Is Your Partner Emotionally Cheating? Learn the Signs

We often think a partner who is physically intimate with another is the definition of cheating. However, there are other ways we can make our significant other feel betrayed in a relationship. This includes emotional cheating, where they form a deep connection with another person. Initially, they might not even realize they’re doing it, but it can lead to a loss of trust all the same. Learn why it happens, how to recognize the signs, and ways to navigate healing and prevention.

What is emotional cheating?

Emotional cheating is when you develop a close emotional bond with someone other than your partner. It involves the type of intimacy usually reserved for your significant other, where you share your innermost thoughts and feelings. This bond can lead you to confide in, depend on, or seek emotional support, contentment, and validation from another — causing your connection or effort in your relationship with your partner to dwindle.

How does it differ from physical cheating?

There might not be any physical touch involved, but emotional closeness is a strong form of intimacy that can chip away at your main relationship.

For example, you might develop a strong bond with a coworker, like a 'work spouse.' It might seem harmless since it’s just talking, especially in the beginning. However, it can lead to sharing or laughing more with them than your partner, making you question your relationship.

Since there’s no real commitment, things are likely to be 'easier' with the person outside of your relationship. You might start looking forward to seeing them more often as they gradually become your number one person for emotional connection and satisfaction.

Developing an emotional bond might not feel threatening or problematic since you have the safety of knowing it’s not physical. However, if you’re keeping this relationship from your partner, it’s a sign that it’s crossed a line.

Signs of emotional cheating

While emotional cheating can look different for everyone, here are some of the more common telltale signs your partner might show:

  • Frequently talking to or mentioning someone else
  • Less intimate and pulling away physically
  • Defensiveness and irritability
  • Superficial interactions, like avoiding meaningful conversations or emotional connection
  • Wanting more independence
  • Unexplained expenses
  • New interests or hobbies
  • Changing their appearance
  • Using their phone more
  • Changing their passwords

Causes of emotional cheating

Emotional cheating usually stems from a variety of causes. The root, however, is often unmet emotional needs within the relationship.

When people feel disconnected, neglected, or misunderstood, they might inadvertently look to meet what’s missing with someone else. It can start innocently enough, but the need for emotional fulfillment might make them form a close bond with someone new.

While some relationships gradually end up in a rut of routine, others go through big life stressors that can trigger a disconnection. This includes the loss of a job or loved one, financial stress, a big move, or the birth of a child. Without addressing the rifts that can happen after hard times, people are often more susceptible to finding comfort or solace in another.

A lack of communication, understanding, and effort put forth in the relationship can contribute to this disconnect. People need to feel heard and valued in the relationship and feel as though there is hope for improvement.

How to deal with emotional affairs

Navigating an emotional affair takes effort on both parts to communicate openly and decide how you want to move forward. If you’re committed to healing together, there are some things to keep in mind.

When your partner is the one cheating

  • Initiate open and calm communication. How you approach your partner can change the entire conversation. Try to express your suspicions, or confirmations, in a calm way to open them up to feel comfortable enough to be totally honest. Use 'I' statements to explain how you feel to avoid sounding accusatory.
  • Listen actively. Encourage them to share their perspective and listen to understand the situation fully. Ask open-ended questions and allow them to speak for as long as they want to get all the information before making assumptions.
  • Try to get to the root. Work on talking about the issues present in the relationship. What contributed to the disconnect?
  • Consider your options. Is there a way to improve the issues and repair the relationship? Are you willing to put in the effort and give things a chance?
  • Be open to forgiveness. While it might take time, forgiving your partner is an important step to move forward. Otherwise, resentment can build and hold back potential improvement.
  • Build trust gradually. Give your partner the grace to rebuild your trust. They need time to show consistent effort, transparent actions, and clear communication.
  • Set boundaries. Together, the two of you can define clear boundaries to prevent future infidelities. That could mean setting limits on how you interact with others in person or online.
  • Consider therapy. Whether it's couples therapy or for yourself, professional support might make things clearer. You can learn how to improve communication and strengthen your relationship — even if you go alone.

When you are the one who cheated

  • Take responsibility. Acknowledging your actions and how it’s impacted your partner is essential. You need to be able to show you’re capable of honesty and accountability to build trust again.
  • Understand your reasons. What led you to form an emotional connection with another person? Identifying the root causes can help both you and your partner learn the issues that need attention to move forward.
  • Be honest and listen. Share your feelings and listen to your partner as well. If you’re invested in improving the relationship, make sure they know you’re committed through your words and your actions.
  • Build trust through consistent action. What can you do that will make your partner feel seen, heard, and understood? Think of how you can consistently show your partner you’re putting in the effort.
  • Seek professional help. If you’re feeling unsure of how to navigate the situation, a therapist can help you build tools to move forward. You can focus on improving your communication of your needs, setting boundaries, and developing tools to heal.

How can emotional cheating affect mental well-being?

The emotional upheaval that comes with cheating can take its toll on anyone. Fortunately, with the right coping tools, we can move forward healthily.

Initially, the person cheated on is likely to feel betrayed. They might feel as though they don’t know how to trust a romantic partner anymore. This can lead to resentment and loneliness or bring up any underlying abandonment issues.

It’s also completely natural to feel rejected. It’s already easy to not feel 'good enough' in the society we live in, with rejection from the person closest to us furthering a sense of inadequacy. This can trigger anxiety and a loss of self-esteem for many.

For the person who cheated, it’s common to feel intense guilt, shame, embarrassment, and confusion. It can be hard for many to realize just how far they took things. Harsh self-criticism and profound regret are common. This can create a loss of self-trust or feeling deserving of a loving relationship.

How to prevent emotional cheating

It’s easy to fall into a rut or let the stress of everyday life get in the way of your relationship. Consistent communication and effort are the cornerstones of preventing an emotional disconnect. Even when life gets crazy, we have to recognize that our relationships are fragile. Without prioritizing them, we can easily let things slide until the day comes when we realize we’re just living with a roommate.

No matter what’s going on in life, we have to consistently create quality bonding time with our partners. That means safeguarding time together, even when opportunities with friends or work come up. Ask yourself what the most important thing to you is and how you can work to create a balance with your work, interests, friends, and your partner.

It’s also important to speak up whenever something is amiss. The right moment to have a difficult conversation rarely pops up on its own — you have to make it happen. Even if it’s uncomfortable, tell them what’s bothering you and set your boundaries. Otherwise, you might end up seeking solace or validation from someone else.

Finally, cultivate self-awareness and learn how to recognize your needs and communicate them. Work on creating a strong sense of self and aligning your commitments with your words and actions.

When to seek couples counseling or individual therapy

While we usually wait until things have hit a dead-end to try therapy, seeing a professional early on might save months of stressful fights and tears. Even if your partner isn’t up for couples therapy, that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. Many types of therapy work to change the relationship through the actions of one member, such as problem-solving therapy.

A therapist can help manage distress, anxiety, depression, or doubts stemming from emotional infidelity. They can help you, or both of you, navigate the ups and downs of healing and rebuilding trust. Setting boundaries, for example, isn’t easy if you’re not used to speaking up for yourself. With a therapist, you can practice becoming assertive with your needs or learning how to communicate more patiently. You can also more clearly decide what is essential to move forward and set healthy goals for doing so.

If you’re at all feeling lost, insecure, confused, or just emotionally drained, individual therapy might be just the support you need. To build better communication and boundaries together, a couples therapist is often helpful.

To maintain an honest and respectful relationship, we have to be willing to put in the work — even when life gets crazy. Preventing emotional cheating is possible, as is healing from it. But we have to develop self-awareness, tools for healthy communication, and prioritize our relationships. An emotional connection with someone goes through natural ebbs and flows, but taking the time to check in with your partner and re-commit through your words and actions can lead to a longer-lasting and healthier relationship.

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