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How to Define Emotional Infidelity: Types of Cheating

How you define infidelity can make or break your relationship.

When it comes to sex and relationships, potential problems are constantly brewing for couples. Though some may have a slightly different definition of what qualifies as infidelity, most people seem to believe that it involves sexual or physical betrayal. This type of betrayal is incredibly painful for the partner who has been cheated on, and countless self-help books discuss ways to cope with this kind of hurtful event when it penetrates a romantic union.

Yet what often gets lost in the discussion of infidelity is attention to emotional infidelity and the ugly ways in which it can plant seeds of doubt and dismantle a relationship. In discussing emotional infidelity, I'm not talking about finding out that your partner follows pornographic websites or is connecting with others somewhere in sexual cyberspace. Even though those partners may not be having actual sex — or even meeting in person — the nature of the infidelity is still sexual.

Emotional infidelity refers to the behavior that one partner engages in which fosters emotional intimacy in the here-and-now with someone else and sometimes promotes the possibility of sexual intimacy in the future. Many people maintain secret or semi-secret friendships when there is a clear mutual interest or attraction, while others may not be interested, but encourage others' interest in them for the sake of boosting their own ego or distracting themselves from a sense of boredom with their partner.

The sad reality is that emotional infidelity is often totally hidden, to the extent that you may not know if or when your partner is emotionally cheating. Because the connection is not sexually based, there are fewer opportunities to detect the infidelity. For example, when there's no need for a hotel room, it's difficult for anyone to find proof of the betrayal upon review of a credit card bill.

Many articles and books issue advice on how to tell if your partner is physically cheating, but what are the tips to tell if your partner is emotionally cheating? The truth is that it's very difficult to tell — in some cases, next to impossible. The best indicator is to consider the character of your partner and to ask yourself how much you truly trust his or her integrity. How loyal is your partner to his or her friends? To his or her job? To his or her family? Is there a history of unfaithfulness of any form in the past?

Ultimately, we all have strong instincts that guide us. Your instincts, like your conscious mind, will find it a challenge to tell if someone is emotionally cheating on you, but they will easily tell you whether your partner is inherently trustworthy or, conversely, prone to infidelity. It never hurts to discuss this issue with your partner so that you can be sure you have the same definition of infidelity.

Check in with your partner today about what he or she considers cheating. Rather than ask in a detective-like manner, mention that you read an article that highlights how men and women often have different definitions and offer up the topic for discussion. (Perhaps, in the end, how he or she responds to the topic will speak volumes.) Ultimately, to function happily as a couple, your agreed-upon definition of cheating must include both emotional and sexual components.

Finally, years of working with couples have shown me that couples often wait until they're in a troubled spot to discuss uncomfortable issues, and the issue of emotional infidelity is no exception. In my clinical work, I always say that the best time to discuss problems is completely counterintuitive: Do it when things are going well to prevent a major battle later.