Many people come to therapy when they feel cheated on by their partner, not sexually but emotionally. They ask questions like:
- “My partner is texting people on their phone all day, even when they’re with me. Is this a problem or am I just blowing things out of proportion?”
- “My partner shares everything with their best friend, even personal details about our relationship. I understand that their friendship is special, but do I always have to feel left out?
- “My partner has always been a social magnet, but their flirting does not feel harmless anymore. How do I bring it up to them?”
Emotional infidelity is a complicated and ambiguous phenomenon. There are many contextual factors that determine if an action can be labeled as emotional cheating, like personal and relationship boundaries, the tone and content of communication, disclosure of sensitive information, and breaking your partner’s trust.
Emotional cheating has the potential to destroy relationships and, therefore, needs to be addressed. Here are three ways partners can cheat emotionally and what you can do to call out their problematic behavior.
1. Excessive and secretive flirting
Flirting is a common form of emotional cheating. It can be harmless fun or a way to boost your ego, but if your partner is doing it behind your back, it could be crossing the line.
Innocuous flirting with strangers can also be distinguished from maintaining "flirtationships" with specific people. If your partner keeps returning to a certain person in their life for the flirtation kick, they might end up developing a sense of intimacy and comfort in the dynamic—gradually opening the gateway for larger transgressions.
This may not be a problem for people who are in relationships that have more accommodative boundaries. But, for the average monogamous relationship, clandestine flirting can be a slow poison. Initiating, maintaining, and hiding flirtationships can be easier online, and can turn into affairs, according to a study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy.
If you think your partner’s flirting habit has become too big to ignore, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do they seem more engaged when they’re talking to this other person?
- Are they always quick to respond to their texts or calls?
- Is their relationship with this person affecting your relationship with them?
If yes, it might be time for a serious conversation with your partner. Sometimes people don’t even realize they are flirting because it is a part of their personality. Therefore, it is essential that you vocalize your concern, reassess boundaries, and establish what is mutually acceptable.
It’s perfectly natural to have close relationships outside of your romantic relationship. You can’t expect your partner to come home and tell you every little detail about their day and defer to you for every problem they are facing.
But what happens when intimate information about your relationship and your partner’s life is divulged to a third party? What about when someone else is weighing in on issues that are meant to be solved by just the two of you?
When someone outside the relationship becomes the sole confidant of your partner, especially on matters about your relationship, it can affect the foundation of your relationship. This type of emotional cheating can be just as damaging as an affair because it creates an emotional bond that should be reserved for your relationship.
A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin confirms what many of us suspect: A person experiencing emotional intimacy outside their relationship is more likely to be unfaithful sexually as well.
In such a situation, it might be wise to involve professional help and figure out how to make your relationship a space where both partners feel comfortable.
3. Seeking virtual intimacy
In the age of social media, it’s easy to connect with people from all over the world without ever leaving your couch. While there’s nothing wrong with having online friends, problems arise when those relationships start to take precedence over your real-life ones.
Internet infidelity is a phenomenon exclusive to our day and age. According to a study published in The Family Journal, it provides an avenue for a person in a committed relationship to access emotional (or sexual) intimacy with someone else with a certain degree of detachment.
But such relationships can be very real. Just because one does not have to meet or face the person they are getting involved with does not mean that their new bond is artificial. An internet relationship can also have very real consequences, like sapping away energy and time that was meant for your relationship.
If you think your partner might be involved in an emotional affair online, here are four signs to look out for:
- They’re spending more time online than they used to.
- They’re being secretive about their online activity.
- They’re talking about someone else more than they used to.
- They seem to be in a better mood when they’re around their computer or phone.
If you notice any of these signs, it’s important to talk to your partner about what you’re seeing and how it makes you feel. Often, people involved in emotional affairs don’t realize how much their behavior is hurting their relationship. By talking openly and honestly, you can help your partner see the impact their behavior is having on you and your relationship and take steps to resolve the issue.
Every couple defines their emotional and sexual boundaries in some way. For some people, the boundaries are established after deliberation. For others, they are assumed. To avoid confusion and transgressions, it is important that couples talk openly about boundaries instead of hoping that they will simply guess correctly.