What is emotional cheating?

What is emotional cheating?

How do you define ‘cheating’? For most people, it involves sex or simply physical intimacy. That’s why emotional attachments don’t often come to mind when it comes to infidelity.

But in a committed romantic relationship, cheating isn’t just about sexual encounters or flirtation with someone who isn’t the partner. Sometimes, emotional connection can be more intimate that physical connection.

So, what’s cheating really about? Essentially, it’s about breaching trust. And there’s one kind of cheating that often goes unnoticed — emotional cheating.

Defining emotional cheating

Emotional cheating is establishing a secretive closeness or nonsexual intimacy with someone who isn’t your primary partner.

It may seem like it doesn’t pose any threat because nothing physical is happening. But emotional affairs can still weaken your commitment, and the foundations of your relationship with your partner.

Someone who has an emotional affair could eventually experience increasing sexual tension on top of the emotional intimacy. And that could lead to emotional and sexual infidelity.

Emotional affair vs Platonic friendship

Cultivating good relationships with friends of any gender isn’t wrong. Maintaining friendships beyond romantic relationships is actually considered as a sign of a healthy relationship.

Friends are support systems that people turn to when they need insights on a certain situation, or just a shoulder to cry on.

So, how do you distinguish a platonic friendship from an emotional affair? The difference is that friends are there just for support, not for the spotlight.

Emotional cheating vs Micro-cheating

Micro-cheating involves small actions and behavior that comes too close to the boundaries of a romantic relationship, but doesn’t actually cross them.

These are things that may seem innocent when you look at them individually. But they undeniably violate trust in a romantic relationship. And if you examine these little things collectively, they’re definitely leading to cheating in the future.

Perhaps you’re maintaining a connection with an ex, or you’re exchanging flirty jokes with a co-worker — these behaviors could already be signs of emotional cheating.

Warning signs

Emotional affairs often develop gradually and unintentionally over time. It may not be evident instantly, but here are warning signs that a friendship has become an emotional affair.

Signs you’re having an emotional affair

  • Spending less time with your partner
  • Losing interest and intimacy with your partner
  • Looking forward to alone time or communication with a certain person
  • Feeling like a certain friend understands you more than your partner does
  • Giving special gifts or doing random favors for a certain friend
  • Daydreaming or being preoccupied with thoughts of a certain friend
  • Sharing thoughts, feelings, and problems with a certain friend instead of your partner
  • Keeping your friendship and communication a secret

Signs your partner is having an emotional affair

  • Your partner is withdrawing from you
  • Your partner is becoming secretive. They hide their phone or computer screens from you
  • Your partner always mentions a certain friend, and values their certain friend’s opinions more than yours
  • Your partner seems to always make time to be with their certain friend
  • Your partner gets defensive when you try to discuss what’s the deal with their friendship with this certain person

How to deal with it

To keep the problem from spiraling out of control, you have to act on it as soon as possible. Here’s what you can do when you’ve spotted an emotional affair.

If you do it

The first and most important step is cutting off the source.

Stop messaging that certain person you’re having an emotional affair with. Avoid having one-on-one time with them. If it’s a co-worker, your interactions and communication should strictly be work-related only.

But to keep them from overthinking what suddenly happened, have a brief discussion to let them know the issue, and that you’re going to back off from them.

Once you’ve got that out of the way, identify the underlying concerns that lead to the behavior. Then, talk to your partner about it.

Yes, talking about relationship problems is uncomfortable and challenging. You’re probably scared that your partner will react negatively or ignore your concerns.

But avoiding the problem will not solve it — and it would probably be bigger as time passes. Facing the problem head on is the best way to rebuild and strengthen your relationship.

Start the conversation with something like “I feel distant from you, and it makes me lonely. It makes me turn to others.” Avoid framing your words as if you’re blaming or judging your partner.

If your partner does it

There are a lot of possible reasons why relationships become distant. So, the signs listed above don’t instantly mean there’s emotional cheating going on.

It’s best to talk to your partner when your gut feeling tells you there’s something off in your relationship. When you start the conversation, it would help to mention specific actions or instances where you felt like something was wrong.

Say something like, “I feel ignored when you’re glued to your phone while we’re together. What do you think about having phone-free times so we can focus on each other?”

While it’s tempting to check on their phone to find out if something is up, better focus on their response to what you have to say. 

Setting boundaries

Sometimes the boundaries in emotional cheating can get blurry because most behaviors involved are common in close friendships.

Setting healthy boundaries would need openly discussing what behaviors you consider as betrayal of trust.

Are you uncomfortable with your partner keeping secrets, making flirty comments, or constantly texting someone? List all of them down, and talk through that list.

Both of you should have a chance to share your own thoughts and insights. If you disagree on whether a specific behavior is problematic, have an open and honest discussion until you find a solution.

Moving forward

Whether it’s intentional or not, emotional cheating can cause pain and turbulence to a relationship. The best way to avoid it is to prevent it from starting.

How, you ask?

The simplest solution is communication. Having frequent, honest conversations with your partner helps in strengthening trust and addressing problems as soon as they pop up.

But let’s face the fact that some relationships really don’t work out, and breaking up might be the best solution. If you really want to make things work but you’re having trouble how to do it, a professional relationship therapist could help you get back on track. 


Raypole, C. (April 5, 2021). How to Recognize Emotional Cheating — and What to Do Next. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/relationships/emotional-cheating 

Munoz, A. (September 19, 2022). What Is Emotional Cheating? How To Recognize This Painful Type Of Infidelity. MBGRelationships. https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/emotional-cheating-meaning-and-signs 

Snyder, C. (October 19, 2022). What Is an Emotional Affair?. VeryWellMind. https://www.verywellmind.com/emotional-affairs-and-infidelity-2303091 

Emotional infidelity: the devastating, destructive love affairs that involve no sex at all. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/nov/01/emotional-infidelity-the-devastating-destructive-love-affairs-that-involve-no-sex-at-all 
Chia, V. (November 3, 2021). What is emotional cheating? Experts on how the pandemic increased risk of infidelity. CNA Lifestyle. https://cnalifestyle.channelnewsasia.com/women/women-emotional-affairs-cheating-marriage-pandemic-286391

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