One day the realization hits: your partner might not be 100 percent faithful. Unlike the “lipstick on the collar” scenario in the movies, there’s nothing physical going on. In fact, the infidelity comes in the form of shared knowing looks, deep conversations during late nights at the office, text messages that begin to reveal personal truths or a potent combination. Your partner may be engaging in a behavior known as emotional cheating.
Whatever the specific acts, your partner’s thoughts and feelings have shifted to another person and while it’s not necessarily a sexual affair, the results can be just as devastating. Emotional cheating is a very real phenomenon, and it’s possible you’ve been guilty of the act. Experts weigh in on how to define the term and differentiate it from friendship, spot red flags in your own relationship, and take the necessary steps to heal.
What’s frustrating about emotional cheating is there’s no concrete definition and parameters can depend on the specific couple’s relationship. However, author and relationship psychotherapist Dr. Frances Walfish has insight. Emotional cheating occurs, she says, when a person thinks about someone outside of their relationship “constantly or obsessively” to the point of adjusting schedules to be around the person more often, increasing quantity and quality of contact, and generally intensified feelings.
Does emotional cheating turn physical? Not always, but according to Dr. Walfish, emotional cheating can be more damaging than a purely sexual affair. “When emotional affairs are coupled with sex, their potency is maximized,” she says. Also, when the emotional cheaters refrain from sex, they can rationalize that it’s not really cheating. This can lead to issues including lack of accountability to the affected partner.
Maintaining platonic friendships isn’t just beautiful, it’s crucial as you grow older. A circle of supportive pals can see you through rough times as well as celebrate personal victories. Emily Mendez, a former psychotherapist and widely published mental health writer, agrees that friendship outside a relationship is perfectly healthy. However, she cautions, “when a partner spends the majority of their emotional energy on someone outside the relationship,” emotional cheating may be lurking just around the corner.
Dr. Patricia Celan, who has counseled patients on emotional cheating, says it can be especially devastating for women over 50. For this group, Dr. Celan says, “the amount of time invested in a relationship may be longer than for younger women.” Additionally, Dr. Celan says, the pressure may be on to stay in the relationship because of a smaller dating pool and “the sense of having given one’s entire life to a partner who has eventually become unfaithful.” This fear of being alone can lead to the affected partner staying in a situation that is no longer healthy.
Though emotional cheating can look different in every relationship, experts agree that there are common symptoms. For Dr. Celan, the keyword is change. If the following behaviors are occurring, it’s possible your partner is emotionally cheating:
Mendez adds a few more signs: “[w]hen your partner lies about spending time with another person, or when they tell the other person important things before [they tell] you.” These intimacies may start out innocent but can, over time, strengthen the bond outside the relationship. And even when the affair doesn’t lead to sex, she says, it’s still a betrayal.
You and your partner can come back from emotional cheating, but it takes effort. Mendez cautions that all cheating causes damage to relationships and healing takes time and effort. On a positive note, she adds, “a couple can emerge stronger by examining what contributed to [the cheating] and working through it together.”
According to Dr. Celan, the first step is to talk. “Have an open, vulnerable conversation with your partner about how the emotional cheating has affected you,” she says. Honesty is good, but confrontational aggression is not. “Comments that trigger defensiveness will ultimately lead to a destructive conversation,” Dr. Celan says. “Talk about the impact on you, not your judgments of your partner’s actions.”
The second step is professional help, which Dr. Celan says is crucial. If the emotional cheater feels remorseful and is willing to put in the work, the couple can move beyond this roadblock. Unfortunately, if the cheater won’t engage in therapy or even apologize, she says, emotional cheating may be the initial step to more infidelity.
Dr. Walfish agrees on the professional help front, but only for the cheater. “Hearing your own voice declare your behavior is your first step toward owning accountability for your behavior, which is a prerequisite for change,” she says. Unlike Dr. Celan, she cautions against disclosing the affair. “It will only hurt your [partner] and raise suspicious and doubts about trusting you,” she explains. “[I]f you are truly committed to your therapy work, you will change.”
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