When it comes to emotional cheating, the lines between what constitutes an affair, and what doesn’t, can feel very blurred. But that doesn’t detract from the pain it can cause.
“Some people have told me they’d rather their partner had a one-night stand than an emotional affair,” Relate counsellor Dee Holmes tells HuffPost UK. “They believe it would be easier to deal with.”
People have different boundaries when it comes to what constitutes inappropriate behaviour. That said, relationship counsellors do agree on one thing: when a person becomes emotionally unavailable to their partner, instead turning to their new interest for support, this constitutes emotional cheating.
Madeleine Mason, dating and relationship psychologist, explains: “Emotional cheating is a non-sexual, emotionally-intimate relationship between two people, where one is in a committed relationship to someone else.”
During this time, a person’s partner might remain unaware about the level of intimacy between the two “friends”.
Of course, innocently texting a colleague every now and then or having relationships with other people is not cheating.
What is considered cheating, is messaging constantly and beginning to rely on that other person for emotional support in place of a partner.
“They become the first person your partner turns to when they need emotional support or want to share good news,” Mason explains. “Your partner prefers the other person’s comfort and affection over and above that of you.
“Your partner is cheating you out of emotional intimacy, as they are meant be your support and vice versa.”
If your partner is sending sexual messages, this may also be considered “cheating”, even if there has been no physical contact.
Michael Kallenbach, a relationship counsellor working in London and Marlborough, explains: “Having a full blown sexual affair is often too risky for both sides, so they might resort to salacious and sexy text messaging without any sexual encounters taking place.”
Which is why, Holmes advises couples iron out what they define as an affair in the early stages of their relationship.
“I’ve seen people in the counselling room who have separate definitions of what cheating is,” she explains.
“One person might think their husband is having an affair, while he says ‘no I’m not, she’s accusing me of it but I just went out to lunch with my secretary twice.’”
Signs your partner might be emotionally cheating.
1. An unexplainable change in behaviour
“A major sign would be a change in their behaviour that doesn’t seem to have an explanation,” says Holmes.
There are a wide range of behavioural changes, which could act as a “red flag” over time, according to Madeleine Mason. These may include:
:: increased use of technology such as texting, social media interaction and calls,
:: being more upbeat after receiving texts,
:: a tendency to hide the phone or become nervous when you are close to their phone,
:: becoming more secretive,
:: going out more - for example more late nights at work or meeting more often with a particular friend,
:: a sudden and increased interest in appearance - for example buying new clothes or taking up gym sessions,
:: acting more distant and cold towards you,
:: being vague about their whereabouts and who they have been with,
:: having less sex,
:: equally, wanting more sex could be a sign,
:: talking a lot about someone else and dropping their name or mentioning their point of view in conversations, or talking about them and suddenly ceasing to mention them (“it could be because they are playing it safe by keeping the person out of conversations incase they give away the new closeness with them,” explains Holmes).
It’s important to remember that, first and foremost, these are signs that something’s not quite right in your relationship (not necessarily that your partner is having an affair) - and communication is important to address this.
“Have a conversation about what is not right with your relationship, be it you are dissatisfied that sex has reduced or you spend less time together,” says Mason.
“Regardless of whether the emotional affair is going on, something is not right in your relationship - and you have the power to address that.”
People can also become quite defensive when they’re having an emotional affair.
“Especially when they’re doing something which they might be excusing themselves for - for example, thinking ‘oh it’s only lunch’,” explains Holmes.
“If you tell your partner that they seem to be texting a lot or late home a lot, they might get defensive and this behaviour is often a sign of guilt.”
3. Becoming distanced
“If two people have been emotionally close in a relationship and shared a lot with each other, when one of them starts to share these things with someone else, their partner might notice they’re not being kept in the loop anymore,” says Holmes. “So sensing you’re no longer included in their life or their thought processes is a sign.”
How to handle emotional cheating.
The key to dealing with this behaviour is communication, although Holmes suggests taking a different approach than you’d expect.
“Rather than saying ‘you never talk to me’ anymore, bring up that you don’t feel close to them anymore and you’re wondering why you’re not as close,” she advises.
“Steer away from making it accusatory and talk more about how you’re feeling.”