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What Is Emotional Cheating? A Relationship Therapist Breaks it Down

Photo by Aryan Singh on Unsplash

Photo by Aryan Singh on Unsplash

If you’ve ever had an inkling (or proof) of being cheated on, then you know what immense pain and betrayal feels like. It’s brutal, and at times, debilitating. It’s a feeling that can lie dormant long after the relationship ends only to conveniently reappear once you meet someone new. But what constitutes cheating? Is it only cheating when sex is involved or can it be an ongoing connection without anything physical (AKA “emotional cheating”) that makes you or your partner openly uncomfortable?

Is Emotional Cheating Worse Than Physical Cheating

In an Instagram poll (because, why not?), I asked my followers whether or not they believed physical cheating or emotional cheating was worse. Out of the 50 people who responded, 54 percent believed emotional cheating was worse compared to 46 percent who voted physical cheating. Gender was also an interesting factor, three men voted emotional cheating as being worse, whereas 10 men voted physical cheating. Aside from the fact that I need more male participants, the discrepancy is interesting.

While both physical and emotional cheating are extremely painful, in my experience, emotional cheating felt worse. First off, what is emotional cheating? It’s difficult to define, which is why I think it’s a more arduous process than physical cheating. Physical cheating is a one and done, it’s clear cut, it’s a “you did or you didn’t” situation. It’s tangible. Whereas, emotional cheating is a grey area where the line between a platonic relationship and a potential friendship-turned-romance becomes blurred.

Suspecting a partner of emotionally cheating opens Pandora’s box to a never-ending charade. Constantly trying to determine whether or not you’re an unjustifiably jealous partner or just trusting your gut on something you believe will ultimately leave you in the dust later on. I found it to be especially painful because I ultimately wished it would just turn physical so that I had a reason to feel the way I felt.

I believe that emotional cheating is when your partner has relationships that are kept secret from you and allows potential partners to believe they are single and the relationship may lead to something romantic, or if your partner puts you down for expressing how this kind of behavior makes you feel.

Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, weighed in on emotional cheating, telltale signs, why individuals seek them if they are legally recognized, and whether you should tell your spouse:

Why Do People Emotionally Cheat?

Dr. Frank Walfish explains, “Communication is the glue that holds people together. When couples stop talking about issues, especially resolving conflicts, sex stops and one may look outside the marriage for emotional and physical gratification. The reasons why people cheat are different for men vs. women.

Men cheat at a significantly higher rate of frequency than women. Men become serial (repeated) cheaters because of early abandonment/separation trauma by their mother or father. Examples include divorce, a parent leaving and not returning, or an angry parent who rages toward the child unexpectedly and abusively (physically or verbally).

Women cheat when they have sustained long periods of mistreatment in the relationship. In both male and female cases of cheating, both lack healthy communication skills to talk about the problems and issues underlying within the relationship that, if dealt with directly, could avoid infidelity.”

Why Do People Seek Emotional Affairs?

“Some use emotional affairs as a mechanism for avoiding true intimacy with their partner/spouse. They withhold communication of their feelings and share them with an outsider to keep a wedge between them and their spouse. This maintains a distance in the marital attachment. Individuals who are attracted to married or committed partners usually feel unworthy and undeserving of a complete loving relationship that includes give and take/reciprocity—both emotionally and physically,” said Walfish.

Can Emotional Cheating Turn Physical?

According to Dr. Fran Walfish, “Some emotional affairs turn physical, although many do not. Emotional affairs are usually more powerful than solely sexual relationships. However, when emotional affairs are coupled with sex, their potency is maximized. Often, one or both partners engaged in the emotional affair chooses to refrain from sex, rationalizing to themselves that without sex it is not really an affair. This is a form of denial and lack of accountability and willingness to own up to cheating/betrayal of their spouse.”

Is Emotional Cheating Considered Cheating in a Court of Law?

“In my professional opinion, emotional affairs are a form of cheating. In the state of California, cheating/infidelity are no longer legal grounds for divorce, and a judge would most likely decide it irrelevant if a lawyer argued cheating in a court of law,” said Walfish.

What Are Emotional Cheating Red Flags?

“The person completely fills your mind’s mental space (you think about him/her constantly or obsessively).You find yourself modifying your routine/schedule to see the person more frequently.The quantity and frequency of contact with him/her increases. Or, your feelings for the other person deepen and intensify,” explained Walfish.

Should You Confess to Emotionally Cheating?

Dr. Fran Walfish offered, “My top tip on how to stop having an emotional affair is to get professional help. You need to declare your misgivings openly out loud, a sort of confession. Hearing your own voice declare your behavior is your first step toward owning accountability for your behavior which is a prerequisite for change. I think it is a mistake to disclose your emotional affair to your partner. It will only hurt your spouse and raise her/his suspicions and doubts about trusting you, and if you are truly committed to your therapy work you will change, so no need to rock the boat at home.”

Can a relationship recover from emotional cheating?

I had the chance to connect with two individuals with experiences on opposite ends of the emotional cheating spectrum; one discovered their partner was cheating on them and the others found themselves in the middle of a marriage. Both sides are incredibly insightful.

Laura, 32 years old, Boston, Massachusetts

“In my case, the behavior occurred between my boyfriend at the time and numerous other women—some repeatedly, and several other one-offs—and consisted of courting for sex (but never went through with it), making inappropriate comments, flirting, speaking to women negatively about me and our relationship, and speaking to women in a manner that hid the fact that he had a girlfriend.

We’re both Jewish. It became exposed that this was happening in July. Once I decided that I would stay with him, I set a goal of forgiving him by Yom Kippur (late September/early October), which is the Jewish day of atonement and forgiveness...with no upfront guarantee that I would meet the deadline. I started writing down how I felt.

As my notes took form, they naturally morphed into a letter from me to him. Writing this letter and working through my feelings became a channel for me to actively focus on exercising forgiveness. I beat my goal by two weeks. At that time, I read him the letter. It was my way of explaining to him exactly how he hurt me, and the ways he would have to be patient with me as I rebuilt my trust in him.

I did not know emotional cheating existed until my then-boyfriend’s therapist used it to refer to our scenario. I haven’t been physically cheated on, so I can’t compare them directly, but in times of doubt and regression (there were a few), I wondered if I had been. I learned that the behavior was rooted in his fear of infidelity happening to him, because of his unsettled feelings around betrayal in his previous relationship. He had a defensiveness about him that he felt entitled to, and felt the behavior would soften the blow for him emotionally if he found out I was doing something behind his back, just like his last girlfriend was.

The experience taught me a lot about projection. I looked back on the period of time the emotional infidelity was occurring and recounted a lot of instances when it was suggested that I was actually the one doing something wrong. I had been spending too much energy defending myself. I didn’t realize that no amount of reassurances on my part would have been enough to give him the peace of mind he needed to eliminate the dysfunction and that he needed to actively work on that himself.

In the future, I’d like to think that I’ll be more proactive in identifying the behaviors below the surface when I’m being challenged in a way I don’t feel I deserve to be and encouraging my partner to speak up about their fears. I will also be more wary of a partner’s insecurities, and accept the fact that I can’t fix them alone.”

Sarah, 36 years old, San Diego, California

“In a new friendship where both women sort of courted me to be their friend, it quickly became obvious that one of them and I had a better connection with each other. The friendship quickly escalated to texts every day, even while they were on their honeymoon abroad. It didn’t seem strange to me until a friend saw all the texts and asked if her wife was uncomfortable with it.

I stopped to consider that but enjoyed the growing relationship too much. After about six months, I sent her a card in the mail that talked about how grateful I was for that platonic intimacy and her wife saw it on the counter.

I guess she had made no attempt to hide it, as the whole relationship was “innocent.” It caused massive chaos and ultimately led to their divorce. Maybe I was just the catalyst to what was bound to happen eventually. I talked with her wife and explained that I was in love with someone else and that I really just enjoyed the whole friendship I had with her wife.

She believed none of it, or either of us, and to this day is convinced that it was sexual. They ended up going to couples therapy and my friend really fought to keep me in her life. They were bound to separate, she clearly was seeking something in me that she wasn’t getting from her marriage.

We are still close friends and she and her wife got a divorce. It was ugly and the whole friend community took sides. What made it different from just a close friendship was that there was an attraction on my side of it. I didn’t acknowledge it until later/ recently. With women, I think those lines get blurred more often because it’s easier to form close friendships without sex. Neither of us considered it cheating, but her wife very much did.

I don’t know what else to say about it, I still love her and she’s since moved on and become involved with another woman. The experience did make me completely hesitant to befriend other same-sex married couples though. I’ve decided to keep a farther distance and not get so involved. But truthfully, there was a chemistry between us from the day we met, even if it wasn’t necessarily sexual. So I wasn’t going to avoid it and neither was she.”

Physical and emotional cheating are both painful, but I do think there’s a lot to be said about the difference between the two and how we choose to acknowledge them or not. Physical relationships aren’t the only kind of justifiable betrayal. Today, intimacy has a whole new definition; we can share our most intimate thoughts with complete strangers, create a false persona online, instantly download apps that can connect us with potential partners we may never even see in person. There’s new accountability to how we conduct ourselves as individuals that goes beyond whether or not you just had sex.

In this scenario, I’m hesitant to say, “treat others how you would want to be treated” because some people look at sex and flirtation differently than their partner. But I think if it’s something you believe will hurt your significant other, then you should talk about it, and if you think you’re doing something that you think will hurt them but don’t understand why it would hurt them, then you should also talk to them. Communicating about difficult topics can tell you a lot about the longevity of your relationship.