Many people probably have a working idea about what constitutes physical cheating within their relationships. Most couples, both monogamous and non-monogamous, are hopefully aligned on those boundaries. But emotional cheating can stir up some controversy. If there hasn’t been any physical contact, is it cheating? What separates emotional cheating from really close friendships? And, more importantly, is it possible for couples to come back from emotional indiscretions? There aren’t easy answers, but if you’re dealing with emotional cheating, there are ways to address it and move forward. We talked to Robert Allan, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Colorado, Denver, about what emotional cheating is, why it tends to happen, how you might recognize signs in your behavior, and how to move forward.So, what exactly is emotional cheating?
As the name implies, emotional cheating often involves nonsexual intimacy with someone who isn’t your partner. If you’ve gotten relatively close with a coworker and you find yourself secretly texting them while thinking, I hope this person doesn’t tell my partner, there’s a chance you’ve ventured from platonic friendship into emotional cheating, Dr. Allan explains.
That might make it sound like you’re not allowed to share secrets or emotional intimacy with your friends because it’s automatically emotional cheating, but that’s of course not the case. Having a network of emotional support is healthy, and a significant other probably shouldn’t be your sole source of emotional well-being, TBH. Emotional cheating isn’t really about the action—sharing emotional closeness with people besides your partner, which is often a great thing—and instead about your emotions surrounding it, like hoping your partner doesn’t find out.
This nuance is why the term emotional cheating might not be the clearest or most neutral way to describe the phenomena in your actual relationship. If, for instance, you think of emotional intimacy as a form of infidelity and your partner thinks cheating is only physical, a phrase that includes cheating might not help you convey how you’re feeling or help them understand exactly how and why they hurt you. That’s not to say you can’t still call it emotional cheating if that’s the language that feels true to you, but it’s important to keep in mind how differently people can interpret the word cheating.
“The term that I use in my work is attachment injury,” Dr. Allan explains, adding that this term involves situations where one partner violates the expectations of the other. Instead of getting hung up on which types of behaviors constitute cheating, the term reframes the conversation to deal with how one partner’s actions impact another. “[When dealing with an attachment injury] there's a sense that the relationship has been violated in some way, and there is hurt,” Dr. Allan adds.
Sometimes attachment injuries are accidental, but that doesn’t mean they don’t damage relationships. Ultimately, whether you call it emotional cheating or an attachment injury, every partner in your relationship should define what crosses this boundary for them and agree on the terms, so you can (hopefully) avoid attachment injuries like these.Here’s how to know if you are emotionally cheating.
If you feel like your partner is having an emotional affair, it’s often best to discuss your concerns with them directly. (More on that in a bit.) But if you think you might be having one, ask yourself: How transparent am I with my partner about this other relationship?
It bears repeating: It’s healthy to have emotional support from people outside of your partner, but secrecy has implications for your romantic partnership. If you find yourself sneaking to get support and intimacy outside of your relationship, then you might not feel the need to exercise that muscle with your partner, Dr. Allan says. “And it could impact not only emotional intimacy but physical intimacy as well.”