When we think about cheating, we’ll often assume sex was involved. But there is an equally damaging type of infidelity that can harm a relationship: emotional affairs.
Below, a relationship expert explains what is an emotional affair and why it’s as damaging as a physical affair.
“An emotional affair is when a partner is intimate with another person in a non-physical manner, for example, confiding in someone outside of the relationship,” says relationship scientist and therapist Dr. Marisa T. Cohen.
An emotional affair involves strong emotional chemistry with someone other than your partner. The partner having an emotional affair will invest more effort and intimacy with the person they’re having the affair with, and neglect their partner.
In some cases, an emotional affair might also involve a level of sexual or physical attraction — even though there’s no sexual interaction.
The simple answer is, yes. “When discussing infidelity, physical affairs often spring to mind, yet an emotional affair can be just as, if not more, harmful to the relationship,” says Dr. Cohen.
But an affair doesn’t always have to involve sex to damage a relationship. “It can be devastating largely due to the confusion it can cause, and also because it can highlight mismatched and undiscussed expectations around boundaries.”
What constitutes an emotional affair is tricky to pinpoint, and mostly differs from person to person, and relationship to relationship.
Research has much more straightforward definitions for sexual infidelity, but emotional affairs tend to be vaguer, and therefore complex.
“For example, some definitions [of infidelity] include sexual infidelity, while others focus on emotional distance or lies,” explains Dr. Cohen.
“Partners may hold different definitions and views, which can lead to one or both feeling as if lines have been blurred in certain circumstances.”
People often blur the lines between a friendship and an emotional affair, but the two are very different.
While both can offer support and companionship, emotional affairs are different from friendships because they involve secrecy and a violation of your partner’s trust. That being said, friendships can veer into the territory of emotional cheating.
“Take, for example, a couple, Johnny and Claire,” says Dr. Cohen. “Johnny started getting close to another woman Dawn, who he jokingly labeled his ‘work wife’. They are on the same project team, work well with and trust one another, and also enjoy passing time together during what can sometimes feel like an endless work day.
“Claire recently discovered that Johnny has been confiding in Dawn about a rift between him and his brother. She got enraged that he would share something so personal and accused him of having an emotional affair. Johnny didn’t feel as if anything happened, but Claire felt that he was connecting to and confiding in Dawn in ways he didn’t with her.”
In this case, one partner saw the situation as emotional infidelity because she felt her boundaries and expectations had been breached, while the other partner didn’t.
“To avoid such a situation in your own partnership, having an open and honest discussion about emotional infidelity and boundaries is imperative,” says Dr. Cogen.
Boundaries are like a line that you draw between what you will and won’t tolerate in a relationship, designed to protect your mental and physical safety.
“My advice to Claire would be to articulate that she is uncomfortable with Johnny sharing details about family relationships with others before sharing them with her. Johnny, in turn, may want to indicate that becoming friends with his co-workers enhances his daily work. They may not see eye-to-eye, but these conversations are important to get a better sense of each other’s perspectives.”
Below, Dr. Cohen shares some conversation starters to discuss with your partner:
How would you define emotional infidelity?
What boundaries do you think are important to keep with your friends and colleagues?
How private should information about our relationship be?
Is it important to meet all of each other’s friends?
“Take the time to let your partner know about the confines of your comfort zone, and the expectations you have of the relationship, as well as potential triggers for you,” says Dr. Cohen. “Be sure to allow your partner to share, and validate their feelings and beliefs as well.”