The emotional affair starts off innocently enough.
You chat up a co-worker or a neighbor or an old classmate on Facebook.
A little part of you knows your spouse or committed partner would feel uncomfortable, but you also know there's nothing to it.
Until there is. The stages of emotional affairs are too dangerous to ignore.
You start to feel drawn to this person. There's an undeniable attraction. And you begin sharing things with this person that you shouldn't be sharing.
It seems he or she “gets” you and understands you in a way your spouse or partner doesn't.
You're not meeting up for sex. You may not be meeting at all but rather communicating secretly online, on the phone, or by text.
But now you're pretty sure your spouse would be deeply hurt if he or she found out — even though it's not really a full-blown affair.
You've crossed the line from friendly conversation into the slippery slope of an emotional affair.
How Emotional Affairs Start
Emotional affairs can be as destructive to your relationship as physical affairs, but they are murkier because they are less overt.
Also, emotional affairs can be hard to identify as it's difficult to pinpoint the moment in time when the platonic friendship turns into something that could be defined as “cheating.”
Emotional cheating often starts in situations or places where you are able to connect with another person on a deeper, more personal level. More often than not, these connections begin at work. In fact, research shows emotional affairs at work comprise nearly three-quarters of all infidelities.
How can you recognize an inappropriate level of friendship budding, at work, or elsewhere, before it gets to an improper point?
Or, if you are already connecting with someone, how do you know if it's an inappropriate emotional relationship that would hurt your partner and perhaps destroy your relationship?
Even if you don't feel sexual chemistry with the other person, you might still feel a sense of intimacy with him or her that is deep enough to make your partner feel like it's a form of infidelity.
What Is An Emotional Affair?
When you first get involved in any romantic relationship, you usually have some form of emotional closeness before becoming sexually involved.
You share common interests with the other person and tell each other personal feelings and details.
Once the relationship becomes a committed one, you share that special emotional intimacy only with your partner.
He or she is the first and often the only person you turn to with your fears, your longings, and your hopes and dreams.
You might share some of this with a close and long-time friend but not usually with a friend of the opposite sex (or someone who could be a romantic partner).
When one partner turns to someone else outside of the relationship for this emotional connection, it can easily become a form of infidelity.
These are often are secret friendships (or at least downplayed) where there is a clear mutual attraction.
This inappropriate friendship also occurs when one or both of the participants want to boost their egos or distract themselves from problems they're having at home.
Whatever the reason, if you think you are having an emotional relationship that is inappropriate or would hurt your partner, chances are that you're right. Let's look at the different levels of emotional affairs to see if you recognize yourself in any of these stages.
- How Emotional Affairs Start
- What Is An Emotional Affair?
- Stages of Emotional Affairs
- Why do people have emotional affairs?
Stages of Emotional Affairs
These emotional connections don't form overnight. They usually take some time to develop and cross the line into infidelity.
Here are the typical stages that a relationship like this goes through.
1. Innocent Friendship Stage
It starts as a pretty normal friendship. It could be someone you work with or a friend of a friend, but you certainly don't meet this person and walk away thinking you're about to get wrapped up in anything.
As a friend, you talk about mutual interests and maybe grab a coffee together.
But this may turn into a few extra texts and before you know it, you're spending your time constantly thinking about this new friend.
2. Infatuation Stage
You enjoy talking to this person about everything. His or her ability to understand your thoughts and feelings makes you feel happy and important.
Perhaps he or she pays more attention to you than your spouse does or gives you more validation, compliments, or empathy.
You begin to enjoy the subtle flirtation, the attention you're getting from this person, and you start feeling an attraction.
You tell yourself it is just a good friendship, but it is probably just to reduce your feelings of guilt.
3. Need for Secrecy Stage
Deception begins when you meet up with this person alone without your partner's knowledge.
Your conversations with this person become secret, and you are constantly worried that your partner will find out about this relationship.
You talk around any mention of this person from your partner or anyone else in your social circle. You know your partner would be hurt and angry about the relationship,
4. Emotionally Dependent Stage
You are now emotionally involved and bonded with this person.
Between talking about your ups and downs at work, to tensions at home, and more personal problems, to the obvious underlying sexual tension between you, you've started to depend on this person to fill your emotional void.
At this point, you are having a full-on emotionally-charged affair, which quite often leads to a physical affair. The longer the emotional affair goes on before sex is involved, the stronger the bond is you develop with this new person — and the weaker the bond with your spouse.
Why do people have emotional affairs?
Since most people recognize these emotional connections are inappropriate, what compels them to step over the edge into such harmful and hurtful territory?
It's not an uncommon situation, as about 35 percent of wives and 45 percent of husbands report having emotional affairs, according to the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. Here are a few reasons emotional infidelity occurs:
- There is little emotional intimacy in the marriage, and the new person fills the void for an emotionally-starved partner.
- The emotional cheater may be frequently physically isolated and alone and needs human connection.
- The attraction with a new person feels so good it becomes like an addiction. It becomes increasingly hard to give up the longer it goes on.
- The cheating partner doesn't have firm boundaries with co-workers (or other possible romantic interests) that provide a deterrent to inappropriate words or behaviors.
- The marriage is already rocky, and the emotional affair is a passive way of rushing it to a demise. The cheating spouse may even want to get caught.
- The spouse having the emotional affair doesn't believe it's really “cheating” since sex isn't involved (yet). So they easily justify their attachment and inappropriate connection as no big deal.
21 Emotional Cheating Examples
1. You talk about things you wouldn't talk to your spouse about.
If this is the case, you have to consider why it's occurring. Have you lost touch with your partner, and you no longer talk to them about much at all?
Or are there things that you are uncomfortable talking to your partner about? How is talking to this friend different from talking to your partner?
2. You hide the connection in an emotional affair.
If your partner doesn't know that this other person exists or doesn't know the extent of the relationship and you are actively hiding it, it's clear that the relationship is inappropriate.
You and your partner shouldn't have secrets from one another. If the secret involves long, intimate conversations with someone you find attractive, you are squarely involved in an emotional affair.
3. You change your schedule to see this person.
You know you'll run into a certain person at work around 2:00, so you schedule all of your meetings so you are free at that time.
Or this person mentions he or she will be shopping at the mall on Tuesday morning, and you make a point to pick up a few items at the mall at the same time.
Finding ways to maneuver a “chance encounter” is definitely a red flag that you are becoming too invested in this person.
4. You talk trash about your partner in an emotional affair.
If you speak negatively about your partner to someone else, and they offer a listening ear, it is crossing the line of respect in your relationship.
You may be trying to send the signal that you'd like to be out of your marriage or relationship, and you want to see how the other person reacts.
Or the other person might be fishing to see if you have any fissures in your committed relationship that suggest you are unhappy.
5. You tell yourself that you're “just friends.”
If you have to tell yourself this, you are already in trouble. You are trying to rationalize the relationship that you have with this other person.
These dangerous words in your head are your way of convincing yourself that you're not doing anything wrong when you already know you are.
6. You think about the other person a lot.
Do you find yourself constantly thinking about this other person — the way you might have when you first met your spouse?
Have you ventured into inappropriate fantasies or “what if” scenarios about a future with this person?
If your spouse or partner could see your thoughts, and you know he or she would be devastated, then it's clear you are betraying your partner's trust.
7. You text “good morning” and/or “goodnight.”
There is really only one person that you need to acknowledge at the beginning and end of the day and that's your partner.
If the first person you think about when you wake up is someone else, and you text that person to let him or her know that you're crossing a line.
8. You eagerly look forward to seeing them.
When you know you are going to see this person, do you take a little extra time to spruce yourself up? Do you get a little anxious with excited anticipation?
If so, take a moment to consider why this might be true.
9. He or she is the first person you call.
When something good (or bad) happens, who is the first person you think about to call?
If it is someone other than your spouse, then someone else has become your main emotional confidant.
10. You talk about sex or make inappropriate insinuations.
You may talk about sex with your close friends, but not in the way that you would talk about it with *this* friend.
Especially if you are talking about (or insinuating) having sex with them, you are dipping your toe on dangerous waters.
11. You worry if they don't call or text.
Maybe you won't see this other person for a few days, but during that time, you still expect to communicate with them every day.
If there is a break in communication (and it's not on your end) and you feel upset about it, you are too emotionally invested in this person.
12. You feel he or she understands you better than your partner does.
Part of the illusion when you are having an affair is that this new person has no flaws, and he or she can relate to you in a way your partner can't.
You become more and more willing to put your partner's opinions and support on the back burner.
When you believe this other person understands you more than anyone else, it emotionally separates you from your partner and your intimacy with him or her.
13. You have secrets with this person.
Is there anything that you and this other person know that no one else does?
Secrets act as bonds that hold people together, so if you are sharing information with this new person that no one else knows (especially your partner), you're in the danger zone.
You are breaking down the bond you have with your partner and replacing it with a new confidante.
14. There are gifts involved.
Even if the gifts are small, gift-giving or acts of service can be an inappropriate gesture.
Do you go out of your way every morning to get every co-worker their favorite morning coffee concoction? Do you leave a flower on your neighbor's car “just to be nice”?
Examine the intention behind these gestures and how your partner would feel if he or she knew about them.
15. You make more time to be away from your partner.
Are you going out on extra errands on the weekends or taking an especially long time on a walk because you are communicating with someone else?
If you are connecting with someone on the phone by yourself, and you wouldn't have the conversation in front of your partner, it is probably inappropriate.
16. You compare the person to your husband or wife.
When you find yourself comparing someone else to your partner, you are pretty much sizing them up as a potential partner.
Comparing the traits of your partner to those of someone else can create conflict in your relationship, especially if you're forming a close relationship with this new person.
17. You spend more and more time together.
If you are spending an increasing amount of time with someone else, you might want to stop and think about the nature of the relationship.
You might not be canceling on your partner (yet) to spend time with this other person, but if you are willing to drop everything else and cancel on your other friends for this other person, you may want to consider why you are doing this.
18. The intimacy you once had with your spouse is decreasing.
If you're suddenly pulling back from your partner emotionally and sharing less with him or her, you might be crossing the boundaries into an emotional affair.
Also, if you and your partner are not as physically intimate as you've been in the past, and your fantasies involve intimacy with someone else, there is potential for a problem.
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19. You talk outside of normal friendship hours.
If you are leaving your bedroom in the middle of the night to secretly text or call the other person, there’s a real likelihood that your relationship with this person has gone beyond the scope of a normal friendship.
Why would you need to sneak off late at night or early in the morning to chat with someone unless you have something to hide?
20. You can't concentrate when the other person is around.
It is hard to concentrate when you have the butterflies in your stomach or you're feeling sexually aroused. When you're infatuated with someone, it can cloud your thinking and your judgment.
If you lose track of time around this person, or you are not bothered that being with them is going to make you late for something, then the relationship may not be strictly a friendship.
21. You would be hurt and angry if the roles were reversed.
Think about how you would feel if your partner had the exact same “friendship” with someone else that you have with this other person.
If you would feel betrayed or upset about it, this is a big sign that your behavior is out of line and you are being emotionally unfaithful to your partner.
Emotional Texting Examples
The more secret and intimate quality of texting make it a perfect vehicle to drive a friendship or work relationship along the slippery slope to an emotionally intimate connection. Unless your spouse constantly checks your texts, you can carry on a consistent tête-à-tête that becomes more intriguing and titillating with every push of the send button.
Here are some emotional texting examples that show how easy your smartphone becomes a complicit partner in your improper relationship:
- You can more easily text feelings and inappropriate thoughts because you aren't face-to-face.
- You can use emojis to subtly communicate your interests, desires, and feelings without spelling it out.
- With texting, you can make innuendos without the barrier of other people hearing you.
- Texting gives you a private, insulated venue for self-disclosure and emotional intimacy.
Texting may seem innocent because you aren't actually in the presence of the attractive other. But in reality, this secretive texting is like pouring gasoline on your connection and ensuring that a full-blown affair is ignited.
Is It an Emotional Love Affair?
When you are having an affair that is purely emotional, you might wonder if you are in love with this other person. The answer to this is “maybe.”
One thing to consider is that being deeply infatuated with someone else doesn't mean that the love you have with your partner is any less real.
I'm going to guess that you had fallen in love with someone before you fell in love with your current partner. Your body experienced all of the same chemical reactions along with the strong desire to be with this person.
If you are like most of us, you go through this more than once throughout your life, and maybe even several times before you eventually find the one that you commit to spending the rest of your life with.
However, once you are married and these intense feelings have calmed down, making the infatuation stage with a new person all the more enticing.
- Are you ready to move on from the person you've been with for years and start a new relationship?
Infatuation with someone else can make it difficult to determine what you really want, but if you maintain an emotional affair, your partner will likely discover it at some point and perhaps end it with you before you can make the decision for yourself.
You owe it to your partner and yourself to talk to a counselor about your feelings about this other person so you can put them in perspective and examine the repercussions of continuing the relationship.
Do Emotional Affairs Last?
The answer to this question is not the same for everyone. The truth is, some affairs do result in marriage, and some even last a lifetime.
However, because research shows that this only happens in 3-5% of cases, the probability is very low.
There are a few reasons why affairs don't last. First, they begin with deceit which is not a good foundation for a committed relationship.
It may seem flattering at first that someone would break their commitment to their partner to pursue a relationship with you.
But with time, you may wonder if you are being betrayed as well. How do you know for sure that your affair partner is committed to you?
Also, while your spouse may have been lacking something your new partner has, with time, you'll see that this new person isn't as perfect as you once thought.
The longer you are with this new person, the more flaws and unattractive qualities you'll begin to notice.
During an affair, you feel extremely alive and excited when you are with the other person, and you think that he or she is all that you need to be happy.
Just because you start out in a honeymoon phase, you soon learn that your new relationship loses the initial spark just as the previous one did.
When you jump from one relationship to another without taking time for self-reflection, your relationship patterns often remain the same even though the players have changed.
Emotional affairs rarely have a fairytale ending, and they often end in pain for a lot of people involved.
If you suspect you've fallen into an emotional affair, take some time to step back and discern exactly why this new relationship is budding. What void it is filling for you? Is continuing it worth wounding your current partner and potentially ending your relationship?
If not, take the steps now to disengage from this connection and recommit to your spouse or partner.
Are you having an emotional affair?
Now that you’re familiar with the signs of an emotional affair, there’s no avoiding the question.
And what remains is to decide what you’re going to do about it.
Even in the absence of a physical affair, the presence of an emotional bond is a clear and present danger to the relationship.
But if your spouse or partner is willing to trust you to break off the emotional affair and work with them on rebuilding trust and intimacy, there’s reason to hope you can make the relationship stronger than ever.
If you love your committed partner, it’s a risk worth taking. If not, be honest with them.
May your love and courage lead you in the right direction.