Affairs can be hard to spot as it is, but emotional affairs are even harder to see. However, there are some emotional affair signs to be aware of.
An emotional affair is a non-sexual form of cheating where one partner forms an intimate, emotional bond with someone to the detriment of their primary partner. An emotional affair is different from a close friendship because it replaces the intimacy and connection that someone has with their romantic partner. Like other forms of infidelity, emotional affairs involve lying or a breach of trust and can be incredibly damaging to a committed relationship.
The signs of emotional infidelity can sometimes be harder to spot than a physical affair, but there are some red flags to watch out for. We spoke to an expert about what an emotional affair could mean for your relationship, and how to recognize emotional affair signs.
An emotional affair could start in many ways — getting too close to a co-worker, or inappropriately flirty with a close friend — but it normally starts with two people opening up to each other and increasing their emotional intimacy, says Quint Boa, a UKCP-registered psychotherapist. “An emotional affair typically starts when a person begins to share intimate thoughts, feelings, and experiences with a person outside of their relationship,” explains Boa.
An emotional affair is when the emotional connection between two people, who aren’t already partners, goes beyond the boundaries of a platonic relationship. The primary relationship is being harmed, and one partner is forming an emotional attachment to someone else.
“The boundaries for this can be blurred though,” adds Boa. “For example, employees can have what are called ‘work wives’ or ‘work husbands’.”
What constitutes an emotional affair depends highly on the boundaries and expectations you and your partner have set, but generally speaking an emotional affair includes any breach of trust, boundaries, or promises made to each other.
An emotional relationship could simply be two people spending a lot of time together, however, Boa says when you cross the line and either start “sharing personal information that ‘should’ only be shared with your partner or seeking emotional support from someone other than your partner” these are both examples of emotional cheating.
One of the biggest signs of an emotional affair, Boa believes, is “when your partner is spending ‘excessive’ time with someone else in pursuit of work or a shared hobby.”
Excessive is the biggest clue here, your partner may be independent and have many hobbies, but if they are spending all their time away from you to have clandestine meetings with someone else, it could be one of the signs of emotional cheating.
If your partner starts to lie about their whereabouts or how much time they’re spending with another person, this could be a problem.
“Gaslighting or manipulating a partner's perception is a clear sign, especially if they are altering reality to make the partner question their own memory, judgment, and sanity,” says Boa. “Deceit by omission, for example not admitting the other party was present, is also a red flag.”
It’s entirely normal for your libido to ebb and flow, even in a healthy and happy relationship. Having less sex than usual isn’t necessarily a confirmation that something might be wrong, but Boa says that a lack of physical intimacy can, in some cases, go hand in hand with an emotional affair.
Trust is one of the most important components of a relationship, so if their actions or words make you trust them less this could be a sign they are seeking emotional support from someone else.
“The clothes we wear are the only mandatory form of self-expression we have,” says Boa. “A sudden change in how a person prefers to be seen might well be unconscious to them, but obvious to everyone else. The degree to how they’ve ‘improved’ their appearance could also provide clues.” Of course, a new gym membership isn’t proof of someone emotionally cheating!
Boa sees this as one of the biggest signs of an emotional affair. “The partner conducting the emotional affair starts to find themselves in an uncomfortable position. They have emotionally, and possibly intimately, opened themselves up to two people.”
“[Emotional infidelity] defines the new relationship as one which is separate from existing other relationships, and begins to explore and set the parameters within which the new relationship might flourish,” explains Boa.
If your partner is sharing intimate information, thoughts, or feelings that they don’t share with you, it could be a sign that they’ve begun to form an emotional attachment with someone else. Keep in mind, though, that it’s perfectly healthy to confide in friends and family and seek support outside of your relationship. This only becomes an issue if your partner is also actively withdrawing from you, or you feel like they’re grown distant.
If you’ve noticed that your partner is spending more and more time making long phone calls or constantly texting someone and getting defensive or dismissive when you ask who they were on the phone with, it’s only natural to grow suspicious.
While your partner is entitled to their privacy (including digital privacy on social media), neglecting you and using technology to have an emotional affair is never acceptable. If you notice your partner has started taking calls outside, ends a call or abruptly shuts their laptop when you enter the room, it could mean that something is going on.
Even though some see emotional affairs as simply micro-cheating, it can have a huge mental health impact on the primary partner.
“The ‘damage’ is often that the innocent party has been unwittingly made to live a lie. They feel, their trust has been abused, and feel stupid, manipulated, and understandably very angry,” says Boa.
“An emotional affair can erode trust and intimacy and may ultimately lead to the breakdown of the relationship. But there are lots of cultural, religious, and personal reasons that can affect the consequences,” explains Boa.
Boa believes marriage or a relationship can survive an emotional affair, especially if it hasn’t progressed into sexual infidelity. “It can build back stronger once the initial damage is done,” he says.
However, he says the best way to get over an emotional affair is couples therapy where you can rebuild trust.
“Couples therapy can enable them to look at the motives underlying why one person's felt need for an ‘emotional affair’ these issues can be addressed. The act of therapy can reinvigorate the couple to work on something ‘shared’ together — painful though that may be.”