It’s easy to think of cheating as purely physical. Drunken hookups. Friends turned lovers. Steamy office romance.

But cheating doesn’t always look like a scene from “Outlander.” The American Psychological Association says infidelity can encompass any situation when someone in a committed partnership “becomes sexually or emotionally involved” with someone else.

If you’ve ever been stung by a partner habitually blurring the lines between friendship and flirtation with someone else, you get it. Emotional cheating is difficult to pin because it involves crossing invisible lines — boundaries you thought were sacred in your relationship.

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What is emotional cheating?

Emotional cheating is an affair of the heart and mind.

It involves feeling more deeply bonded to someone outside your relationship than you do to your partner — and then acting on the feeling by pursuing contact and connection with that person, even if it requires deception.

Signs of emotional cheating include:

  • feeling closer to the other person than your partner
  • experiencing an urge to keep the relationship a secret
  • divulging intimate thoughts and feelings to someone other than your partner

In practice, an emotional affair might look like making someone else your life’s “leading lady” and downgrading your partner to a “supporting role” or intentionally deepening a bond with a crush through conversations, meetups, or even just texts.

Emotional infidelity can be sneaky and practically invisible to others — especially if the connection grows through texts or social channels. But there are some clues that suggest a friendship has slipped into the realm of cheating.

Feelings — the internal signs of emotional cheating

Emotional cheating starts (and sometimes ends) in your head. But that doesn’t make it harmless.

Some possibilities include:

  • spending more time thinking about the other person than your partner
  • experiencing sexual chemistry with the other person
  • feeling less attracted to your partner than usual
  • comparing your partner to the other person, in your mind
  • defending the other person if they come up in conversations with your partner

Behaviors — the external signs of emotional cheating

An emotional affair might invisible to the outside world. But there are a few clues:

  • venting to the other person about a partner
  • deleting or hiding texts and messages from a specific person
  • expressing anger or frustration when interrupted or pulled away from their phone or online chats
  • pulling away from a partner physically for no apparent reason
  • being deliberately vague about the nature, reason, or amount of time spent with another person
  • behaving defensively in a strange and unprovoked way (“Don’t worry, we didn’t touch each other!”)

What about emotional cheating on social media?

A large study involving married, cohabiting folks revealed that 5 percent to 12 percent of them engaged in “infidelity-related behaviors” on social media sites. In an interesting twist, the researchers didn’t focus on the specifics of the behavior — sexting or arranging meetups, for instance — but on how the behaviors felt.

Some examples:

  • experiencing an urge to hide DMs or texts from their partner
  • preferring to share deep feelings with someone online instead of their partner in-person
  • assuming their partner would be upset if they got a glimpse of recent chats, comments, or DMs

tl;dr

Let’s keep it 💯: Emotional boundaries are murky. But if you feel like a connection with an outside person is starting to erode your primary relationship, it probably is.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy outlines three features that differentiate plain ol’ platonic friendship and an emotional affair, including experiencing:

  • deeper emotional intimacy with the other person than the long-term partner
  • secrecy and deception in certain aspects of the relationship
  • sexual chemistry (whether acted on or not)

But for the partner being cheated on, these factors are tough to identify externally.

TBH, emotional cheating can look a lot like friendship from the outside. Let’s say your partner is a musician and you’re not. If long, passionate jam sessions with the neighbor light them up, is that emotional cheating? Or if your boo is a gym rat, should you be worried about endless DMing with the personal trainer they idolize?

Some things in life just aren’t cut and dry. Friendship is good. Mentors are good. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing deep friendships with folks across the gender spectrum. And let’s face it — it can be healthy to turn to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist when you’re looking for guidance on the next right step in your romantic relationship.

The key difference between intimate an friendship and emotional cheating is broken trust. It’s an emotional affair when you’ve breached the boundaries you and your partner have drawn around your relationship — on what belongs only to you as a unit, whether conversationally, emotionally, or physically. (Haven’t ever set those boundaries? It’s never too late!)

A note on safety

If you’re opening up to someone because your partner makes you feel unsafe, you are not cheating. It’s also not cheating if you spend time with a friend even though your partner has asked you to devote all your time to them. That request is a sign of a controlling and toxic relationship.

If you believe your safety is at risk, consider calling a domestic abuse hotline for help.

There’s nothing like the deep pain of betrayal. Emotional cheating adds an uncomfortable layer of confusion. You might feel like a fool for not realizing the depth of the “friendship.” You might wonder if you underreacted to earlier signs of infidelity. Or you might fear that you’re overreacting, since the connection never became physical.

Oof. Time to stop the questioning and do something.

First, know that turbulence in your romantic relationship doesn’t always indicate emotional cheating. You need to talk with your partner.

Some conversation tips:

  • Use “I” statements. For instance, “I feel hurt and lonely when you tell ____ about your feelings before you tell me.”
  • Focus on specific behaviors you’ve noticed.Instead of making assumptions about what you *think* your partner is doing, describe what you’ve witnessed — a lot of time texting someone else, anger at being interrupted, getting home later than usual, etc.
  • Explore boundaries. Maybe you’ve never had a conversation with your partner about what is and isn’t OK in the relationship. This conversation could be an opportunity to explore what each of you needs to feel supported and respected.
  • Listen. Someone can slip into a deeply emotional friendship without planning for it. Ask your partner how they see the nature of the other relationship, then listen.

What happens after your initial chat about emotional cheating depends on you and your partner.

Possible scenarios:

Whether you suspect cheating, know your boo is cheating, or are knee-deep in the murky waters of an emotional affair yourself, the first step forward is an honest heart-to-heart with your partner. No matter what the future holds, communication is key in the present.

The pain from emotional cheating runs deep. Some emotional infidelity never turns physical, but it still involves a breach of trust and support.

But it’s never too late for a heart-to-heart conversation. Openly sharing your feelings and fears is the first step to turning to your partner — instead of someone else — for support. One study showed that a therapist can be a source of support when people seek relationship help.