Woman on phone with man watching behind her representing telltale signs of an emotional affair

Takeaways: An emotional affair can be as devastating to you and to your relationship as physical infidelity. But it can be harder to identify, and many couples don’t know where to draw the line between a friendly relationship, and an emotional affair, until their relationship feels threatened. Learning the ten signs of an emotional affair can help you protect your heart, and your relationship.

The Signs of an Emotional Affair: Is Emotional Infidelity Cheating?

Are you wondering what the signs of an emotional affair look like? In my work as a couples counselor and affair recovery coach, I work with couples who are experiencing discomfort in their marriage around one partner’s seemingly too close of a relationship with another friend. “I’m not having an affair,” or “We aren’t sleeping together,” is often the defense in the conversation – but what a lot of couples don’t understand is that an emotional affair is just as serious (if not more) than a physical affair. 

I recently authored a guest post on Emotional Infidelity for hitched.com, and because it’s such an important topic, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject here on the Love, Happiness and Success blog, too.

Emotional infidelity, jealousy, and trust are common issues for couples we see in couples therapy or marriage counseling. I know from many years of experience as a “relationship expert” that the first step in healing for many couples is having good information to help you understand what’s going on, and what needs to change.

It can be incredibly anxiety provoking when your partner has connected with someone new. It’s also especially difficult when you are not feeling confident about your own relationship. And if that “someone new” happens to be attractive, it can trigger massive amounts of insecurity and jealousy.

What Is Emotional Infidelity?

Emotional infidelity is when someone in a committed relationship develops an inappropriate emotional connection with someone who is not their partner. By definition, an emotional affair doesn’t cross the line into a sexual relationship, but that doesn’t mean emotional infidelity is less damaging to your relationship than cheating that involves sex. In some ways it can be even more hurtful, because it’s an emotional betrayal of your partner, whereas sometimes cheating can be dismissed as “just sex.” In fact, a meta-study on emotional affairs found that for both men and women, sexual infidelity was associated with anger and blame, whereas people who experienced emotional infidelity were more likely to feel hurt and upset.

Emotional infidelity is also trickier to pin down than sexual infidelity. Where do you draw the line between a close friendship and an emotional affair? The blurred boundaries create a situation where couples can disagree about what’s happening, what’s appropriate, and what’s not okay.

Emotional infidelity is a problem because when your partner is getting their emotional needs met by another person they are, by definition, not sharing them with you. Even if these interactions are just on something as innocuous as Facebook messages, you still want to protect your relationship from vulnerability. After all, very few people who cheat on their partners ever planned to have an affair. Cheating is a slippery slope that begins an innocent connection.

But We’re Just Friends… What’s the Big Deal?

A common difficulty with emotional affairs is that the partner involved often feels very innocent about their involvement with the person who causes this kind of jealousy. So, for example, if you share your anxious feelings with your partner, they are likely to get defensive and tell you “we’re just friends” or make you feel like you’re being unreasonable. This, of course, only adds to your anxiety!

If your partner maintains their relationship with the attractive person you’re worried about, and is continuously unresponsive to your escalating anxiety, it can create huge problems in your relationship. Namely, that you start looking like the crazy irrational person…. and their new “special friend” is seemingly even more attractive in comparison.

As I’m sure you know if you’ve lived this, that “anxiety > defensiveness > more anxiety > more defensiveness” loop starts to create a very yucky dynamic that can be difficult to unwind.

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Stopping this unhealthy cycle first requires acknowledgement from your partner that they currently may have an inappropriate attachment to another person. “But why is it inappropriate?” they may wonder. “Why is it not okay to have friends?”  As a counselor, I can assure them that it’s a big deal because their primary commitment is to you, and you feel uncomfortable with it.

Furthermore, it is beneficial for people to understand that many affairs begin innocently enough. From my experience, unless they started in response to some gross Craigslist sex-ad or ashleymadison.com profile, ALL AFFAIRS begin as platonic emotional entanglements. Hardly anyone sets about to have an affair, destroy their marriage, blow their family apart, and live in the aftermath of the financial and emotional destruction that causes. [Listen to my podcast about affairs, if you want to learn more about the sad reality.] Instead, affairs begin by appreciating their time with a new person, which can lead to a crush that grows like a wildfire that only the cold shock of discovery and divorce can drown.

10 Signs of an Emotional Affair

Believe it or not, the biggest “danger signal” for a relationship is not fighting.

There are very specific signs of an emotional affair that I share in my hitched.com article. Awareness of these signs can help you flush out the presence of an emotional affair. For example (and this one may surprise you) if you have been having conflict and disagreement in your relationship, and that tension suddenly fades – without other resolution – it may indicate the presence of a new emotional outlet in your partner’s life.

If your spouse suddenly seems more cheerful, more secretive about their phone, or stops telling you about their day-to-day life, it may also point to a new, increasingly important, relationship.

The reason why these new attachments are so problematic for your relationship is that when your partner is going to someone else with their thoughts, hopes, fears, concerns, and emotional needs they are not giving you the opportunity to share them, or meet them.

Believe it or not, the biggest “danger signal” for a relationship is not fighting. People fight when they still care about a relationship and want to change things. A relationship is in real trouble when fighting stops, because it signals a loss of hope. People break up because they no longer believe that change is possible. If your partner is sharing all their important emotional needs with someone else, it’s a sign that they are withdrawing their emotional trust in you. Over time, they may stop believing that your relationship is worth fighting for.

Here are 10 signs someone is having an emotional affair:

  1. Hiding or minimizing the relationship. “It’s not a big deal. We’re just friends.”
  2. Being careful with their phone and emails.
  3. Confiding in the affair partner, especially sharing intimate details they’re not sharing with their partner.
  4. Feeling more critical or contemptuous of their partner.
  5. Comparing their partner to the “other” man or woman.
  6. Spending more time apart.
  7. Communication becomes irregular and more informational (less focused on an emotional exchange).
  8. Having less sex with their partner.
  9. Being defensive or shutting down when asked what’s going on.
  10. Speaking critically about the partner to the affair partner.

Healing From Emotional Infidelity

There are many things that you and your partner can do together to ease your anxiety and strengthen your trust and security in your relationship. (If your trust has already been broken, you might listen to my podcast: “Sorry’s Not Good Enough: Repairing Trust in Your Relationship.”)

For example, if your partner wants to maintain their new friendship, they need to help you feel safe with it. That might mean planning activities where you are included, cc’ing you on correspondence, and having boundaries around the other relationship. If they are not willing to do that, it’s a sign that their attachment to that person may be as important to them as their attachment to you.

For my full advice on recovering from an emotional affair, read the full article on www.hitched.com. If you’re struggling with emotional infidelity, jealousy, and trust issues in your relationship, I sincerely hope that the advice I shared in this article, and others, helps you both find your way back together. And if you would like support from a couples counselor who specializes in affair recovery at Growing Self, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.

All the best,

Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. — I have more articles and podcast episodes on healing from infidelity in my “affair recovery” collection. I hope you’ll check them out — I made them for you!

Citations

Proulx, Morgan, “Towards a Nuanced Understanding of Emotional Infidelity: An Investigation of Behavioral
Exemplars and the Impact of Ambiguity” (2020). Theses – ALL. 456. https://surface.syr.edu/thesis/456

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10 Comments

  1. Hi everyone, My husband who has left me for 7 months because of his new found mistress is back, We have been married for 14 years with 3 beautiful kids. I love my husband so much but I could not stop him. I need our marriage to work, I have read countless books on how to please your husband but none worked.

    1. Judy, I’m so sorry for your loss. I am not sure if it’s possible to get your husband back. I’m hearing that you’re in a lot of pain. As I described in my Exaholics book, it is very normal, in the early stages of a loss like this to be consumed with the possibility of reunion. I have included some information in my online breakup recovery program about things to try to see if relationship repair is possible, and those strategies might help you. However, if not, the path ahead of you may be one of grieving, healing, and building a new life for yourself. All of this is possible, especially with the right support. I hope you get it!

      All the best, Lisa

  2. Hi everyone, My husband who has left me for 7 months because of his new found mistress is back, We have been married for 14 years with 3 beautiful kids. I love my husband so much but I could not stop him. I need our marriage to work, I have read countless books on how to please your husband but none worked.

  3. Judy, I’m so sorry for your loss. I am not sure if it’s possible to get your husband back. I’m hearing that you’re in a lot of pain. As I described in my Exaholics book, it is very normal, in the early stages of a loss like this to be consumed with the possibility of reunion. I have included some information in my online breakup recovery program about things to try to see if relationship repair is possible, and those strategies might help you. However, if not, the path ahead of you may be one of grieving, healing, and building a new life for yourself. All of this is possible, especially with the right support. I hope you get it!

    All the best, Lisa

  4. Thank you for this post it has saved me from going too far with a crush… in the direction I wanted to go and have an actual affair.

    But can a marriage be repaired if you just can’t get over that crush? I’ve cut contact- still can’t get over him and running in to him at work and school triggers all my feelings to come back even though I blocked his number and I ignore him when I see him.

    Can a person who’s crushing hard ever regain their feelings for their spouse? Even with therapy?

  5. I’m presently in my 8th year of marriage, it’s convincingly certain and absolutely true that we love each other deeply and I’m willing to do anything to keep my marriage up and running.

    I’m a romantic person and always want fun, attention, happy moments and more with my partner but his mind is always occupied with one thing or another, which makes his sexual drive and attention towards me extremely low.

    Sometimes I wonder if he’s seeing someone else that made him withdrew his affection for me.

    His weekly absence from home is killing me emotionally and now I know that I’m getting entangled in an extra marital affair (no sexual involvement yet) but it’s getting intense daily and I fear ending up in an act .

    Help me, I need my husband, I’ve tried all my known means of letting him realize how much I want him to rekindle our romantic love life.

  6. Thai article is spot on. I have a huge crush on another woman but It’s just that. The thought of me ever cheating on my wife is laughable to me. I couldn’t be happier with my life and wife.

  7. Hi there, I can hear how much you’re yearning for that connection. This is hard, and does sound lonely. You said you’ve tried all known means of letting him know how you feel. Does this include couples counseling? There’s something magical that happens in a couples counseling session, with the presence of a non-judgmental, fully supportive, empathetic marriage and family *expert* helping you and your partner connect in new, deeper ways. They help you communicate around those deep, scary topics – and often we hear more from our partners than we ever did before – or they finally really hear and understand US! Specifically, I’d recommend working with a marriage and family therapist trained in EFT (emotionally focused therapy). Warm regards, Dr. Lisa

  8. Great question! And the answer is absolutely! You’re taking the right steps, congratulations! In the same way that we can heal from breakups or divorce, lost attachments, we can get over a crush. Think of a time you fell hard for someone, someone you don’t even think about now. It happens, all the time. Moving on from someone, including a crush, requires distance (as you’ve done) and boundaries around our own thoughts about this person, for starters. If you have to run into him at times, that latter part is even more important. Refocus your thoughts when he comes up, focusing instead on his flaws (we all have them), more realistic thoughts (it’s much easier to idealize someone with whom we aren’t in a long-term relationship), and thoughts about your partner that bring you joy (like why you fell in love). Best of luck, Lisa

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