What is an Emotional Affair and Am I In One?
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What is an Emotional Affair and Am I In One?



Emotional affairs are common, intense, and pose a significant threat to marriages and committed relationships.

Learn more about what emotional cheating is, how to know if you or a loved one is being emotionally unfaithful, and how to address emotional affairs.


What does it mean to be emotionally unfaithful? 


What is an Emotional Affair? Being unfaithful refers to some action or actions that violate the spoken and unspoken rules of a relationship, specifically by supplanting one partner for another.


Being emotionally unfaithful refers to having emotional experiences with a person outside of a committed relationship. This emotional connection would ideally only be experienced between those in that relationship.


To be emotionally connected, partners need to be able to rely on each other for emotional support. It is commonly understood between couples that there are limits to how much each person should emotionally confide outside of the relationship. This means maintaining emotional distance from others such as a close or platonic relationship.


It can be problematic when one partner begins to emotionally confide in and rely on a person outside of the relationship. This is particularly true when those same conversations and experiences are not shared between the couple. This is a sign of an emotional affair.


Learn more about infidelity here.



What is an emotional affair?


An emotional affair is a specific relationship one person develops. In it, they replace the emotional connection they have with their partner/spouse with a person outside of the relationship. A central component to affairs is also secrecy. So, these relationships often develop in secret.


Additionally, emotional affair relationships pose a threat to the stability of the relationship says the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy.


For example, a heterosexual married woman who develops a deeply emotionally intimate and vulnerable relationship with another heterosexual man. This poses a threat to the relationship stability. That same woman relying on her mother is not considered an emotional affair. There is no romantic interest, and a mother cannot replace a spouse.




What are emotional affair symptoms?


Emotional affair symptoms include frequent conversations, deep emotional connection, and inside jokes or references that the other spouse is unaware of. Another symptom is one no longer confiding in a spouse, but instead, confiding in the emotional affair partner.


Emotional affairs also cause tremendous damage to marriages and committed relationships. According to research in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology, these emotional affairs cause extreme conflict and emotional turmoil. People who have had a partner cheat on them often experience symptoms similar to PTSD.  In some cases, emotional affairs lead to the end of relationships.





Is an emotional affair considered infidelity?


Most relationship experts would consider an emotional affair a form of infidelity. Infidelity, also called cheating, involves a violation of the relationship agreement where certain roles of a partner are replaced. The replacement of roles, often in secret, that violates the agreement between partners, is what creates the infidelity.




Why do people have emotional affairs?


People have emotional affairs for many of the same reasons people have sexual affairs, argues the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy. Common reasons include:

– believing that one’s spouse won’t meet their emotional needs.

– someone that doesn’t create boundaries with others.

– one seeking something to experience to that isn’t present in their relationship.

Let’s break each one of these common reasons down.


Unmet Emotional Needs:

People get into committed relationships and marriages because they want to build a life together. This also includes build an emotionally close relationship. However, not all relationships are emotionally close.

This can be because of a lot of reasons. These committed relationship no longer meets each other emotional needs, and lead people to feel lonely and susceptible to an affair. When an emotional need is not met, people can intentionally or unintentionally get that need met outside of the relationship.


Unhealthy boundaries:

Many people struggle with creating healthy boundaries with other people. They may not be able to hold back certain things and may move too quickly and too deeply when creating a relationship with another person. They may attach to people they should not, which can contribute to an emotional affair.


Codependency is often a struggle with these people.


New Experiences:

Not all emotional affairs are due to a problem in their relationship. Sometimes people find themselves wanting to experience something their relationship simply does not have.


For example, if one person lost a parent, and they begin a friendship with another person who had also lost a parent, they share something unique and special. Over time, that platonic relationship can turn into an emotional affair.


What is an emotional affair

Do emotional affairs last?


Affairs of all types tend to be short-lived. This is because often a crucial component to the relationship is the secrecy, the newness, and the intensity. Over times, these things can go away. With the loss of those elements the affair also dies out.


However, emotional affairs can also last years. People even will leave one relationship to begin a new relationship with their affair partner. Though, relationships that develop this way tend to end.


This does not mean you should not take the presence of an emotional affair lightly as they can lead to the end of a marriage or committed relationship.






How do you stop an emotional affair?


This is a complicated question. Ultimately, if you want to end an emotional affair, you need to fully come to terms with the fact that the affair needs to end. That part can be exceedingly difficult for people to truly accept. People may want to end an emotional affair but are not fully committed to ending it.


Creating distance from the affair partner is crucial. This means that you are encouraged not to call, text, email, or interact. The relationship needs to “die” and be grieved over if needed.


Also, since you are ending an emotional relationship, it needs to eventually be replaced. Whether that means relying on your spouse more, or friends, or family, it is recommended to see it as a vacuum that needs to be filled.


Lastly, it is also crucial for you to understand what led to the emotional affair. Working with a trained therapist is often greatly beneficial for those that are unable to answer that question.






Can you be friends after an emotional affair?


In short, anything is possible. More pragmatically, it is very unlikely that a friendship can be created. Once two people create an affair, whether sexual or emotional, they are often unable to become purely platonic. This may be because of the intensity of the relationship, or that one’s spouse is unwilling to agree to it, or a combination of both.


When people end an emotional affair, they simultaneously lose one of their best friends. Regardless of whether the relationship was right or wrong, it is a difficult thing for many people to end. Thus, a common component to healing from infidelity means the cheating partner needs to begin a process of grief and loss.






Should you tell your spouse about your emotional affair?


That is a question only you can answer.

Reasons to consider;

– If a spouse is likely to find out

– If the guilt is going to be overwhelming

– If revealing it will help end the relationship then you should strongly consider telling your spouse.


There are also other contexts that may lead one to decide not to disclose such as;

– If the affair happened in the past and is over.

– If telling the spouse may exacerbate underlying mental health issues.

– If you and your spouse are now in a much better relationship then you may not disclose.


If the emotional affair is still happening, it is often considered immoral and dangerous to not disclose that.


Understand that revealing an emotional affair causes emotional turmoil in a relationship.






Is an emotional affair worse than a sexual affair?


Much to people’s surprise, emotional affairs can be devastating to a partner. When compared to strictly-sexual affairs, emotional affairs tend to do more emotional damage.  Couples that have experienced cheating that involves both sexual and emotional infidelity often report that the emotional infidelity is the worst part to heal from.





Disclaimer: ALL IN Therapy Clinic aims to improve people’s lives through providing effective mental health counseling by passionate professionals. We publish quality material for your own education. Our publications are researched, cited, reviewed, and edited by licensed mental health professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of a qualified healthcare provider.




Written and reviewed by

Dr Kyle Zrenchik, PhD, ACS, LMFT

Dr. Kyle Zrenchik is the Co-Founder of ALL IN, the Creator of the Couples Erotic Flow model for treating sexual issues in individuals and couples, Designer of the Deep Dive programs at ALL IN, and is one of the most well-respected couples counselors in the Twin Cities.

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