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Understanding Emotional Cheating: The Secret Betrayal

Key Takeaways:

  • Emotional cheating involves forming an intimate emotional bond and connection with someone outside your primary relationship that crosses boundaries. Common signs include secrecy, confiding in the other person, flirtation, and neglecting your partner’s needs.
  • Emotional affairs often start off innocently as friendships before snowballing into inappropriate territory. Common scenarios include co-workers, exes, online friends, and turning to someone during relationship struggles.
  • Emotional cheating damages trust, erodes emotional intimacy with your partner, indicates weakened commitment, and can be a gateway to physical cheating. The impact is often as severe as physical infidelity.
  • Setting clear boundaries, improving communication with your partner, addressing underlying relationship issues, and seeking couples counselling can help prevent emotional cheating or recovery after it occurs.
  • Rebuilding trust in a relationship after emotional betrayal requires remorse, accountability, cutting contact with the third party, and earnest effort over time to restore emotional intimacy and trust through openness.

What is Emotional Cheating?

Emotional cheating is a hot topic, but what exactly does it mean? Emotional cheating refers to getting your emotional needs and comfort met by someone outside of your primary partner relationship. It’s about forming an intimate connection and bond with another person beyond what most would consider appropriate for a platonic friendship.

While definitions vary between couples, some common signs point to emotional infidelity:

  • You share personal details about your relationship problems or frustrations with this outside person that you don’t discuss with your partner.
  • You look forward to interacting with this person, and it gives you a secret thrill. You find yourself thinking about them frequently.
  • You intentionally keep this friendship hidden from your partner or downplay the extent of your closeness.
  • Your flirtatious banter has an underlying romantic tension or physical attraction.
  • This person understands you and meets your emotional needs like your partner does not. You wish your partner were more like them.

Emotional intimacy is at the heart of an emotional affair. It’s about cultivating a special bond that crosses the line and breach of trust from friendship into territory that threatens your relationship boundaries.

a man committing emotional cheating using his phone in bed

What's the Difference from Physical Cheating?

Unlike a physical sexual encounter and affair, emotional cheating doesn’t necessarily involve physical intimacy. However, the behaviours involved can be just as damaging:

  • The emotional energy and attention directed outside the relationship detracts from your partner and makes them feel neglected.
  • Forming a meaningful connection with someone else weakens your commitment to your partner.
  • The secrecy and dishonesty around emotional affairs erode trust.

So, while no physical sexual infidelity occurs, the sneaking around, deception, shared confidences, and romantic undertones can feel like a betrayal to your partner.

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Common Scenarios Where It Can Arise

Emotional affairs often start innocently before snowballing into something more problematic. Here are some common scenarios:

  • Co-workers who connect over mutual interests confide in each other and begin forming a close bond that exceeds normal workplace friendship.
  • Online friendships that grew from commenting back and forth before progressing into texting, sharing memes, and eventually intimate conversations.
  • Messaging a former flame and rekindling romantic memories and attraction under the guise of an innocent catch-up.
  • A shoulder to lean on during a rough patch in your relationship that turns into an unhealthy emotional crutch.
  • Social media connections that start out innocently through commenting back and forth on social media posts, then progress to direct messaging and emotional investment, forming an emotional bond that fills a void. Partners grow jealous of the time spent scrolling through this person’s profile and engaging with their posts.

While friendships outside a relationship are healthy, emotional cheating is about forming an exclusionary bond that inserts itself where your partner should be. It diverts emotional energy and threatens intimacy between partners.

Ultimately, what counts as cheating comes down to the mutually agreed-upon boundaries in your relationship. However, most experts suggest that secretive, sustained emotional intimacy with someone else often constitutes a betrayal and can lead to divorce.

Signs and Symptoms of Emotional Cheating

How can you distinguish the signs of emotional cheating from regular friendship? While every situation is different, there are some key symptoms to watch out for.

Changes in Communication and Secrecy

  • You used to be very open with your partner but now find yourself more secretive and guarded about specific conversations or relationships.
  • You delete messages or emails to hide communications from your partner.
  • You frequently tell this outside person things about yourself and your inner world that you no longer share with your partner.
  • When you and your partner fight, you immediately reach out to this friend to vent instead of trying to work through issues together.
  • Your partner questions you about this increasingly special relationship, and you respond defensively or evasively.

Emotional Unavailability and Distance

  • You seem emotionally withdrawn, distant, or indifferent towards your partner, almost like your heart and mind are elsewhere.
  • Your partner attempts to connect with you, but you brush them off or act irritated by their affection or bids for attention.
  • You experience a lack of interest in physical and sexual intimacy with your partner compared to how things used to be.
  • You spend less time together, especially one-on-one because you’re increasingly wrapped in this outside friendship.
  • Your partner feels shut out and expresses that you aren’t as engaged in the relationship as you used to be.

Change in Behaviour and Attention

  • You take special care to look and dress your best when you know you’ll be seeing this person, more so than with your partner.
  • You consistently prioritize and rearrange your schedule to make more time for this friend, but don’t extend your partner the same courtesy.
  • When you’re apart, you frequently think about this person and look forward to your next digital or in-person interaction.
  • You light up excitedly when you receive a message or call from this friend but seem bored or distracted when interacting with your partner.
  • You nurture an empathetic, mutually supportive bond with this friend that used to be exclusive to your romantic relationship.

Justifying and Minimizing

  • You downplay the significance of this outside relationship and insist it’s a perfectly normal friendship, even when confronted by your partner’s concerns.
  • You defend your continued close involvement with this person and refuse to pull back or establish firmer boundaries.
  • You compare your partner negatively to this friend regarding understanding you, sharing your interests, or meeting your needs.
  • If caught emotionally cheating, you deflect blame onto your partner, citing their shortcomings as an excuse or justification.
  • You accuse your partner of being controlling, needy, insecure, or irrational for questioning your fidelity over “just a friend.”

The most critical sign: Your gut tells you this relationship would hurt your partner or make them feel betrayed if they knew the full extent. You feel the urge to hide things because, deep down, you know it crosses a line. Listen to that inner voice.

What Causes Emotional Cheating and Why Do People Do It?

Emotional affairs rarely happen in a vacuum. More often than not, there are underlying reasons why someone seeks intimate connection outside their relationship.

Unmet Emotional Needs

Feeling emotionally disconnected from a partner or like particular needs aren’t being met can motivate someone to look elsewhere to fill that void. For example:

  • Craving more quality conversation and mental stimulation.
  • Missing words of affirmation, praise, or encouragement.
  • Lacking physical affection and touching.
  • Wanting to feel desirable through flirtation and compliments.
  • Seeking greater empathy, understanding, and validation.

Problems in the Primary Relationship

When a couple faces challenges and conflicts, one partner may withdraw their emotional energy into another relationship where things feel more effortless.

  • After arguments, one partner immediately vents to their friend rather than work on conflict resolution.
  • Ongoing tension or reduced intimacy at home motivates looking for that fulfillment elsewhere.
  • One partner stonewalls discussions about problems, prompting the other to confide in an outside confidante.

The Allure of Secret Romance

The taboo thrill and excitement of a covert emotional affair can be a powerful draw, especially if someone feels bored or stuck in their relationship.

  • Craving the ego boost and rush of being admired, pursued, and flattered by someone new.
  • Fantasizing about “what could be” with this magnetic person who seems so perfect.
  • Turned on by the clandestine nature and possibility of getting caught.

Fear of True Intimacy

For some, opening up to a friend may feel safer than making themselves emotionally vulnerable with their partner.

  • Scared of rejection, judgement, or their partner’s reaction to sharing certain feelings or parts of themselves.
  • Avoiding difficult but needed conversations in their relationship by distracting themselves with external validation.

The motivations are complex, but emotional cheating often avoids doing the work to address problems and improve the relationship with your romantic partner.

Real-Life Examples of Emotional Cheating

Identifying emotional cheating in the abstract can be hard, so let’s walk through some real-life examples to make it more concrete.

The Work Spouse

John and Anne have been married for 7 years. Recently, Anne got a new job and quickly hit it off with a male co-worker named Matt. They have a ton in common: they make each other laugh and chat for hours.

Matt understands Anne’s work frustrations and dreams like John doesn’t. Anne texts and confides in Matt daily, especially after arguments with John. When she vents, Matt takes her side and criticizes John’s behaviour.

Anne insists it’s all innocent but prefers interacting with Matt over her actual husband. She deletes their texts and avoids mentioning him to John. Her close work friendship has become an emotional affair.

Emotional Exes

Steve and Melissa have been dating for a year. Out of the blue, Steve gets a Facebook friend request from Emma, an ex-girlfriend he dated years ago before meeting Melissa.

They start messaging back and forth, reminiscing. Steve reveals details about problems in his current relationship after Emma asks how he’s doing. Their conversations increasingly cross the line from small talk to overt flirtation and sexual innuendo.

Steve knows talking this way with Emma is inappropriate, especially since he hasn’t mentioned her to Melissa. But he can’t seem to stop, addicted to the ego boost of Emma’s attention after feeling taken for granted by Melissa.

Online Attachment

Amy and Michael have been together for 5 years. Since the pandemic began, Michael started playing online games as a hobby. He became fast friends with a woman he met named Brooke.

Michael and Brooke voice chat for hours while gaming, text memes back and forth, and have in-depth conversations about life. He’s told Brooke things about his relationship, including private struggles, that he hasn’t shared with Amy.

Michael becomes visibly irritated if Amy interrupts his gaming and chatting with Brooke. He accuses Amy of being paranoid when she tries to talk about Brooke, despite her instincts sensing something feels “off” about their friendship.

Tips for Rebuilding Trust After Emotional Cheating

Repairing broken trust and hurt after emotional infidelity will take time and work, but it is possible. Here are some tips if you want to rebuild your relationship:

Take Full Responsibility

  • The partner who emotionally cheated must own their actions entirely rather than make excuses or spread blame. No matter how justified it felt, emphasize that you know it was wrong and take accountability to regain your partner’s trust.
  • Validate your partner’s feelings of hurt and betrayal. Don’t minimize or defend the significance of your emotional betrayal.
  • Be prepared for bouts of anger, hurt, and grief from your partner and create a safe space for them to process emotions freely without judgment.

Cut Contact Completely

  • The third-party connection must be entirely severed in all forms for trust to be restored. Give your partner transparency and access to devices/accounts to confirm no contact.
  • This means blocking them everywhere, avoiding them in person, and refraining from looking up their profiles or updates if an irresistible urge strikes.
  • If the emotional affair was with a co-worker, additional boundaries may need to be implemented to keep necessary contact work-related only.

Rebuild Emotional Intimacy

  • Make your partner your confidante again instead of keeping them shut out. Be proactive in sharing thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams. Ask about theirs as well.
  • Do thoughtful things that show love and care. Plan regular quality date nights away from distractions to reconnect one-on-one.
  • Don’t just talk – actively listen and empathize. Validation goes a long way when trust has been broken.

Improve Communication

  • Discuss underlying issues that may have pushed you apart in the first place and allowed the emotional affair to develop. Seek solutions.
  • Practice open, patient and non-judgmental communication. Use “I” statements to avoid blame. Validate each other’s perspectives.
  • Don’t avoid challenging topics out of shame or guilt. Honesty and transparency about everything are critical, even if uncomfortable.

Consider Counselling

  • A therapist can provide structured guidance on understanding each other’s emotions and needs around the betrayal, processing it healthily, letting go of anger, and constructively rebuilding your relationship and emotional connection.
  • Individual counselling can also help give you clarity. Couples therapy allows you to come back together.

Trust can blossom again with reflection, remorse, patience, and rededication to the relationship.

Preventing Emotional Cheating and Recovering From It

While emotional cheating is painful, there are proactive steps you can take to avoid it as well as heal after infidelity occurs.

Prevention Tips

Stopping emotional cheating before it starts is ideal. Here’s how to fortify your close friendship:

Cultivate intimate communication

  • Check-in often about each other’s needs and relationship happiness. Don’t let resentment or misunderstandings build.
  • Discuss boundaries openly around opposite-sex friendships and work spouses so you’re on the same page.
  • Share feelings and be vulnerable, even when difficult. Feeling deeply known prevents seeking that elsewhere.

Make your partner a priority

  • Don’t let external obligations keep you from quality time together. Schedule regular date nights and weekend getaways.
  • Give your partner attention and affection daily, even when life gets busy. Flirt, hug, and express your love verbally.
  • See your partner as your go-to when you need support instead of immediately venting to a friend or ex.

Establish relationship values

  • Agree on shared principles like honesty, loyalty, and fidelity that will guide your commitment to each other.
  • When faced with temptation or blurred lines, reflect on these pillars to stay grounded in your dedication to the partnership.

Get counseling preventatively

  • Seek professional guidance to nip problems in the bud before an affair starts. Counselling neutralizes tension, deepens intimacy, and makes you affair-proof.

Take ownership if you slip up

  • If you develop inappropriate chemistry or share too much with someone else, immediately pump the brakes and refocus on your relationship.
  • Come clean to your partner about what happened before it goes too far so they understand it didn’t escalate due to lack of care for them.

Recovery Strategies If It Occurs

If emotional cheating occurs, here are some tips for picking up the pieces:

Process feelings individually first

  • Take time for self-reflection to understand what led to your choices and absorb lessons learned before discussing with your partner.
  • Journal about your thoughts, emotions, motivations and any revelations gained through introspection.

Allow space before reconnecting

  • Don’t pressure your partner to open up or move past things before they’re ready. Emotional flooding may require taking a breather.
  • Use patience and give them space if needed. Let them initiate relationship discussions when prepared so conversations are constructive rather than reactive.

Get professional help

  • An objective couple’s counsellor can mediate tense conversations, impart tools for rebuilding intimacy, and help you process betrayal constructively.
  • Individual counselling can also help you take accountability and identify personal issues.

Rebuild your foundation

  • Earn back trust slowly through truthful behaviour and communicating openly about everything.
  • Woo your partner again. Court them, plan thoughtful gestures and make your dedication clear through actions.
  • Don’t let shame make you avoid intimacy. Physical and emotional closeness facilitates healing.

Remember, it takes time

  • Don’t get frustrated by periodic relationship setbacks or if old wounds resurface even after making amends.
  • Expect that the path forward will have ups and downs. Stay the course, focusing on your love and commitment.

With understanding and daily effort, most couples can bounce back stronger than ever.

Therapy Modalities That Can Help

If emotional cheating has strained your relationship, speaking with a therapist trained in evidence-based modalities can guide you through productive conversations to understand each other’s perspectives, rebuild trust, and reconnect intimately.

Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) helps identify negative patterns and buried emotions fueling destructive interactions. EFT facilitates more vulnerability and responsiveness between partners.

Gottman Method draws on 40+ years of research into relationships to impart skills for deepening friendship and intimacy through trust, empathy, and meaningful communication.

Discernment Counselling offers structured sessions to determine if an affair indicates the relationship is irreconcilable or if hope remains to heal the attachment after betrayal.

Imago Relationship Therapy emphasizes listening, empathy, and mirroring your partner to foster mutual understanding. This allows resentments to dissolve and affection to resurface.

At Well Beings Counselling, we have licensed therapists across Canada who integrate these approaches into their work with couples. Reach out today to start the healing process together. We have in-person therapy locations and online couples counselling options.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

It depends. Friendly rapport is expected between coworkers. However, consistently prioritizing intimate communication with them over your partner, hiding that closeness, or sensing romantic chemistry can constitute emotional cheating.

Friendships enrich our lives, but emotional affairs drain energy from your primary relationship. Assessing if you hide things from your partner, undermine intimacy with them, or sabotage your commitment can reveal whether a friendship has crossed into emotional cheating territory.

Yes, especially today, when digital communication makes it easy to form intimate bonds unconsciously over time. Tune into your instincts, body cues, and your partner's feedback to recognize if you've crossed a line without noticing.

Imagining romantic scenarios with another person occasionally is normal. But fixating on desires for an acquaintance while withdrawing from your partner can damage intimacy, constituting a form of emotional infidelity even without physical interaction.

Absolutely, with a mutual desire to understand what led to the betrayal, rebuild trust slowly but surely through openness and accountability, improve communication about needs, and rekindle intimacy. Professional counselling often facilitates the healing process.

Micro-cheating refers to behaviours approaching the line between appropriate and inappropriate without crossing into full-blown cheating. Examples could include heavy flirting, maintaining dating app profiles in a committed relationship, sharing intimate details about your relationship with someone you're attracted to, or nurturing crushes.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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