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PSA: Emotional Cheating Can Be Just As Painful As Physical Cheating

Just because it didn’t happen between the sheets doesn’t mean it’s NBD.
emotional cheating
PHOTO: Getty Images

Being in a relationship is cute and all, but if you’ve ever been screwed over, you likely know how much cheating sucks. Whether you were the cheater or the one who was cheated on, it’s a shitty situation that makes everyone feel like garbage. But if you thought cheating just meant getting a lil too handsy with someone outside of your relationship, think again. In fact, many people feel emotional cheating is just as bad—if not worse—than physical cheating.

Emotional cheating can be described as an intimate emotional connection between two people, which is kept a secret,” explains licensed clinical psychologist Lucy Vo, PsyD, advisor for the relationship app Official. “Emotional cheating involves a breach of trust, betrayal, and/or lies told to maintain an emotional connection with someone outside the relationship.”

Tbh, emotional cheating looks a lot like a romantic comedy-worthy friends-to-lovers plot line, but the difference is that these pals are already in relationships with other people. “Emotional intimacy entails developing a deeper level of vulnerability with another,” says Rachel Hoffman, PhD, LCSW, the chief clinical officer of the mental wellness platform, Real. “It requires mutually sharing personal information, stories, and feelings.” Sounds like nbd, right? The issue is that instead of having deep, soulful convos with their partners, people engaged in emotional affairs are seeking advice or connection with someone outside of their relationship (and without the consent of their significant other(s).


What’s more, Vo adds that oftentimes, sexual tension and romantic attraction can be present in these types of relationships, and they often build up over time and through repeated interactions. It’s a slippery slope, y’all, but here’s everything you need to know about emotional cheating, from what it means to how to spot it in your relationship.

What’s the Difference Between a Physical and an Emotional Affair?

As the names suggest, one affair is physical while the other is—you guessed it—emotional. “Emotional cheating is when you establish a close connection with someone who is not your partner by mutually sharing personal information, stories, and feelings,” explains Hoffman. “Physically cheating is when you engage in physical touch and intimacy with someone who is not your partner."

While you might think physically cheating is worse, both experts say emotional infidelity can be just as—if not even more—damaging to a couple. “[Emotional cheating] can be dangerous because often, the relationship starts off platonically,” Hoffman says. “It could be someone from work who you end up disclosing more of your personal life to due to convenience and happenstance. The conversations might start increasing, and then they move to phone conversations, etc.”

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Vo says another concern with emotional affairs is that they can sometimes (even *oftentimes*) lead to physical ones. When there’s such a deep connection, sexual and romantic tension can build up, which is an easy segue to cheating physically.

What Counts as Emotional Cheating?

As with any type of infidelity, what counts as cheating varies from one couple to the next. Every relationship has different “rules,” so discussing what is/isn’t appropriate outside of your bond is essential to ensure you’re on the same page.

On a very basic level, emotional cheating might look like turning to someone other than your primary partner for comfort or advice, or when sharing good/bad news. Vo adds that someone engaged in emotional cheating might also lie to their partner about the nature of the outside relationship. Think: hiding or deleting texts, underplaying the value of the bond, and minimizing the amount of time or quality of time spent together. While it’s important to have friendships outside of your relationship, when the intimacy in an outside connection overshadows your romantic one, things get murky.


“Certain levels of intimacy are reserved for the primary partner to uphold the sacredness of a monogamous relationship,” says Hoffman. “The exception is when you explicitly contract with your partner that forming an emotional connection outside of the relationship is allowed.”

Cheating can, of course, also happen in polyamorous relationships if someone engages in a behavior or action that wasn’t consented to by their partner(s). It’s all about understanding and respecting the mutually set boundaries of your relationship(s).

Why Does Emotional Cheating Happen?

There’s no one reason someone might emotionally cheat. Vo says it could be a result of trauma, dysfunctional family dynamics, or unmet needs; it could also be a way to feel in control, to make up for a lack of intimacy, or even just to experience some novelty.

No matter the ~why,~ emotional cheating usually comes down to our innate need for connection. “As humans, we crave intimacy,” explains Hoffman. “There are moments in time where those needs are met by our romantic partner, and there are other moments where we might feel starvation or a lack of intimacy from our romantic partners. Regardless, the craving for connection will always be there.”


Since a connection is essential to human survival, it makes sense that we’re programmed to feel excited or valued when we start bonding with someone new. That said, if you’re already in a relationship, you have to know where to draw the line. “There needs to be a level of self-awareness and honesty with yourself about the level of connection you’re forming and how it’s impacting your primary relationship,” Hoffman says. “It can be hard to restrict ourselves from craving those feelings of pleasure, so we end up progressing those emotional relationships.”

Signs of *Potential* Emotional Cheating

If you’re wondering whether your partner is having an emotional affair (or if you’re concerned about a relationship you’re currently having), here are a few signs the experts say *could* mean emotional cheating is happening:

  • Your partner intentionally keeps certain areas of their life vague or hidden from you.
  • Your S.O. texts or talks on the phone more, and they’re secretive (or lie) about who they were talking to.
  • The sudden use of a password on their phone or password change on their social media account(s).
  • Your partner doesn’t seek you out for emotional support or advice.
  • You feel lonely in your relationship, and you notice a shift in your partner’s desire to connect.
  • Your partner is less present in your relationship physically and/or emotionally.
  • They regularly seek attention from the other person.
  • There’s a sudden lack of quality time in your relationship.
  • Your partner is evasive about what they do or who they spend time with, and they might get defensive when you ask them.
  • They’re not willing to set boundaries with the outside person.
  • They share more with the other person than they do with you, whether it’s about day-to-day occurrences or deep topics such as hopes and dreams.
  • You notice an increase in gaslighting.

But it's important to not read too much into it right off the bat. There’s a lot that could be going on, so having an open conversation is essential to figuring out the real story. And if you feel like your emotional needs aren't being met, speak up! Communication is essential for all relationships, especially when things start feeling a little off.

Can a Relationship Survive Emotional Cheating?

If you or your partner(s) had an emotional affair, that doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is doomed. “A relationship can survive any type of cheating; it’s dependent on the couple, and their desire to work through the conflict,” says Hoffman.

Of course, any affair can create a lasting impact on your relationship—for better or for worse. Some couples find that after putting in the work, they’re able to fix what was broken and rebuild their relationship in a way that’s stronger and even more authentic. Others find it’s easier and healthier to walk away.


“Recovering from infidelity requires hard work, honesty, empathy, and vulnerability,” explains Vo. “If a couple can face their fears, face themselves, and confront the concerns in their relationship, it’s possible to survive emotional cheating.” Whether you stay or go, just remember: Emotional cheating is just as big of a deal as physical cheating, so don’t be afraid to make your worth known. Just because it didn't happen between the sheets, it doesn't mean it didn't hurt.


This article originally appeared on Minor edits have been made by the editors.


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