Infidelity is a phenomenon no one wants to experience. Even so, it impacts many people in long-term relationships. Accurate rates of infidelity are hard to come by, mostly because it’s hard for people to admit (even anonymously) that they’ve betrayed a partner – but also because emotional affairs are harder to define. Is there a difference between sexual infidelity and an emotional affair?
For most monogamous couples, sexual contact with another person, or sex outside the agreed-upon rules for polyamorous couples, constitutes infidelity. But sexual affairs are easy to define. When it comes to emotional affairs, there’s much more gray area. How do you define an emotional affair? How does it differ from a flirty friendship or a platonic relationship? Where is that proverbial line in the sand? Frankly, it depends on who you ask.
The Gottman Institute, a research program centered on couples and relational health, describes emotional infidelity as “when a person gets too close to someone other than his or her relationship partner.” In other words, getting exceptionally close to someone who was once “only” a friend, or all of a sudden finding that you’re spending a lot of time with them, are two key warning signs of an emotional affair.
It’s hard to say what that relationship might look like, since people tend to engage in different ways. Some might form a close emotional connection, others may rely too heavily on “just a friend” who is available to provide emotional energy whenever it’s needed. What is too close, exactly? That mostly depends on how your partner might see that relationship and what negative feelings, like anger or guilt, might result from it.
One foundational facet of emotional infidelity (and infidelity in general) is secret-keeping. When people cheat on their partners, they almost always keep their significant other and loved ones in the dark about their other relationship.
If this “emotional affair partner” is a flirty co-worker who – knowingly or unknowingly – contributes sexual tension to a friendship, the offending partner may minimize or hide routine contact with their friend at work. They may also hide the fact that person is a source of emotional support when they feel alienated or disappointed in their primary relationship. While a close friendship may seem benign on the surface, secret-keeping (in any form) signals relationship problems down the road.
This is not to say that those in relationships shouldn’t be able to seek out support from friends. We all need other outlets for emotional validation, and for support or advice. However, when these relationships become secretive in nature and are prioritized over partners in a committed relationship, they can be a slippery slope towards serious relationship disruption.
The Comparison Trap
Emotional affairs are notorious for falling into the comparison trap. The novelty of a “work spouse” or special friend naturally lends itself to comparison with a real-life partner. That’s one reason why emotional cheating can be almost as insidious as illicit romantic relationships.
Things likely feel lighter and easier with that friend or work spouse. You might say to yourself, “Why is X so much easier to talk to than my partner?”
This likely means your relationship is in trouble.
When you have inadequately addressed needs in your primary relationship, it’s not a stretch to compare your “special friend” to your partner.
Without the complications of navigating your life together (like making decisions about your shared household, caring for pets or children, addressing financial issues, etc.) having a “special friend” can turn into an alluring escape from reality. When we’re in the throes of monotony, or when we’re dealing with otherwise-difficult relationship issues, it’s precisely this dynamic that creates a tricky situation.
It’s natural to be drawn to easy conversation and banter, especially when you’re in periods of stress and exhaustion. And when that stress is related to work, being able to connect with someone at work who more closely understands the context is incredibly helpful. But when you also have inadequately-addressed needs in your primary relationship, it’s not a stretch to compare this new person to your partner. You might also continue to invest in this new dynamic, even before you realize that you are also actively divesting yourself from the relationship with your partner.
Unfortunately, having a trusted “friend” who is a secret to your partner creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, however unintentional, in which you consistently appreciate your friend and their emotional support while creating more distance between you and your partner. This only leads to reinforcing the strength of the emotional affair.
The Role of Social Media
Whether you’re a “social media person” or not, there’s no denying that the Internet can be a source of information and misinformation, connection and disconnection. Sometimes innocent connections can turn into more meaningful emotional intimacy.
Online platforms make our access to other people easier than ever and, as many mental health professionals acknowledge, it can be a landmine for relationships. External validation from likes, comments and shares can be healthy in moderation. However, if you’re someone who is struggling to find validation in your relationship, social media attention can be intoxicating.
It requires intentional, ongoing work to repair the damage of an emotional affair and to address the conditions that fostered it.
Short of getting off social media altogether (which is an entirely personal choice) it’s important for couples to be honest and forthcoming with each other about their use of social media, and the people they engage with on those platforms.
While I’m not advocating for sharing all of your DMs with one another (we all need privacy), being honest and transparent about how you use social media can help create a foundation of trust in your relationship. Talking openly about your boundaries on the Internet, and discussing what you like and don’t like about it with one another, can build a new level of emotional and physical intimacy in your relationship.
Important question: how might you or your partner engage with social media differently, so that it can be a positive asset to your relationship rather than a liability?
Taking Time to Self-Reflect
What do you do when you realize that a platonic friendship might be making your partner uncomfortable? If you find yourself questioning whether or not a relationship with a friend ventures into emotional affair territory, it’s important to take time to reflect on what the connection means to you. It’s also critical to explore how you’re currently feeling about your current relationship with your partner. Some questions you may want to ask yourself are:
- How does this relationship with my friend make me feel?
- Is this relationship making my partner feel uncomfortable or worried about us?
- What are the ways in which I’ve stopped investing in my existing relationship?
- Do I have unmet expectations or needs that can be addressed in my real-life relationship?
- How comfortable or willing am I to bring my concerns to my partner?
How to Rebuild After an Emotional Affair
Any kind of affair is challenging to recover from. Emotional affairs can be particularly insidious because they don’t rely on momentary lapses in judgment, but rather an ongoing process of investing in another connection. Emotional affairs, as a result, often greatly disrupt trust and emotional safety in a relationship. This means intentional, ongoing work is required to repair the damage done by the affair and to address the conditions that fostered it. That can be almost as difficult as repairing the damage from a physical affair.
Couples who wish to remain together following an emotional affair need to make an ongoing commitment to genuinely explore the dynamics that made the relationship vulnerable in the first place. These dynamics can be specific to one partner (such as withholding emotional needs from their partner) and may also be reflective of a bigger issue (such as both parties being preoccupied by family duties or professional obligations). Reflection can help couples diagnose the problems and work on potential solutions, like improving communication between the partners.
Improving communication in and of itself is a harder skill set to develop than most people realize. It’s something that we often work on in individual therapy, marriage counseling or couples therapy, and even family therapy. Individual therapy can help you identify your own barriers in communicating effectively, which may be rooted in deeply-held relational pain from your background.
Most couples will also need to work on prioritizing each other more regularly in their daily lives. Depending on the specific circumstances involved, this might involve practices such as making time to physically connect daily (touching, kissing, sexual intimacy) and having regular time alone as a couple to simply talk about your days or discuss how your relationship is going (periodic date nights are good at achieving this).
The path towards rebuilding a healthier relationship after an emotional affair is by no means easy, but with hard work and dedication, partners can heal by intentionally creating a more honest, intimate connection.