Defining Emotional Infidelity

By Catherine Findley, LICSW

When we talk about “emotional infidelity” or an “emotional affair,” we’re referring to a relationship in which someone invests significant energy and time in a person outside their marriage or committed partnership. (To simplify the discussion here, I will use the term “marriage,” although this issue applies to any committed, exclusive partnership.)

An emotional affair may start as a well-meaning friendship that progresses into a powerful emotional bond, harming the health and intimacy of the marriage. Often people justify their behavior by saying that if no physical boundaries are crossed, then nothing “wrong” is occurring. Most relationship experts, however, view emotional affairs as a type of cheating – and in many cases an emotional affair will lead to a full-blown sexual affair. Spouses or partners who have lived through them say that an emotional affair is just as damaging as a physical affair, with the same sense of betrayal.

How can an emotional affair damage my marriage?

We each have only so much emotional energy to spend in a day, a week or a lifetime. While an emotional affair can feel like a vacation, a fun fantasy or a distraction from the difficulties of day-to-day life with your spouse, it frequently spells danger for your marriage. In this fantasy relationship, someone can show you the best side of themselves without the bad habits, financial strains, household chores and family responsibilities of a 24/7 marriage. Our digital world has made it easy to secretly connect with people outside the family any time of day or night. 

Are you at risk of emotional infidelity? Here are some warning signs:

- Frequent contact in person, by text, email, phone or social media

- Discussing increasingly personal topics including problems in your marriage 

- Preoccupied, distant behavior and avoidance of family time

- Keeping cell phone nearby at all times, suddenly having a password on phone or having a “work” phone

- Thinking the other person “gets you”

- Making comparisons that put your spouse in a negative light

- Having the other person in mind when deciding what to wear, etc.

- Finding that they are the first person you want to tell when you have news

- Creating reasons to spend time with them

- Engaging in inside jokes and flirty texts

- “Craving” the other person, with intense sexual tension and a desire to keep the relationship secret from your spouse

If you or someone you love is at risk of emotional infidelity, it may be time to work on your relationship with a qualified therapist. If you are unable or unwilling to work on the issues facing your marriage, consider evaluating your commitment going forward, to benefit everyone involved.

The licensed clinical social workers of CJFS provide professional counseling and case management for families and individuals of all ages. For more information, contact Clinical Director Stu Jaffe, or 205.879.3438.