In any relationship, trust is the foundation that keeps it strong and thriving. But what happens when that trust is broken due to infidelity? Infidelity comes in many forms, and one of those forms is emotional infidelity, also known as emotional cheating. This type of infidelity can be just as damaging as physical cheating. In this article, we will explore what emotional infidelity is, how it affects relationships, and whether it is as harmful as physical cheating.
What is Emotional Infidelity?
Emotional infidelity occurs when a person is emotionally attached to someone outside of their relationship, forming a bond that goes beyond friendship but falls short of physical intimacy. Emotional infidelity can occur in person or online, and it often starts innocently, such as confiding in someone about personal issues or seeking emotional support outside of the relationship. However, it can also quickly escalate into a full-blown physical affair.
Signs of Emotional Infidelity
What are some of the signs that your partner is emotionally cheating on you? Let’s explore some of the ways you may be able to tell if this is happening in your relationship:
If your partner is being secretive about their life, it could be a sign that they are emotionally involved with someone else. For example, your partner it could be that they don’t want to talk about certain people at work or they don’t want to tell you where they’re going.
Increased emotional distance
If your partner seems less interested in spending time with you and is emotionally distant, it could be a sign that they are seeking emotional connection elsewhere. For example, when you tell them about your day, they seem short and disinterested. Or when you ask them questions, they don’t give you the same level of engagement as they used to.
Decreased sexual intimacy
If your partner is less interested in sexual intimacy, it could be a sign that their emotional needs are being met by someone else. Or they are not interested in sexual intimacy with you anymore because their romantic interests are towards someone else.
Constantly thinking of someone
If your partner seems preoccupied with thoughts about something (or someone) else, it could be a sign that they are emotionally involved with another person. For example, during conversations they seem distant or distracted.
Changes in behavior
If your partner’s behavior has changed, such as being more irritable, defensive, or even overly nice, it could be a sign of emotional infidelity. This may stem from a place of insecurity, guilt, shame, or frustration.
How Emotional Infidelity Affects Relationships
Emotional infidelity can deeply affect a relationship. If the other partner finds out about the emotional infidelity, it can erode trust and cause feelings of betrayal, jealousy, and insecurity.
Even if the other partner does not find out about the emotional infidelity, the behaviors of the unfaithful spouse are likely to affect the relationship. Feelings of shame, guilt, and fear can come up for the partner, and in an attempt to avoid those feelings, the partner may avoid communicating or engaging with their spouse causing a breakdown in communication. That breakdown, in turn, may cause more tension and difficulties in the relationship leading to a vicious cycle.
Over time, emotional infidelity can lead to a loss of intimacy and connection in the relationship, whether or not the person being cheated on finds out, and this may even lead to a breakup or divorce.
Is Emotional Cheating as Damaging as Physical Cheating?
The most significant damage from any form of infidelity comes from betrayal and the array of emotions that arise when the person we love breaks that trust. This is true with both emotional and physical cheating. The impact on one’s partner can be just as damaging whether or not it involves physical or sexual intimacy. For some people they may even argue that emotional fidelity is even worse than physical infidelity; that emotional cheating requires a deep, emotional connection that is more difficult to forgive.
Can Emotional Infidelity Lead to Physical Infidelity?
While emotional infidelity does not always lead to physical infidelity, yes, it can be a precursor to it. Emotional infidelity can create a sense of intimacy and connection with someone outside of the relationship, which can make it easier to justify turning things physical.
Additionally, emotional infidelity can cause a breakdown in communication, trust, and intimacy in the original relationship, which can make it easier for one partner (or both) to seek physical intimacy outside of the relationship.
How to Overcome Emotional Infidelity
If you or your partner has been emotionally unfaithful, it is possible to overcome it and rebuild your relationship, with some time, effort, and work.
The first step requires the offending partner to take responsibility and acknowledge their actions and the painful impacts it has had on their partner and relationship. The partner who has been emotionally unfaithful must be willing to listen to their partner’s feelings and work with their needs. In the same vein, in order to truly move forward, the partner who was cheated on must also be ready to hear, believe and accept their partner’s regret and commitment to making amends.
These are not easy things to do and a neutral, third party can be really helpful. Couples therapy can address the factors that lead to and maintain the emotional affair, and those that need to change for the couple to move forward. Individual therapy can also be beneficial for each person to address their own experience without the end goal being the relationships.
At the root, to overcome the betrayal, hard work has to be done to rebuild that trust. Like with any relationship, clear boundaries and guidelines are needed to build that trust slowly over time. The person who was cheated on may have more concerns regarding their partner’s relationship in the workplace or with friends, and these boundaries should be boundaries that are communicated and agreed upon to move the relationship forward.
How to Avoid Emotional Infidelity in Your Relationship
We can’t protect ourselves from every painful situation in life, but there are ways to continually strengthen your relationship. With time, age, and life changes, it’s inevitable that each partner changes and grows as a person. Strategies, such as open & honest communication, allows both partners to grow together as a couple. Checking in on each others’ feelings, needs, and desires with your partner, even when it’s difficult, builds a strong foundation. It’s also important to take into account and respect each other’s boundaries and comfort zone; having discussion about how each partner communicates and interacts with those outside of the relationship is a good practice even if there hasn’t been an infidelity. Making these discussions common practice makes it less likely something more significant occurs without warning or for it to go unnoticed or unaddressed.
Also, have fun and prioritize each other; find that quality time with your partner to connect, emotionally, socially, and physically, on a regular basis. This can involve activities such as going on dates, having deep conversations, or engaging in each other’s hobbies or shared hobbies.
Can Emotional Infidelity Be Forgiven?
Whether or not emotional infidelity can be forgiven depends on the individuals involved. Forgiveness usually requires the partner who has been emotionally unfaithful to take responsibility for their actions and make a sincere effort to rebuild trust. It also requires the partner who has been betrayed to be willing to work through their feelings and find a way to move forward.
When to Seek Professional Help
If emotional infidelity is causing significant distress in your relationship and you are struggling to resolve it on your own, it may be helpful to seek professional help. A couples therapist can help you and your partner work through the underlying issues that led to the infidelity and find ways to rebuild trust and connection in your relationship.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about emotional infidelity
Q: Can emotional infidelity ever be justified?
A: Justified suggests that the end result is to be right or wrong. In most relationships, things are rarely black or white. Infidelity, in any form, represents a betrayal and, justifiable, the partner who was cheated on may feel a range of feelings (e.g., anger, sadness, embarrassment). While there may be reasons the unfaithful partner believed led them to their actions, in the end, there are healthier ways to address the issues in a relationship than infidelity.
Q: How long does it take to recover from emotional infidelity?
A: This is a very personal question, and will completely depend on the individual and the circumstances of the infidelity.
Q: What are some common reasons why people engage in emotional infidelity?
A: It’s impossible to say why a person engages in emotional infidelity, especially without knowing who is involved, the context, and the relationship, but at the core many people engage in infidelity to fill something they believe is missing or to fix something in their lives. Oftentimes, it may have nothing to do with their partner or with their relationship, but tied to something more internal within that one person.
Q: Is it possible to have a healthy relationship after emotional infidelity?
A: It is possible, with time, effort, and commitment on both sides.
The bottom line is that yes, emotional infidelity can be just as damaging to a relationship as physical or sexual infidelity, as it involves breaking the trust and emotional bond between partners. It can lead to feelings of betrayal, jealousy, and insecurity, and, unless that trust can be rebuilt, may even result in a breakup or divorce.
However, it is possible to overcome emotional infidelity and rebuild trust in a relationship, through open and honest communication, couples therapy, and a willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions.
Dr. Vivian Oberling is the Founding Psychologist at Pace Groups. She is also a licensed clinical psychologist who has dedicated her career to improving the lives of clients across the lifespan. Background-wise, she’s been trained and worked in academic centers and hospitals (Stanford, Harvard, UCLA, Kaiser and Rady Children’s), and utilizes evidence-based treatments and research to enhance non-clinical, supportive services.