing anything wrong and won’t put in the work themselves. Then you need to ask yourself whether this relationship is worth it to you.