A couple sitting on the couch, the woman on her phone, the man is on his laptop.
Illustration by Marta Pucci

Signs of an Emotional Affair and What to do Next

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness

TL;DR

  • An emotional affair is sometimes referred to as an affair of the heart.
  • It might emerge from a friendship as one or both parties develop an emotional bond.
  • Just because there is no physical intimacy doesn’t mean the results are not extremely damaging to one’s relationship.
  • There are a number of signs to look out for if you think your partner might be having an emotional affair.
  • All is not lost if you believe your partner might be emotionally cheating – through conscious effort on both sides, it may be possible to rebuild those lost connections.

When you hear the word 'affair', what do you think of? Sexual infidelity? Unfaithfulness? Deceit? That might be only half the story. You see, an affair doesn’t have to be about sex, it doesn’t even have to be about spending lots of time together or being absent from the family home.

The concept of an emotional affair, while potentially a little bit more open to interpretation than a physical affair, has consequences that can be just as devastating to a long-term relationship or marriage.

What do we mean by emotional affair?

It is common for an emotional affair to start out as nothing more than innocent friendship, often with no intention that anything sexual would, or even could, happen between two people.

As this friendship develops and one or other of the partners begins to share issues and even secrets, it’s possible that an emotional bond grows. It may be that one or both members of the friendship become reliant on the other party for support or comfort that they’re not receiving elsewhere.

If you’re in a secure place in your current relationship this may not seem important. After all, you’re not physically cheating on your partner. But this emotional involvement with someone other than your spouse or partner can create a metaphorical void. Emotional affairs can, and do, end relationships.

Whether you’re worried about a lack of intimacy in your own relationship meaning your partner may be emotionally elsewhere. Or maybe you’re concerned you yourself may have fallen victim to this type of infidelity. Either way, it’s important to be aware of the signs. It’s not too late to address the situation as long as you make a conscious effort to do so.

Why might this happen?

There can be lots of reasons an emotional affair begins, many of which are not intended and perhaps not even fully understood by those involved.

Perhaps you meet someone at work or online, spend lots of time together, begin to share thoughts and feelings and build an emotional connection. Or maybe you’ve hit a patch in your relationship where things don’t feel like they’re going well. Instead of ‘dealing with’ the issues and discussing them with your partner, it might feel easier to avoid the situation and instead invest time in someone else. Someone who leaves you feeling happier and less pressured.

Of course, in this case it might genuinely feel like you’re doing nothing wrong if there’s no physical contact, but if you’re keeping aspects of this friendship from your partner it probably means there is more going on that you would want to admit. And that can be a slippery slope.

Platonic relationship versus emotional intimacy

It is, of course, possible to be friends with someone, male or female, without raising suspicion. It’s human nature to become close to people, to share thoughts and feelings and to enjoy spending time together. How, then, can we know when these healthy friendships spill over into a more problematic relationship?

A platonic friend is someone you enjoy spending time with, someone you like a lot, maybe even love, but not someone with whom you feel a sexual spark. Crucially a platonic friend is someone you’re happy to share with your spouse or partner, not someone you want to keep secret. In fact, secrecy is a core characteristic of an affair.

Emotional infidelity, on the other hand, occurs when we overstep the line, when sexual tension becomes evident even if it doesn’t result in physical infidelity. And it’s when we begin to withhold information from our partners, keeping little secrets to ourselves, to think about and enjoy in quiet moments.

How can you recognize the warning signs?

If you notice your partner withdrawing, becoming less ‘present’ or seemingly less interested in sexual intimacy, it could be that their mind is elsewhere. Of course, this doesn’t automatically mean there is something going on with someone else, but it definitely means it’s time to address the situation before it gets serious.

If you notice your partner is making excuses to get away from you to make phone calls, changes their phone behavior (i.e., locking devices, putting phone face down) or is being more secretive than usual, this may be a sign. The rise in available digital technologies mean that emotional affairs, unlike sexual affairs, can be conducted anytime, anywhere, the two people don’t even necessarily need to be together.

What about if your partner takes up a new hobby or starts to pay more attention to how they look when they go out? These could also be signs that your previously healthy relationship needs a little nurturing.

What impact can an emotional affair have on a relationship?

This emotional cheating doesn’t need to include physical intimacy to drive a wedge into the middle of a committed relationship. Simply investing emotion into a relationship other than our primary relationship will, over time, cause cracks to appear and feelings that something is missing to surface. 

Feelings of anger, jealousy, resentment or sadness are common, with the spouse or long-term partner wondering why they don’t live up to what their partner needs. It’s a breach of trust and one that it can be extremely difficult to recover from. But it is possible.

What can you do to reconnect?

If you believe your partner may be cheating emotionally, it’s important you first get your facts straight before broaching the subject carefully. Perhaps write down the reasons you have for thinking that something is going on – then prepare yourself for an honest conversation. If you are aware that there has been a lack of intimacy in your relationship or you’ve had less time for one another, do mention this. It is likely that your partner has felt it too and simply having this discussion may be the first step to healing. While talking about sex with your partner can be difficult, it may be an important step if this is something that has been missing.

There are a variety of ways you can begin to rebuild your lost connection if you both feel that’s something you would like to do. Try to actively make time for one another. If either party is feeling anxious about sex or you feel there may be libido issues, try to understand more about what might be going on. Perhaps talk to your physician or GP if you are concerned.

In the meantime, show one another you are serious about making that change. Begin to use touch-based exercises using sensate focus sex therapy techniques in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Our Blueheart app can support you to rediscover your own and one another’s bodies at your own pace, rebuilding the intimacy in your relationship. All it takes is a quick, free assessment and you’ll receive your bespoke program. You have nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.

When you hear the word 'affair', what do you think of? Sexual infidelity? Unfaithfulness? Deceit? That might be only half the story. You see, an affair doesn’t have to be about sex, it doesn’t even have to be about spending lots of time together or being absent from the family home.

The concept of an emotional affair, while potentially a little bit more open to interpretation than a physical affair, has consequences that can be just as devastating to a long-term relationship or marriage.

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