Names of all clients have been changed.
Emotional cheating is a type of infidelity where one partner develops a close emotional bond with someone outside the relationship, regardless of whether there is a sexual relationship between them. This closeness can undermine the intimacy, trust, and commitment reserved for the primary partnership.
At times, it can be challenging to differentiate between platonic friendship and emotional cheating. Here are some scenarios I see in my practice that often cross the line into emotional cheating:
- A sudden tendency to hide or become proprietary about their phone or computer to keep an online or virtual “friendship” off the radar.
- An old flame who re-enters the picture and is seeking to re-activate a connection.
- Too much time is spent visiting and enjoying pornography sites. Often, women I work with worry that this makes their partner less interested in having sex with them.
- An emerging closeness with the wife of his friend or in a couple you see socially. It feels like he seems “delighted” by her company in a way that he doesn’t seem to be delighted with you.
- He begins to take a special interest in a woman at work. You notice that he talks about her regularly, responds quickly to her messages, and it feels like they are always together or about to be.
Because women are more likely to have close female friendships, I see emotional cheating in my practice more commonly among husbands and boyfriends*.
For example, Julie, a woman in her early fifties, noticed that her husband, Charlie was behaving “strangely.” He was suddenly going to more social functions at work, coming home late, and becoming distant from Julie.
He vehemently denied any infidelity when she asked him whether there was someone else.
At first, she believed him.
When she picked up his phone to check the weather, she noticed an open WhatsApp conversation. There she found endless texts and voice messages from a woman whose name she recognized as a co-worker. Though the conversation wasn’t lewd or sexual, it was intimate and familiar. She noticed inside jokes, long back-and-forth messages late at night, and a familiar, close tone about personal and vulnerable topics.
Julie came to therapy to decide whether she was misinterpreting the signs or her husband was having an emotional affair. Julie and I discussed some of the warning signs of an emotional affair, including:
- Sharing personal and vulnerable feelings and thoughts
- Relying on emotional support from another person instead of one’s partner
- Devoting too much free time outside of your relationship
- Discussing “what could have been” if the primary partner weren’t in the picture
At the core of my conversation with Julie was this truth: if you are worried that your partner is preoccupied with another, you should open a conversation with him about your concerns.
You would rarely feel threatened if everything were fine between you two.
Whether there is an emotional affair, the fact that you are feeling betrayed is enough of a reason to explore what’s happening.
When Julie was ready, we invited her husband to a session and discussed her concerns. Over time, Charlie realized that he was getting too much support and closeness from his colleague because he was missing it with Julie. Through therapy, they were able to recognize that their marriage was in distress, and they were able to address the distance and conflict that had grown while giving Julie space to heal from the hurt he had caused with his emotional affair.
Emotional cheating can be just as damaging to a relationship as physical infidelity. It can cause feelings of betrayal, insecurity, hurt, and anger that must be addressed. Therapy is the perfect place to explore what both partners have been thinking and feeling in the marriage that led to this rupture. With help, your relationship can transcend this transgression, and your marriage can be even better.
*While it is often women who discover their male partners are blurring the boundaries between friendship and intimacy, it is certainly not always the case. There is no gender bias towards infidelity, so if you worry that your female partner is getting too close to someone, it is essential to discuss your concerns with a therapist.