Many people probably have a working idea about what constitutes physical cheating within their relationships. Most couples, both monogamous and non-monogamous, are hopefully aligned on those boundaries. But emotional cheating can stir up some controversy. If there hasn’t been any physical contact, is it cheating? What separates emotional cheating from really close friendships? And, more importantly, is it possible for couples to come back from emotional indiscretions? There aren’t easy answers, but if you’re dealing with emotional cheating, there are ways to address it and move forward. We talked to Robert Allan, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Colorado, Denver, about what emotional cheating is, why it tends to happen, how you might recognize signs in your behaviour, and how to move forward.
So, what exactly is emotional cheating?
As the name implies, emotional cheating often involves nonsexual intimacy with someone who isn’t your partner. If you’ve gotten relatively close with a coworker and you find yourself secretly texting them while thinking, I hope this person doesn’t tell my partner, there’s a chance you’ve ventured from platonic friendship into emotional cheating, Dr. Allan explains.
That might make it sound like you’re not allowed to share secrets or emotional intimacy with your friends because it’s automatically emotional cheating, but that’s of course not the case. Having a network of emotional support is healthy, and a significant other probably shouldn’t be your sole source of emotional well-being, TBH. Emotional cheating isn’t really about the action—sharing emotional closeness with people besides your partner, which is often a great thing—and instead about your emotions surrounding it, like hoping your partner doesn’t find out.
This nuance is why the term emotional cheating might not be the clearest or most neutral way to describe the phenomena in your actual relationship. If, for instance, you think of emotional intimacy as a form of infidelity and your partner thinks cheating is only physical, a phrase that includes cheating might not help you convey how you’re feeling or help them understand exactly how and why they hurt you. That’s not to say you can’t still call it emotional cheating if that’s the language that feels true to you, but it’s important to keep in mind how differently people can interpret the word cheating.
“The term that I use in my work is attachment injury,” Dr. Allan explains, adding that this term involves situations where one partner violates the expectations of the other. Instead of getting hung up on which types of behaviors constitute cheating, the term reframes the conversation to deal with how one partner’s actions impact another. “[When dealing with an attachment injury] there's a sense that the relationship has been violated in some way, and there is hurt,” Dr. Allan adds.
Sometimes attachment injuries are accidental, but that doesn’t mean they don’t damage relationships. Ultimately, whether you call it emotional cheating or an attachment injury, every partner in your relationship should define what crosses this boundary for them and agree on the terms, so you can (hopefully) avoid attachment injuries like these.
Here’s how to know if you are emotionally cheating.
If you feel like your partner is having an emotional affair, it’s often best to discuss your concerns with them directly. (More on that in a bit.) But if you think you might be having one, ask yourself: How transparent am I with my partner about this other relationship?
It bears repeating: It’s healthy to have emotional support from people outside of your partner, but secrecy has implications for your romantic partnership. If you find yourself sneaking to get support and intimacy outside of your relationship, then you might not feel the need to exercise that muscle with your partner, Dr. Allan says. “And it could impact not only emotional intimacy but physical intimacy as well.”
Additionally, you might ask yourself whether there’s any underlying attraction in your friendship that’s sparking questions about emotional cheating. Though physical attraction to people besides your partner is natural, it might be a sign that your friendship is less platonic than you think.
Why does someone start emotional cheating?
“There is no one reason,” Dr. Allan says. In fact, there are many factors and situations that might cause someone to seek emotional support outside of their relationship, and in many cases it’s reasonable to do so. Generally, one partner might experience some difficulty trying to express their emotional needs within their relationship, or they might be with someone unable (or unwilling) to meet their expectations in this realm, Dr. Allan explains. This doesn’t mean that the other partner is necessarily at fault or caused the transgression—in a healthy partnership, there are lots of ways that a partner might try to get certain emotional needs met within the relationship before venturing outside of it in a way that feels like emotional cheating.
Yes, you can try to address emotional cheating and move forward.
First, if you’re the one who did the emotional cheating, you might be wondering if you should even tell your partner. This can be especially true if you’ve sworn to yourself that you’ll stop the emotional affair or have actually already put an end to it. You might be anxious about your partner’s reaction or even convinced they wouldn’t want to know. While it’s up to you to decide whether or not to disclose that information, Dr. Allan says that revealing it can help you “ensure the foundation in your relationship is one of trust and honesty.”
Once it’s out in the open, no matter who had an emotional affair, the first step is to decide whether you both want to stay in the relationship. If your partner cheated, you might ask yourself questions about whether you’re willing to do the work required to forgive your partner. If you cheated, you might explore why you went outside of the relationship to meet your needs. Ultimately, no matter who had the indiscretion, both people need to determine if this is the relationship they want to be in, Dr. Allan explains.
Provided you’ve both decided to try and work things out, the best way to begin the healing process is to communicate about what happened, Dr. Allan explains. Unsurprisingly, this can get really, really tricky. The person who did the emotional cheating might want to assuage their guilt by sharing every single detail, while their partner might find the particulars far too painful. On the flip side, one partner might ask for all of the specifics about the emotional cheating, only to realize it makes forgiveness that much harder. There’s no universal answer for how to handle this—it’s up to you and your partner to figure out what feels right. But if you’re committed to figuring it out together, that’s a great foundation for healing.
“I'm a firm believer in anything's possible, and it’s possible to get past this,” Dr. Allan says. The first step to actively repairing the damage is for the person who cheated to acknowledge how their actions have caused harm, Dr. Allan explains. “You have to be open,” he says. “You have to be ready to say, ‘My actions and my behavior really did impact the other person.’” Effective apologies involve way more than just saying I'm sorry, but acknowledging fault is a great start. (We have more good advice on the matter.).
Simply acknowledging that you agree on this painful reality can be helpful. When examining the habits of couples that stayed together after infidelity, SELF found that many couples had to rebuild trust. “Betrayal is the most damaging part of an affair,” David Klow, L.M.F.T., owner of Skylight Counseling Center, previously told SELF. “The person who was cheated on usually struggles to know what is real anymore. Their ability [to] discern what is real gets damaged.”
To that end, both parties need to speak candidly, even if that involves asking and answering difficult questions about details and any factors that led to the attachment injury. To keep the conversation from turning into a shouting match, consider doing your very best, even though it can be hard, to take deep breaths so that you’re able to listen without rushing toward defensiveness. When speaking, you might also use “I” statements (instead of accusations) to discuss how you’ve felt. What you discover about one another in the process might be hard to hear, but a healthier, more honest relationship can come to the fore.
Ultimately, you can seek support from a relationship therapist to help you mediate and process what has happened. You might also look into books, like The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, by Esther Perel ($14, Amazon), which might help you work through residual feelings. With time and commitment, it is often possible to move forward, Dr. Allan says. But if the betrayal proves to be insurmountable, it’s okay for you and your partner to go your separate ways.
This orginally appeared on SELF US | Patia Braithwaite