Emotional Cheating: Definition, Signs, and Recovery
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When people think of cheating, they often imagine one partner stepping outside the relationship and having a sexual relationship with someone else. While this is one form of cheating, a less well-known, and perhaps even more damaging form, is emotional cheating.
With emotional cheating, the infidelity moves beyond the physical realm to include a deeper, more personal connection. This can understandably cause damage to a relationship.
Below, learn what emotional cheating is, how to spot it, and how to recover from it if you find yourself struggling with an emotional cheater.
What is emotional cheating?
Emotional cheating isn’t quite as straightforward as sexual or physical infidelity. Most of us can pretty easily think of examples of sexual infidelity. Actions like kissing, caressing, or having a sexual relationship with someone who isn’t our partner are probably readily accepted as examples of physical infidelity.
So, what is considered emotional cheating? There are a range of definitions, and what one person considers to be emotional cheating might be different from what another person would say.
That being said, there are some actions that are generally accepted as emotional cheating. One study that evaluated perceptions of emotional cheating found that the following behaviors are commonly regarded as constituting emotional infidelity:
- Going to an important event with another person
- Being dishonest with your partner about how you feel toward another person
- Being emotionally attached to another person, especially when it means being more attached to someone outside the relationship
- Having an emotional connection with someone else to the extent that it creates problems in your relationship
- Sharing personal information with another person, when such information is not shared with one’s partner
- Being in love with another person
- Semi-sexual behavior like flirting  Guitar, A. E., Geher, G., Kruger, D. J., Garcia, J. R., Fisher, M. L., & Fitzgerald, C. J. (2016). Defining and distinguishing sexual and emotional infidelity. Current Psychology, 36(3), 434–446. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-016-9432-4 .
Part of the above-mentioned study asked people to create definitions of emotional infidelity.  Guitar, A. E., Geher, G., Kruger, D. J., Garcia, J. R., Fisher, M. L., & Fitzgerald, C. J. (2016). Defining and distinguishing sexual and emotional infidelity. Current Psychology, 36(3), 434–446. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-016-9432-4 At the conclusion of the study, the top agreed-upon definition was, “Emotional infidelity is being ‘in love’ or more dedicated emotionally to someone other than the partner, or family, someone with romantic potential.”
Another top definition revealed in the study was, “Emotional infidelity is when a person in a relationship creates an emotional distance by spending an excessive amount of time with, or thinks about, another person outside of the relationship, to the point that the other partner becomes ignored or rejected emotionally.”
Signs of emotional cheating
As the above definitions suggest, emotional cheating occurs when time spent with someone else, or emotional dedication to a person outside the relationship, creates problems within the relationship.
If a partner is engaging in emotional infidelity, you may notice some or many of these signs:
- Spending an excessive amount of time texting another person
- Becoming defensive when confronted about the amount of time they’re spending talking to someone else
- Lying about spending time with or talking to a specific person
- Being very protective of their phone, because they don’t want you to see who they’re texting or calling
- Appearing emotionally distant, which might be because they’re devoting their attention to someone else
- Seeming as if they are becoming quite attached to someone else
Examples of emotional cheating
When you’re not sure whether your partner’s behavior constitutes emotional cheating, it is helpful to look at some examples.
The following behaviors are some good examples of emotional cheating:
- Your partner regularly goes to lunch with a colleague and develops a deep personal connection with that person.
- Emotional cheating by texting occurs when you catch your partner frequently texting another person, and they seem defensive about it.
- Your partner is spending time with another person of the opposite sex (or the same sex if they experience same-sex attraction), and they do not want you to be involved.
- You catch your partner sneaking away to make secret phone calls to another person.
- Your partner is texting or emailing another person to the point that it’s taking away from your quality time with your partner.
- Your partner is leaving you at home or neglecting you to spend time with another person.
- You find that your partner is texting or calling another person and sharing deep personal information, or talking about establishing a relationship with this person.
The bottom line is that emotional cheating can be somewhat subjective. The above examples give a clearer idea of what emotional cheating is, but it’s ultimately up to your personal comfort level.
If your partner’s emotional connection to someone else makes you uncomfortable or interferes with the relationship, it could constitute emotional cheating, even if it doesn’t fit with one of the examples above.– Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD, Licensed Social Worker (LSW), mental health writer
Emotional cheating vs. physical cheating
Most people agree that there is a difference between emotional and physical cheating. We’ve defined emotional cheating and given examples above, and you probably already have an understanding of physical cheating.
It’s important to be aware of the specific differences between emotional vs. physical cheating. It’s also helpful to understand that emotional cheating can exist without physical cheating. Similarly, physical cheating can exist without emotional cheating.
When cheating is purely emotional, there is no sexual contact. Two people may develop a deep emotional connection and spend time together without progressing to sexual intimacy. An emotional affair can even occur entirely via text message or email, with two people establishing a deep connection but never meeting up physically.
On the other hand, an affair can be entirely physical. Two people may meet up for the sole purpose of having sex, without any emotional meaning tied to the relationship.
Finally, an affair can be both emotional and sexual. A person may step outside of their relationship and establish an emotional connection with another person, eventually progressing to a sexual relationship. This affair may even look somewhat like a second relationship or a replacement for the primary relationship the person had before the affair.
Is emotional cheating worse than physical infidelity?
There are different opinions about whether emotional or physical infidelity is worse.
On the one hand, having an emotional affair means establishing a deep connection with another person, which is obviously distressing and hurtful for the non-offending partner. At the same time, having a sexual relationship with another person also constitutes a betrayal.
So, which is worse? It might depend upon your gender. One study found that women find emotional infidelity to be more distressing than men, whereas men rank sexual infidelity as more serious when compared to women.  Kruger, D. J., Fisher, M. L., Fitzgerald, C. J., Garcia, J. R., Geher, G., & Guitar, A. E. (2015). Sexual and Emotional Aspects are Distinct Components of Infidelity and Unique Predictors of Anticipated Distress. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1(1), 44–51. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40806-015-0010-z However, both genders found sexual infidelity to be more upsetting than emotional infidelity.
It seems that women are more inclined to become upset in response to emotional infidelity when compared to men, but both genders view sexual infidelity as more distressing overall. Of course, everyone is different, so some people may not conform to this standard.– Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD, Licensed Social Worker (LSW), mental health writer
Emotional cheating vs. friendship
Sometimes, people wonder about the difference between emotional cheating and friendship. The two can sometimes look similar, but an emotional affair moves beyond friendship with someone of the opposite sex.
Friendship is purely platonic, and there is no romantic intention. If your significant other has a platonic friendship with another person, they won’t feel the need to hide the relationship from you. They will be open about their interactions with this friend, and they’ll likely invite you along when they hang out with the friend.
On the other hand, when someone is cheating emotionally, it moves beyond friendship. They will establish a deep emotional connection with this person, and they may even develop feelings of romantic love for the person. When this happens, they’re likely to hide the seriousness of the relationship from you, because they know it would create problems for your relationship.
What are the causes of emotional cheating?
It’s important to understand that if your partner has an emotional affair, it’s not your fault. People may have affairs in response to relationship problems, but this doesn’t justify infidelity. There are healthier ways to manage conflict or differences of opinion without turning to cheating.
That being said, some common reasons for emotional cheating include:
- Being dissatisfied in a relationship
- Significant conflict in a relationship
- Having an insecure attachment style
- Certain personality traits, such as being high on extraversion and low in conscientiousness
- Developing a connection with someone at work due to shared values and interests
- Poor judgment due to stress
- Desiring greater emotional intimacy than the primary relationship is providing
- Being angry at one’s partner  Rokach, A., & Chan, S. H. (2023). Love and Infidelity: Causes and consequences. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20(5), 3904. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph20053904
What to do when your partner emotionally cheats?
If you’ve been a victim of emotional infidelity, you have a right to be upset. The first step to take is to confront your partner about their behavior.
At a time when you are both calm and undistracted, sit down with your partner and tell them that you consider their behavior to be emotional cheating. Be prepared to provide specific examples of behavior that you find upsetting and explain how it affects you.
How the relationship proceeds from that point depends upon how your partner reacts. Perhaps they will admit to what they’ve done wrong, express remorse, and ask for a chance to repair the relationship. Alternatively, they might become defensive and angry, and deny any wrongdoing.
Once you express your feelings to your partner, you will need to decide whether you want to stay in the relationship. You may be able to forgive and move forward, but you also might decide that the damage is too deep to repair.– Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD, Licensed Social Worker (LSW), mental health writer
Can a relationship survive emotional cheating?
Relationships can survive emotional cheating, but both partners have to be committed to repairing the relationship. This means that the person who cheated will need to offer a legitimate apology and commit to changing their behavior.
At the same time, the person who was cheated on will need to move forward as well. It’s certainly normal to be upset and take some time to grieve. However, if the relationship is to move forward, you cannot hold a grudge forever.
If you simply cannot move past the cheating, it’s probably best to call it quits.
How to recover from emotional cheating
Recovering from emotional cheating is possible. If you decide to stay in the relationship, this means both partners will need to make changes. If you’ve been the victim of the affair, you will need to learn how to forgive emotional cheating in your partner.
Some helpful steps for recovering include:
- Talk with your partner about how the cheating has affected you, and make a plan for moving forward.
- Allow yourself some time to grieve, but be willing to accept a legitimate apology from your partner.
- Be kind to yourself. Overthinking after being cheated on is common, so grant yourself some grace if you’re having intrusive thoughts. Express what you need from your partner to feel secure again. If they’re committed to making things work, they will be willing to offer reassurance.
- Try to focus on self-care rather than worrying about “what ifs” and what might happen if your partner cheats again.
- Avoid entirely blaming yourself, and remember that when there are problems in a relationship, there are two people involved.
- Work with your partner to resolve relationship problems, such as poor communication or lack of intimacy.
These steps can be challenging, and they may take time. You might benefit from the support of a counselor or therapist during this process.
Should I tell my partner I emotionally cheated?
Perhaps you find yourself realizing, “I emotionally cheated.” If this is the case, you might be looking for advice on whether you should tell your partner. This is a personal decision, and it depends on your own values as well as the extent of the cheating.
If the emotional cheating truly was a one-time thing, and you feel that revealing it would do more harm than good, you might decide to keep it to yourself. On the other hand, being honest with your partner maintains the integrity and trust in your relationship.
Honesty about cheating could help you solve problems in your relationship. For instance, you might talk with your partner about the factors that led to cheating and use it as an opportunity to learn from the experience and grow as a couple.– Dr. Jenni Jacobsen, PhD, Licensed Social Worker (LSW), mental health writer
Ultimately, the decision is up to you. If you decide to remain in the relationship after emotionally cheating, what is most important is that you find ways to resolve any personal and relationship problems that led to cheating in the first place. Infidelity, whether emotional or physical, can be devastating to your partner, and it isn’t a healthy way to maintain a relationship.
Start healing with therapy
If you’re struggling after an emotional affair, it’s important to understand that surviving infidelity is possible. Whether you were the cheater or the person who was cheated on, therapy can be helpful.
You and your partner may benefit from couples therapy, but individual therapy can also be helpful. In individual sessions, you can learn tools for coping with infidelity, or if you were the one who cheated, you can learn to overcome personal barriers that led to your choice to step outside the relationship.
At Calmerry, we offer online therapy for mental and emotional health problems, including infidelity. We do not offer couples counseling at this time, but we can offer individual therapy for those struggling with issues related to infidelity.