Uh, Is Emotional Cheating Even a Real Thing?

You better believe it. An affair can be more than physical—here’s how to know if you (or your partner) is crossing a line

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Close-up shot of a person taking a wedding ring off
(Photo: iStock)

The first time Kelly met her colleague John (both of whom asked us not to use their real names), she was struck by his resemblance to a certain actor. (It rhymes with Meanu Meeves). They got along famously, sharing inside jokes, bringing each other treats and becoming super close. He made her feel exciting *and* excited, they shared a sense of humour and he was hot. Meanu Meeves-hot. They cemented their work marriage at an intoxicated group outing that ended in some handsy dancing and huddled giggles over a sneaky cigarette.

The next morning, Kelly felt terrible, because while John was single, she was not—and her guilt made it clear she had done something wrong. But she never mentioned it to her partner; they broke up for other reasons six months later.

Was Kelly a cheater? Some would say yes. An emotional cheater.

What is emotional cheating?

“Generally, when people talk about emotional cheating or unfaithfulness, they are speaking about a close relationship with a person outside of the primary relationship,” says sex and relationship therapist Rae Dolman of The Mindfulness Clinic in Toronto. “Although there may not be any physical touching, these relationships are often sexually charged and take emotional energy away from the couple, thruple or polycule.” If you feel that you’ve crossed a boundary with your partner(s), then you’re probably being emotionally unfaithful. Kelly’s guilt was a clear sign that her feelings for John were inappropriate. But the rules are different for everyone.

So I can’t fantasize about someone else? Is that cheating?

No. Having sexual fantasies about someone other than your partner is totally normal—physical attraction is biological, inevitable and hard to avoid. It may even bring new energy to your sexual relationship. Having close friends to whom you may be attracted is also common; chemistry isn’t solely physical, after all. And it can be difficult to determine where the line is between a close, platonic friendship and something more, especially in today’s interpretation of monogamy. “[Therapist and author] Esther Perel talks about marrying for love as a relatively new concept,” says Dolman. “In the past, we relied on neighbours, friends, and extended family, but now we are expected to share the most intimate details of our lives with only one person. As a result, there may be more room today to misinterpret a close friendship as an emotional affair.”

What are some of the signs of emotional cheating?

  • Spending more time communicating with someone else than your partner
  • When you are more excited to see, speak to or spend time with another person than your partner
  • When you or your partner become overly critical of each other
  • When you or your partner gets defensive or does not want to talk about the person they are spending time with (online or IRL)
  • When you or your partner continuously go out of your way for someone else
  • When you complain about your partner and/or your relationship to someone else
  • When you get that new relationship energy (NRE) feeling
  • You have a gut feeling or something feels off

And btw, these signs go both ways—so if you recognize these in yourself or in your partner’s behaviour, check in on your relationship.

What can you do about it?

Each relationship has boundaries, whether it’s monogamous or polyamorous. Discussing it early in a relationship may sound like a mood killer, but Dolman recommends clear, open communication from the start. “Not only should you speak with your partner(s) about your definition of an emotional affair at the beginning of a relationship, it’s wise to revisit these conversations every so often,” she says. “Our preferences change over time and ideally our relationships evolve with our level of comfort. For example, at the start of a new relationship a person may not feel comfortable with their partner texting with an ex. However, once trust is built, this may no longer be an issue.”

What happens next?

An emotional affair, in certain situations, can be harder to forgive than a physical one. For some people, the idea of their partner(s) connecting to someone else on a deeply personal level is more hurtful than sex. It all depends on your relationship. “If agreed upon boundaries are crossed, in any type of relationship, it is experienced as a betrayal,” says Dolman. “Breaches of trust can be traumatic and take a significant amount of time, effort, and energy to earn back.” Couples therapy is one path you can take; talking to an outside source can be beneficial to work through feelings of betrayal, hurt and guilt.

If the relationship is important enough to save, then both parties have to put in the work. Forgiveness and reconciliation can only succeed if everyone is not only involved, but equally eager to mend broken boundaries and regain trust. And if the hurt person cannot get past the emotional affair, then the relationship may have run its course.

Related:

How *Not* to Slide Into Someone’s DMs
4 Cringe-Worthy Stories About Losing Your Virginity (And 2 That Are Surprisingly Sweet)
Think Your Ex Was Bad? Read These Terrible Dating Stories

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