Emotional Affairs

For some reason, the culture in the United States is one where we believe that touching someone outside our relationship is more dangerous than sharing our deepest secrets and feelings with someone outside our relationship.

But an emotional affair can be even more damaging to a relationship than a physical one. There’s only so much emotional bandwidth each of us has every day and if your partner is expending that precious energy outside your relationship, that’s going to negatively affect what’s happening inside your relationship.

If you’re not sure if you’re having an emotional affair or if you think your partner definitely is having an emotional affair, you’re in the right place! Today I’m going to cover:

  • The difference between an emotional affair and an innocent friendship
  • The 4 things you should absolutely avoid doing if you suspect your partner is having an emotional affair, and
  • The 3 things you want to focus on to create the connection, trust and closeness you want to see in your relationship.

What’s the Difference Between an Emotional Affair and Friendship?

The majority of emotional affairs start as innocent friendships. But there are 3 main things that move a friendship to an emotional affair:

  1. In an emotional affair, your partner is feeling closer emotionally to their friend than to you; they’re sharing more of their inner life with this person than with you. This is who they start going to first when they’re experiencing something upsetting or it’s the first person they want to share their good news with. This person becomes their primary confidant and they feel that this is the only person who truly gets them. So, this friendship becomes an emotional affair when the investment and intimacy shift from the partner to the “friend.”
  2. The other big difference is that much of what’s said, and the amount of communication is kept secret from the partner in an emotional affair. Often this starts with lies by omission (not telling you about how often they talk, meet or text). They might be deleting messages from their phone or denying that they’ve had communication with this person – these are not things that happen with friendships. When I have a client who isn’t sure if they’re having an emotional affair, I always ask, “Would you be embarrassed or ashamed if your partner could hear an entire conversation between the two of you?”
  3. But here’s the real difference: there’s often comparisons between the friend and your partner. You might even find yourself getting angry that your partner isn’t more like this friend. You get critical of your partner and see them as bad while this friend is good. In a regular friendship, you don’t do that – you don’t compare your partner to your friend because you’re not expecting the same things from them. The fact that you’re comparing, in any way, is proof of the affair.

What’s Really Going on in an Emotional Affair?

Emotional affairs are fantasies at some level. At its core, it’s a wish to be seen and appreciated. At its most superficial level it’s having something new (the brain loves novelty) and exciting – something to look forward to. There’s this feeling that you’ve finally found someone who really “gets” you and that they understand you better than anyone else, including your partner.

What constitutes cheating?

There’s no “one” action that defines cheating. You draw the line wherever you and your partner both agree to draw the line. Cheating can only be defined within each individual relationship.

What Not To Do if Your Partner is Having an Emotional Affair:

  1. Avoid threats, complaining, yelling, or losing your shit

Threatening will make the affair go underground, which is the last thing you want.

  1. Don’t speak to 20 different people about the infidelity.

Pick one or two trusted folks (hopefully one is a therapist).

  1. Don’t cause more damage

Your relationship is already hurting if this is going on, creating more hurt is NOT going to help you move forward.

  1. Stay out of the nitty gritty

It’s focusing on the details that will cause you to put your energy into the wrong things.

What You Can Do if Your Partner is Having an Emotional Affair:

  1. Take Responsibility for Your Side of the Street

You cocreated this relationship. Where’s your part in what’s happening? I’m NOT “blaming the victim” here – I’m not saying this is your fault AT ALL. What I’m saying is that you and your partner each have a role in how your relationship functions.

  1. You’ve Got to Connect to Correct

Be less curious about checking their email and more curious about how you’re connecting with your partner. If your partner is having an emotional affair, then the connection between the two of you has deteriorated. Work on that connection first and foremost.

  1. Do You Want to Be Correct or Effective?

You want to be effective in your communication and conversations around this affair. You’re absolutely right that your partner’s actions are not OK but remember that your real goal is to create a more loving, connected relationship so you’ve got to focus on effective communication.

Resources and Links:

How to Listen Without Getting Defensive or Hurt

How to Set Intentions in Just 18 Seconds (The 18-Second Shift)

Emotional Affairs: What to Do If Your Partner is Texting a Coworker


Enter your name and email below to get my free list of collaborative questions to help if you’re feeling stuck on what questions to ask and to help jumpstart your communication with your partner (or anyone!).



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