Emotional affair: 10 signs and what you can do about it

Image credit: Shutterstock - By Dmytro Zinkevych

Emotional affairs are sometimes more dangerous than a traditional affair.

Typically, emotional affairs start when one partner feels like they aren’t getting what they need from their partner.

They may no longer feel close to one another, or they may have grown apart.

For partners who have tried to make concessions for their spouse, such as poor communication skills or a lack of caring, the frustration may build beyond sexual attraction and partners will stray in different ways.

What is an emotional affair?

Emotional affairs involve confiding in, trusting, and seeking out the insight and advice of someone other than your spouse.

According to Abigail Brenner M.D. in Psychology Today:

“An emotional affair describes a relationship where the level of emotional intimacy is excessive and where the level of emotion invested in someone outside of the marriage infringes upon the intimacy between spouses or committed partners.”

It’s more common than you might think. Everyone needs someone to lean on, and while we assume that our spouses will do that job for us, it’s not always the case.

Emotional affairs are confusing and often end relationships because the other partner feels betrayed in a way that leaves them feeling less than worthy.

Are you worried if your partner is having an emotional affair?

Here’s how you can tell if they may be going elsewhere to get what they need from a partner.

1) Your partner is blocking you from their calendar.

If you were once privy to their calendar to coordinate events, trips, and even dinner dates, but suddenly see large segments blocked without explanation or you can’t access it at all, that might be an issue.

Psychologist Paul Coleman, PsyD, says to Prevention that “someone who must ‘work late’ all of a sudden at times that go beyond a reasonable explanation may be cheating.”

More often than not what will happen is that your partner will just stop inviting you to events, or stop making plans with you because they are too busy making plans with someone else.

They might not be sleeping together, but you can bet they are doing all kinds of other things together.

Also, according to Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D. in Oprah Magazine, if they stop sharing about their day or their whereabouts, something may be up:

“The most interesting aspects of their day may relate to their new flirtation…This can be more devastating than sexual infidelity as it implies the intimacy of day-to-day life is now being shared with someone new.”

2) Your partner is hiding their phone.

Does your partner freak out if you pick up their cell phone? Are they frantic trying to answer text messages when you are around?

There might a good reason for it, but if this is behavior that has started all of a sudden and seems out of the ordinary, you have to ask yourself what is going on.

Licensed marriage and family therapist Sheri Meyers says in her book Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love, and Affair-Proof Your Relationship:

“Your partner may ‘stiffen’ when you enter the room, or put the phone away suddenly. They may have increased activity or text messaging, but are more difficult to get ahold of when out of the house.”

What are they trying to hide?

If you ask them about it, they’ll say nothing, but they won’t give you their phone.

Psychologist Weiss explains the possible scenarios in Psychology Today:

“Cheaters tend to use their phones and computers more frequently than before and to guard them as if their lives depend on it.

If your partner’s phone and laptop never required a password before, and now they do, that’s not a good sign. Your partner suddenly starts deleting texts and clearing their browser history on a daily basis, that’s not a good sign.

If your partner never relinquishes possession of their phone, even taking it into the bathroom when they shower, that’s not a good sign.

3) Your partner is taking calls in another room.

More than texting and deleting texts, your partner may suddenly start taking phone calls in another room or leave the house altogether.

According to counselor and therapist, Dr. Tracey Phillips, hiding things from you on their phone may be a sign of cheating:

“They could be trying to avoid receiving any questionable calls or texts in your presence.”

Do they only make calls when they are in the car or when they are home alone? Does the phone ever ring when you are there? Don’t go looking for trouble, but if you smell it, you might be right.

4) Your partner is not inviting you to things anymore.

If you once went to all the parties and now you aren’t invited, you are right to worry.

If your partner is making plans without you or insisting that you don’t need to attend any events that you would normally attend together, it’s hard not to wonder why.

If this happens once, it’s probably nothing.

But if it is an ongoing issue, you might need to talk to your partner about how you feel left out and find out why they don’t want you there.

Perhaps your partner knows that they may run into the person they’re having an emotional affair with, or they know that their friends will act awkward around you.

According to Robert Weiss Ph.D., your partner’s friends be may be uncomfortable around you because they know what’s going on:

“The cheater’s friends often know about the infidelity right from the start, and your own friends are likely to find out long before you do. This knowledge typically causes these individuals to feel uncomfortable around you.”

5) Your partner is getting angry when you ask if they are seeing someone else.

If you are at the end of your rope and feel like you can’t keep wondering what is going on and just need to know, your partner is not going to be happy about your confrontation.

But, that is usually only true when they are hiding something from you. If you have no reason to worry, your partner will gladly explain what is going on.

According to Jackie Pilossoph, creator of the website, Divorced Girl Smiling, when someone confronts a partner they know are cheating and even though they are guilty, they often get defensive and even shift the blame onto something else.

More often than not though, your partner may feel like a deer in the headlights and you will have your answer.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, told Bustle that you should “start with communicating in a way that doesn’t leave them defensive, and that means not accusing.”

She also says that “defensiveness is often a part of a projective style, which is seen in people who find it difficult to take responsibility, feel insecure, or maybe fully narcissistic.”

6) Your partner is leaving out details that you think matter.

If your conversations leave you wondering what is happening, or you feel like your gut is saying something is wrong, you could have an emotional cheater on your hands.

People who might be cheating “tend to engage in sins of omission,” psychologist Ramani Durvasula says. “They operate on a ‘need to know’ basis, which is not healthy for a relationship.”

Asking questions and getting half-assed answers? Keep asking.

There’s no crime in wanting to know things. If your partner used to share with you but they hold back now, they may be saving those details for someone else.

7) They get defensive when you ask about their friend

This is a clear sign that something may be up.

Friends are just friends and there’s no usually no reason to ger defensive about a simple question to do with them.

So if you ask them a genuine question about their so-called friend and they immediately get defensive, something may be up.

According to Meyers in her book Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love, and Affair-Proof Your Relationship:

“They offer short, sharp responses when you ask them seemingly simple questions about their ‘friend’ or associate, or they over-explain when there is no need and their stories don’t quite add up.”

8) They may reference a third party

If your partner is having an emotional affair, they may talk about a third party more often.

According to Sheri Meyers in her book Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love, and Affair-Proof Your Relationship, they “may spark conversations asking you something along the lines of, ‘Do you believe that it’s possible to love more than one person at a time?”

When they ask this question, it may be a hypothetical question as that’s what they’re currently feelings.

9) Your partner’s sexual behavior and passion has become different

When it comes to cheating and emotional affairs, you might notice that sexual behavior falls in one of two ways.

On the one hand, they may show a decrease in sexual attraction and passion in the bedroom.

According to Meyers, “it may seem like your partner is going through the motions, or seems less available, affectionate or intimate with you.”

On the other hand, they may surprisingly show an increase in sexual attraction.

Sex expert Robert Weiss explains why:

“Both decreased and increased levels of sexual activity in your relationship can be a sign of infidelity. Less sex occurs because your partner is focused on someone else; more sex occurs because they are trying to cover that up.”

Relationships have their ups and downs, but if you feel like they are pulling away from you and not wanting to be intimate, there’s a reason.

Body language expert Patti Wood, says:

“What you’re generally looking for is a shift from normal behavior. So, if they used to kiss you all the time and suddenly that behavior disappears it’s a shift from the baseline.”

10) Your gut may be saying that there is an attraction between your partner and their “friend”

According to Meyers, if your partner is involved in an emotional affair, their behavior might go one of two ways when they’re with that “friend”.

They may change the way they usually act when this person is around, or “they may criticize this other person, trying to make you think that type of individual would never be of interest to them”.

Keep in mind that your gut instincts can sometimes be right. A study from the Brigham Young University supports the idea that your gut feelings for when you feel you’re being cheated on may be right:

The study states:

“The data indicate that this ability to predict outcomes from brief observations is more intuitive than deliberatively cognitive, leading scholars to believe that the ability to accurately predict is ‘hard-wired and occur[s] relatively automatically.”

Can Your Relationship Survive an Emotional Affair?

Emotional affairs can do more damage to a relationship than a sexual encounter because emotional affairs are built on the fact that something is missing.

When we’re talking about traditional sexual affairs, people find themselves attracted to another person and sometimes they describe the sensation as not being able to help themselves.

A lot of people who have cheated on their partners have said that it was a mistake and it never happened again.

A momentary lapse in judgment, or too much wine, can be the reason for a sexual affair.

But an emotional affair is something that comes to be constructed and created because one partner feels like something is missing in their relationship.

It’s hard to move that attention from the new friend back to the existing partner, but it can be done.

Here are three strategies you can use to help your relationship survive an emotional affair.

Where are the gaps? Address them.

When you sit down to talk to your partner about what has been going on between the two of you – or the lack thereof – it’s important to remember that tempers may be high and one or both of you are going to be harboring feelings of hurt and frustration.

According to Abigail Brenner M.D.in Psychology Today, it’s important to “try to nip it in the bud”.

To do this, you “should start talking to your spouse about what you think is happening, what you’re observing, as soon as you suspect something.”

She also says that you should be “prepared for denial, defensiveness, anger, and resistance to changing the situation.”

You may need to take some time apart before you come together to talk about how to fix things.

When you are ready, start by talking about why your partner felt the need to go elsewhere to find the emotional support they felt they needed.

Rather than accuse your partner of being in the wrong, be willing to hear them out about what is missing and what you can do to help bridge that gap.

When you are hurt, it is easy to point fingers and blame the other person for the relationship fails, but a good partner will be ready to hear how they are not showing up and be willing to change.

Be open and honest about what you both need.

Give each other the room and space to have a say in how the relationship can carry on and focus on moving forward, rather than trying to fix what has already been done.

According to psychotherapist Richard Smith in Oprah Magazine, it’s important to talk about the emotional intimacy you’re looking for that you feel is missing:

“Once you what you’re missing, be open and clear with your partner.”

Dhyan Summers, MA, LMFT, offers some great advice in Good Therapy.

She suggests communicating directly with your partner where you rake responsibility for your own feelings and to be heard in a non-defensive and non-judgmental way.

To do this, she advises to use a 4 step model that goes like this:

1) Observation: What did you see your partner or hear about your partner doing? In the model, the statement starts with, “When you do or say… ”

2) Feelings: What feeling do you get as a result?

3) Needs: This refers to the common human needs that we all experience, such as the need for acceptance, love, understanding, collaboration, happiness, etc. So if the model would now look like this: When you say or do…I feel…because I need…

4) Request: Then make a request. “Would you be willing to….?

There’s no need to live in the past. However, as you go through the gaps, take your time to talk about what each person can do to help bring it back together.

Of course, this is assuming that both partners want to carry on with the relationship. That will be an important part of the conversation.

When your partner asks you a question, it’s important that you are honest about what you feel and think.

The same goes for them.

You may feel like you can’t trust your partner since they have been having an emotional affair, but if your relationship is going to survive this, then you need to just trust that what they are telling you is true.

Create a plan for the future.

Together, you need to figure out how to move forward and be clear about what you both want to get out of the relationship.

According to it’s important not to play the victim and instead take responsblity for what you need in the relationship:

According to Abigail Brenner M.D.in Psychology Today:

“Don’t stand by passively playing the victim. Decide what your expectations for your marriage/relationship are. If your spouse continues along their own path what will you do—leave the marriage, live within the relationship the way it is, or something else. Only you can decide for yourself.”

The dynamic will be different now, and you might think that you can’t handle that, but if you want to try to make it work, be willing to find out what is possible for your relationship.

Understand that your relationship is going to be rocky for a while as you both come back together and learn to trust one another again.

You might find that it is impossible to try to reconcile the loss of trust, but part of the repair is finding your way together and decide ahead of time that if things aren’t working out or if you aren’t getting what you need that you will walk away.

Dhyan Summers, MA, LMFT, says in Good Therapy that a relationship can survive an emotional affair:

“Indeed, a relationship can survive an emotional affair if both partners are committed to finding a way past it. If you find this too difficult to do on your own, often just a few sessions of couples therapy can kick-start the process.”

The goal of the approach is to try to repair but reality sets in quickly when people have been hurt.









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Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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