How To Handle Emotional Cheating in a Relationship
The first step is self-care.
While physical infidelity is pretty easy to define, emotional cheating can be a trickier situation. What constitutes emotional infidelity can vary from person to person, and the line between platonic friend and romantic connection can be a slippery slope if you’re not careful.
What is certain is that emotional cheating can be just as damaging to a relationship as a physical affair, depending upon how your partner handles the aftermath. That’s why it’s important to understand what emotional infidelity is, and what some of the signs might be. That way, when it comes to handling this situation, if it ever comes up in your relationship, you can feel confident in how you conduct yourself and move forward.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What Exactly Is Emotional Cheating?
Emotional cheating can be tough to define because each person has their own boundaries of what they would consider acceptable in their relationship. But, in short, emotional infidelity happens when you establish an intimate connection with someone who’s not your partner.
It’s more than having a sexual attraction to someone else, or developing a harmless crush. With emotional cheating, you begin to turn to someone other than your partner for emotional support. Of course, it’s fine to lean on friends in times of need. But in an emotional-infidelity situation, there’s usually some romantic connection, or sexual tension, that pushes a relationship into affair territory.
Emotional cheating can take a number of forms: Your partner could develop a close relationship with someone at work, and spend lots of time with them. Or, your partner could connect with someone over social media and establish a digital connection. Even if nothing physical happens, the depth and intimacy of conversation can push these relationships down a path that leads toward emotionally cheating, almost without people realizing that’s happening.
Signs of Emotional Cheating
There are some clear signals that indicate your partner has established an intimate emotional connection with someone else. Here are some of the big warning signs:
Something Just Doesn’t Feel Right in the Primary Relationship
You know in your gut that something just feels off in your (previously healthy) romantic relationship, even if you can’t quite explain it.
Your Partner Keeps Bringing Up Another Person
When someone is emotionally intimate with another person, they often can’t help themselves, and mention this person all the time through anecdotes and stories. Those often seem far more interesting to your partner than they do to you.
Your Partner Always Seems to Be on Their Phone
If your partner is constantly texting or direct-messaging without being open about who they are in constant contact with, this may mean they don’t want you to know what’s really going on.
Your Partner Doesn’t Share Much With You Anymore
Because your partner is being emotionally intimate with someone else, they don’t need to share their highs and lows with you any longer — so they don’t.
Your Partner Seems Less Interested in You Physically
If the emotional affair is turning into a crush or a romance, your partner will likely pull away from physical intimacy, and be less affectionate with you.
What to Do if Your Partner Has Been Emotionally Unfaithful
If you suspect your partner is having an emotional affair, don’t panic or jump to conclusions. While some situations may be tough to overcome, know that it’s natural for someone in long-term, committed relationship to seek out intimacy, especially if that’s been lacking in your own partnership.
Emotional cheating doesn’t need to be a relationship death sentence. However, depending on the nature of the affair, it could be necessary for you to move on.
Here’s a step-by-step process for handling the situation:
Address the Lack of Emotional Intimacy Head-on
You can’t solve a problem that you don’t talk about, right? Be direct with your partner about their perceived lack of emotional attachment. You might say something like, “I feel lonely when we’re together and you spend time texting other people.” Then, suggest creating some opportunities to connect without your phones.
Your partner’s response will be telling. If they get defensive or upset, you may realize your needs are not that important to them. If they’re willing to work together to make time to connect — to make a real emotional investment — you know your relationship has a chance.
Fight the Urge to Find Proof
You might really, really want to snoop through your partner’s phone, email or DMs to see what is going on. Don’t. Do. It. Seriously, don’t. Whatever you find will only make you feel bad, first of all. Then, if you want to bring it up with your partner, you will need to tell them that you snooped, which is a huge breach of trust.
Focus instead on addressing the distance in your relationship, and changing what’s become the status quo, not on this other connection your partner may have formed.
Discuss and Set Boundaries
It’s important to define what’s crossing the line when it comes to intimacy in your relationship. Even if there are no signs of cheating, emotionally or physically, all couples can benefit from having an honest conversation about boundaries.
Are you comfortable with your partner grabbing drinks with a coworker, one-on-one? Is it OK if they sleep in the same bed as their childhood best friend, who also happens to be super-hot now? Is DMing an ex to talk about their feelings out of bounds?
There are no right and wrong answers here. What matters is that you come to an understanding with your partner about what you’re each comfortable with, and that you can trust each other to respect those boundaries.
Figure Out the Next Steps in Your Relationship
Next, it’s time to decide if you’re going to continue with your relationship. Whether or not your partner has officially admitted to emotional cheating, you need to decide if you’re able to get over their emotional intimacy with someone else. You should evaluate their response to your feelings of distance, and how much effort they have put in to remedy the situation.
If your partner continues to text someone else every night, or no longer appears interested in you, physically or emotionally, even after you’ve addressed the situation, it may be time to move on.
If you decide to remain together, you and your partner should work to understand the root cause of your distance from each other. You might consider working with a therapist (together or separately) to help you rebuild intimacy and trust. Make a plan for rebuilding your closeness, and check in with each other about your progress.
If you decide to break up, you’ll need to work on rebuilding trust for future relationships. Your trust was broken, and you should give yourself the time and space to heal before jumping into a new relationship.
Feel Your Feelings
Emotional cheating is a tough situation for the person on the receiving end of the affair. Don’t beat yourself up for your partner straying. Sometimes couples simply grow apart, setting the stage for someone else to emotionally swoop in. In many cases, the person having the affair doesn’t mean to get so caught up in things. Unlike physical affairs, emotional affairs can sneak up on those involved.
What matters most is that you take care of yourself, and try to reserve self-judgment and blame as you navigate this scenario. Love really can conquer all, so if you want to make things work with your partner after an emotional affair, know that it’s possible to come out the other side stronger and more connected.
But if this kind of affair is a deal breaker for you, know that you don’t need to force yourself to get over it. Take care of you.