Emotional Cheating Vs. Friendship: 11 Key Differences And How To Know You’ve Crossed The Line

Emotional cheating has become the relationship buzzword in recent years. 

There are numerous questions about emotional infidelity and many explanations. 

However, even after years of research, the definition of emotional infidelity is unclear.

One study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly defined emotional infidelity as “the development of a relational friendship that goes against the stated…. agreements of a primary relationship.”

And while each relationship has different limits of acceptable behavior, everyone agrees that certain types of emotional intimacy between friends cross boundaries for people already in a committed relationship. 

Understanding Emotional Infidelity 

Emotional infidelity is a modern concept. The term can be misused to justify the unaddressed problems of a partnership.

And sometimes, healthy friendships are tarnished or mislabeled as emotional cheating rather than partners accepting responsibility for the deterioration of relations. 

However, infidelity occurs even in the best of relationships. A recent study showed almost 10% of men cheat. What was surprising was the why. One recent study by Chapman University in Orange, California, revealed that people cheat 90% of the time because of a lack of emotional connection.

  • Most emotional affairs start as friendships, making it difficult to discern when a line has been crossed. These relationships often cross the boundaries of a healthy, platonic relationship, breaching the trust within the primary relationship. 
  • A seemingly innocent, friendly connection can suddenly transform into an affair with a romantic flair, exciting secrecy, and emotional tension. Emotional infidelity can also include emotional dependency due to unmet needs in the original relationship or a desire to fill a gap during a temporary situation.
  • One key distinction between an emotional affair vs. friendship is the level and form of intimacy and its impact on a relationship. In addition to physical or sexual intimacy, familiarity can include intellectual and emotional closeness, making identification difficult. 

Commonly, people build intense emotional intimacy with a guy friend or a girlfriend through communication.

There is also a willingness to share intimate details about their:

  • partner
  • home life
  • children and family
  • personal goals
  • professional decisions

And often, these decisions or facts are intentionally kept from their partner.

Admittedly, these actions resemble how men and women act with their best friends and life-long confidants.

But when applied to emotional cheating, there are subtle differences.

Emotional Cheating vs. Friendship: 11 Key Differences 

There are some tangible differences when categorizing a relationship as friendship versus emotional infidelity. Many psychotherapists feel, at the very least, that the line is crossed when a friend begins to replace your partner in everyday life. 

Here are some key differences to identify emotional infidelity.

1. Downplaying Significance

One of the key differences between a close platonic (non-sexual) friendship and an emotional affair is that those involved in a dynamic relationship make a concerted effort to downplay or keep their invested time and intimacy secret. 

Constant declarations of “we are just friends” or “he is just a work friend” may be valid but may indicate a more complicated relationship. 

One of the most common references that demonstrates the fluid nature of social interaction is the reference to “work wife” or “work husband.”

2. Breaching Trust

Consciously developing an emotional or intellectual relationship outside the primary partnership can be considered a breach of trust. 

Boundaries are different for everyone and can change throughout a relationship. Committed partners must decide what it means to cross a line.

Personal feelings are often a practical litmus test to determine when a line is crossed. If either partner feels like an extra-relationship bond is a negative factor, chances are it is. 

3. Uncontrollable Excitement

There is an undeniable freshness in new things and meeting new people. Conversations on the phone or even seeing a person's name in an email provide exhilaration, a tangible excitement. 

Curiously, when talking about an emotional affair, this type of connection is reported by many, regardless of physical presence.

4. Sharing Personal Information

Personal information is usually reserved for our closest relationships. 

One of the primary signs of emotional cheating is sharing intimate details that have not been shared with a partner or that would otherwise be considered inappropriate outside of the immediate family. 

Choosing a new friend as a preferred confidant rather than a spouse could cross a line and spell trouble for a long-term relationship.

5. Lacking Sexual Intimacy

Not all relationships are rooted in sex. Attraction, yes. But not necessarily sex. 

Emotional infidelity may not necessarily change the frequency of intimate relations within a primary relationship, but there may be a tangible dissociation or reduction in the level of affection. 

Conversely, an emotional affair often does not have a physical component.

6. Making Comparisons

Healthy relationships are built on trust. Emotional affairs erode that trust by changing a partner's perspective. 

Often, comparisons are made between the primary partner and the infiltrator. These comparisons range from questioning the level of support, emotional strength, listening skills, or physical attributes.

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7. Becoming Defensive 

It is human nature to become defensive or deny knowledge when caught in something. 

Individuals engaged in emotional infidelity may exhibit defensive or hyper-sensitive behavior when asked about a relationship with another person. They may become instantly angry. 

However, people don’t often become defensive about an innocent friendship.

8. Losing Interest

Inappropriate interactions with a new friend often reduce intimacy and the overall time spent with a primary partner. 

It is not uncommon that minimizing time spent with a spouse further fuels a growing dissociation, resulting in that partner feeling ignored, jealous, and unloved. 

Ultimately the needs of a primary partner become unmet, creating a destructive spiral for the relationship.

9. Embracing Vagueness

Honesty is always the best policy. At least, that’s what we teach our children. The grey area between a direct answer and a lie grows as adults. And in relationships, definitions blur. 

Feelings seem complicated. For those involved in an emotional affair, it is easy to be deliberately vague about the nature of a new relationship or the amount of time spent with another person. 

When someone cheats emotionally, they often embrace vagueness to avoid confrontation.

10. Hiding Communication

Recent research has reported the adverse effects of social media usage on romantic relationships. And that relational infidelity, such as falling in love, flirting, and revealing personal details, was facilitated by technology and social media. 

It is also easy to hide social media communication. Hiding emails or erasing contact with a relational friend because you don't want a partner, family, or coworkers to see is an indicator of emotional infidelity. 

Wanting to keep communications secret enhances the thrill of the relationship while concealing it from social censure. This secrecy can be as simple as deleting texts on the phone. It can also involve password-protecting your phone or computer.

11. Using Endearing Terms

Relationships thrive or fall on communication. One of the signs of a loving relationship is choosing endearing terms or nicknames for those closest to us. 

Certain words such as ‘honey' or ‘sweetie' are socially understood and reserved for those in our immediate circles. 

As a primary relationship sputters, it is not uncommon for these terms of endearment to but used in a developing emotional connection.

How to Know When You're Crossing the Line Between Friendship and Love

Many feel emotional infidelity involves actions that break the traditional boundaries of a relationship, including texting, flirting, interactions on social media, or drinking after work.

Others draw the line at physical involvement or declarations of love. 

Emotional infidelity is of concern to many people. In the Chapman University study, researchers found that 65% of women and 46% of men found emotional affairs more upsetting than sexual infidelity.

To determine the boundaries and viability of a primary relationship, consider how you feel about these limiting factors.

  • Romantic Needs. You don't necessarily need to be sexting to achieve excitement or arousal. Even in a platonic, non-sexual relationship, there can be idealized romantic thoughts and feelings.
  • Lies and Deceit. Meeting new people is exciting. But if the relationship is something your spouse or partner cannot share, then something is probably not quite right. One of the best ways to assess when you are close to crossing the line is intuition. If you have to ask, then there may be an issue.
  • Emotional Support. Look closely at who provides emotional and personal support. Emotional cheating could be a factor if you feel more comfortable talking to a coworker about your primary relationship or other intimate details of your life. 
  • Emotional Investment. If you would rather spend time with a new friend or actively avoid making time for a long-time partner, that is a sign of emotional infidelity.

Friendships are always based on attraction – aesthetic, intellectual, or emotional. We meet people we admire for their accomplishments, goodness, and beauty. 

We are social creatures, and new people add zest and richness to life. But when an attraction turns into an obsession or an affair, it can harm everyone. 

An inappropriate emotional connection can be as destructive to a committed relationship as a physical encounter.