Emotional Affairs – Is It Cheating?

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by Glynis Sherwood


What is an affair?  The Webster’s Dictionary definition of ‘affair’ is any amorous relationship or episode between two people who are not married or committed to each other.  ‘Infidelity’ is the betrayal of trust where there’s reason to expect loyalty, as in a committed primary relationship.  If an affair is the act, infidelity is the betrayal symbolized by the act that causes deep hurt.  For many couples, infidelity – aka betrayal – may linger after the affair is over, through a lack of honesty and emotional disengagement from the primary relationship.Often an affair doesn’t have much to do with the lover, but is more about personal unmet needs or marital distress.  People usually go into affairs not to deliberately hurt their partner, but because they like the way they feel when they are with their lover.  In this way, affairs are a symptom of something that is missing or lost in their primary relationship.  If the affair continues however, the symptom becomes the problem.


In popular culture affairs are mostly thought of as sexual infidelity.  But what about emotional affairs?  At heart, are they any different from sexual cheating?


An emotional affair is any strong psychological attachment between two people, where one or both of them are also involved in a committed primary relationship.  The problem with emotional affairs is that – just like sexual infidelity – the ‘energy’ that is supposed to be invested in the primary relationship gets siphoned off into the affair, leaving little or nothing left for the primary relationship to sustain itself or grow.  Over time, as the emotional affair continues, the breakdown in intimacy, communication and trust increases between partners, leading to the potential disintegration of the primary relationship.


Emotional affairs are affairs of the heart and, because of that fact, can be just as threatening to a committed relationship as sexual infidelity.  Furthermore, these affairs may start off as emotional, but over time usually become sexualized.  In fact, emotional affairs may actually be more dangerous to a primary relationship in the long run, due to the large emotional investment, which is the glue that holds intimate relationships together. This is not always the case with sexual affairs.


What Causes Emotional Affairs?

Affairs of any sort occur for many different reasons.  Chief among them being:


  • Lack of closeness, intimacy or trust in the primary relationship
  • Boredom or loneliness
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Poor impulse control
  • Experimentation/exploration, or pursuit of novelty – can become sexual
  • Desire to live out certain romantic/sexual fantasies
  • Inability to ask for what is desired emotionally/sexually from their partner
  • To get revenge
  • Personal immaturity or lack of maturity about commitment
  • Difficulty being honest
 8 Signs of Emotional Affairs


1. Excitement and Anticipation – You start to feel your heart flutter when you are in the presence of another who is not your partner.  You may pass it off as just a crush, or meaningless, but it doesn’t go away.  In fact, you feel excitement at the prospect of seeing her/him again, and may notice that the emotional pull has increased over time.


2. Flirting – You send social and/ or sexual signals suggesting interest in a more intimate relationship with the other person.  This may have started off for amusement, but has evolved into something more serious where you can imagine being intimate with that person.


3. Denial and Minimizing – You tell your self “We’re just friends”.  In the beginning you promised your self that nothing would happen between the two of you.  But something is happening.  You are diverting the emotional commitment you made to your partner to an outsider, thereby breaking the ‘rules’ of your primary relationship.


4. Fantasizing – You find yourself daydreaming about the outside person in ways you wouldn’t about other friends.  At this point you may be thinking about having sex together, and possibly mentioning this to him or her.  You start operating from the illusion that s/he understands you more than your mate, drawing you further away from your partner.


5. #1 Confidante – You want to tell them everything that’s important, emotional, or troubling to you instead of your mate.  You increasingly share your hopes and dreams with each other, rather than your mate.  In essence, they have traded places with the role your mate should occupy as your primary emotional confidante. This can be especially dangerous if you are confiding to them about problems in your primary relationship.


6. Secrets – You start keeping secrets that bond you together, and distance you from your mate.  You stop telling your partner about this person, and begin concealing the relationship.  You rationalize your decision to keep secrets to protect the affair, even if you don’t admit this to yourself.


7. Gifts – You give and receive gifts that you would not give to ‘regular’ friends, e.g. jewelry, lingerie, poetry, etc., that symbolize the romantic nature of your bond.


8. Time Alone Together – You spend more and more time alone together – even though you promised yourself this would never happen – increasing the likelihood of sexual involvement, and a full blown affair.


What To Do
If you are involved in an emotional affair, something is missing in your primary relationship – and possibly your personal life – that needs addressing.  In a relationship this usually boils down to a need for – and problems with – healthier communication, intimacy or trust.  On an individual level, unmet emotional needs or insecurity can contribute to disconnection from a partner, and seeking fulfillment in another.  Either way, emotional affairs are a way to avoid the problems in the primary relationship, rather than dealing with them and, in this way, just perpetuate ‘emotional estrangement’ between you and your partner.  Lack of honesty and emotional fidelity creates a climate of betrayal that can lead to the end of your marriage or primary relationship.


If you, or your partner, are having an emotional affair, it is not too late for your relationship.  As noted earlier, affairs are symptoms of a problem.  If you want your primary relationship to last, it’s important to step away from the affair and start dealing with those problems directly.  Counselling – with a therapist who specializes in individual as well as relationships – can be instrumental in helping to heal individual wounds, and assist couples in rebuilding trust and closeness, and creating healthier bonds in the long run.


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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in Relationship Counselling, Low Self Esteem, Anxiety, Family Scapegoating, Grief and Addictive Behaviors.