Infidelity is common. However, there are other ways to betray a partner’s trust. You can engage with someone other than your partner in ways that are as intimate. It’s called emotional cheating. 

Nyanda Sam-King, a licensed clinical social worker, defined emotional cheating as “an emotional connection between two people, which is no longer platonic.”

You may believe emotional cheating is inherently platonic, but Sam-King says you know you’ve transitioned from friendly into something more weighted when you can’t have the same type of discussions that you typically have with that individual in front of your partner.

“You can have various types of discussions with people and share a lot,” Sam-King says, “If you don’t necessarily feel comfortable having those deeply personal conversations with your partner present, that’s when one should reevaluate if there’s more there.”

Emotional Cheating Behavior Patterns

If you’re still unclear about the definition, Sam-King offered other examples of behavior that suggests emotional cheating. Some examples of emotional cheating can be sneaking communication, lying about the nature of the communication, starting to make plans and decisions that you made with your partner in the past, and creating a non-sexual, romantic future with that individual.

Why do People Cheat Emotionally?

While physical and emotional cheating may be regarded differently in society, the causes for seeking an emotional or physical affair are similar. They both usually occur as the product of an unmet need. Sam-King says the affair is usually not done with malicious intent. 

“People don’t set out to hurt their partners,” she said. “I don’t think anyone sets out to hurt anyone, but relationships are more susceptible to emotional cheating when the people in them haven’t cultivated a space for emotional intimacy, vulnerability and transparency. If you don’t have those pillars or that foundation within the relationship, it’s easier to find that source from other people.”

How Can an Emotional Affair Affect the Other Partner?

In addition to the shock and betrayal that one might expect, learning that their partner has been seeking the companionship of someone else, there is also the potential for feelings of inadequacy to develop. 

“We all know that it’s important to first be our own sources of our own happiness, but we also know that the people we surround ourselves with can enhance that or diminish that happiness,” Sam-King said. “The other person might wonder if they were someone who took away from their partner’s happiness and that’s why they were attracted to another type of energy. It could cause them to wonder if they’re enough.”

The betrayal and feelings of insecurity might mean that emotional cheating can take more of a toll on a relationship than a physical affair. 

It takes a lot of time trusting someone to share some of your most private thoughts and private feelings,” Sam-King said. “It’s easier to participate in physical intimacy. It’s more socially predictable. But, when it comes to emotional cheating, it’s more like, “You never told anyone that. What made you feel comfortable enough to open up to them in that way?” It feels more intimate. It feels more sacred and treasured because of the work that it took for you to be vulnerable.”

How do you Stop Emotionally Cheating?

With so many unknowingly entering into emotional affairs, many people might not be aware that they were being unfaithful. Once you realize it, Sam-King says acknowledgement, telling your partner, learn why you sought this relationship and hold yourself accountable without demonizing yourself. 

Safeguarding your Relationship From an Emotional Affair

Relationships easily fall into routine. What was once new and shiny can become dull if you aren’t intentional. Keep your relationship fresh and rich by continuing to date your partner.

“It’s cool to have date nights where you go to a comedy show or a movie, but it’s important to go on dates where you are able to speak to one another,” Sam-King said.

That level of intimacy may require that you first get clear with yourself. Interrogate what makes you feel safe, unsafe and seen. Then, you’re better able to communicate those needs to your partner. Sam-King says many grew up in households that lacked emotional intimacy, making it difficult to practice this with a partner. She encourages stumbling as long as you try again. 

“We’re like toddlers in this space trying to learn how to navigate,” she said. 

If you are with the right person, you can expect them to be patient. 

“It’s about trusting that you have a space where you can have these conversations,” Sam-King said. “First, you have to trust that this person sees you and you’re not in it alone.”