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What Is an Emotional Affair?

They may be in the eyes of the beholder, but there are some bottom lines.

Pricilla Du Preez/unsplash
Source: Pricilla Du Preez/unsplash

When I see couples in which one partner feels like the other is having an emotional affair, the conversation often goes like this (of course, any mix of genders is possible):

She: I was looking up something on your phone and stumbled on text exchanges between you and Whitney from work. What’s up?

He: Oh, she is just a friend. She’s going through a hard time in her relationship with her boyfriend so I was offering her some support.

She: But you’re talking about us, about how you feel the same at times – that I don’t understand how you feel, that I overreact. We’ve never even talked about that.

He: I’m just trying to help her feel better.

She: But you’ve never said that to me.

He: It’s nothing. No big deal. I bet you talk to your girlfriends about me when you go out with them for drinks.

She: Sure, but this feels different. She’s another woman.

He: She’s a friend. It doesn’t mean anything.

She: It does to me.

He: You’re blowing this out of proportion.

What’s going on here?

It's easy to get into an argument about whose reality is right—the start of an emotional affair vs. supporting a friend: What did you say? Why is this a problem? Stop micromanaging me or making a big deal about nothing. Why are you blowing this off? And it's easy to get into a heated emotional debate about what constitutes an emotional affair and what does not: How and why would it feel different if it were two guys talking? Is it about friendship and empathy, about blowing off steam about your partner, or something else?

Or is it about the couple's relationship? Feeling like your partner is having an emotional affair really is in the eyes of the beholder but our perceptions are shaped by our pasts. She, for example, may be particularly sensitive to her partner talking to another woman because she had past partners who cheated on her or because one of her parents had a long-term "close friend" that no one really talked about.

Similarly, his reactions to her may be molded by his past experience: that he is particularly sensitive to talking with her about things that bother him because his history has been that when he does, he receives criticism or anger or micromanaging and so he holds back.

Emotional affair red flags

All this being said, are there red flags for emotional affairs? Here's my list. Compare and contrast them against your own:

  • You never talk about the relationship. He never mentions this friend from work. This implies secrecy, or wanting to keep it secret. This may be driven by worry that the other person will overreact, or a sense of guilt or excitement about the secrecy itself. Why haven't you mentioned this person before with your partner?
  • There is anticipation. You get excited about talking with this person—it’s special, you’re getting attached, there may be sexual chemistry and there may be fantasies fueling this.
  • You are sharing intimate information about yourself that you wouldn’t share with your partner. This is not about complaining about how your partner can be a slob at times around the house to your guy or girlfriends, but something deeper. Often these conversations replicate what you as a couple had and were able to do (or maybe never were able to do) at the start of your relationship. You found someone with whom you felt safe, with whom you could lean into a relationship that is emotionally different from guy or girlfriends' chats, with whom you could open up and feel understood.
  • There is an intimate response back; you bond around common problems. The difference between an emotional affair and say, therapy, in which you do the same type of intimate sharing, is that therapy isn't a balanced conversation: The therapist isn't equally disclosing. What ramps up the connection is that the other person not only acknowledges your feelings but shares theirs in a way that, again, is different from friends. You feel special, more understood. And if you are having similar problems—common struggles in your relationship, troubles at work—the bond becomes deeper: This is someone who understands what I am going through.
  • You know this would bother your partner if they knew but you do it anyway. Now some folks may be clueless that their behavior would bother their partner, but that is often not the case—that, yes, if my partner knew about what we were talking about they would feel hurt, but they suspect it but ignore it. Again: Why? If you care about your partner, and even if you feel that what you’re doing isn’t wrong, why would you continue to do something that you know might hurt them?

The theme running these red flags is the secrecy and withholding, the depth of conversation, the anticipation, and the excitement. But what an emotional affair has in common with a physical affair is that it is a possibly bad solution to an underlying problem: the conversations, and the relationship, are telling you about something missing in your life that you need. It may be about communication in the relationship: I don’t feel safe talking to you about things because you blow up or don’t listen or are critical. It may be about a lack of common interests. It may be about feeling special, appreciated, understood, or having someone to empathize with and listen to.

Forget the labels and avoid the arguments over whether it’s an emotional affair or not; that's not the real issue. The real issue is that your partner isn’t happy and is feeling threatened and that, for you, something is missing from your life and relationship. Focus on that—what you both need to feel better and more connected.