When it comes to relationships, the words “cheating” and “infidelity” are very rarely a good thing. Whether it’s physical or emotional, cheating is, ultimately, a betrayal.

While betrayal may be the textbook definition of cheating and infidelity, the reality of the action is far more complicated. What one person sees as cheating, another might not. There’s also the good old “hall pass,” in which a couple gives each other permission for one freebie night with a special, predetermined person, so it doesn’t necessarily “count” as infidelity at all. Then there are those who consider flirting to be emotional cheating, while others regard it as harmless fun. Basically, trying to pinpoint exactly what constitutes cheating and infidelity requires a lot of factors that extend past Merriam-Webster’s definition of the words.

But, at its core, emotional cheating or emotional infidelity (whichever phrase you prefer) is when someone in a relationship violates the emotional and intimate boundaries that have been established by those in the relationship. Even if this emotional development with someone else doesn’t evolve into something more (for example, physical infidelity) or interfere with your relationship, it’s still a form of cheating on your partner.

Here’s what you should understand about emotional cheating, including what it might look like in real life and how you can try to prevent it.

What Is Emotional Cheating?

For the most part, the definition of physical infidelity is less blurry than that of emotional infidelity. Generally speaking, without getting into a list of caveats, physical cheating is when someone is having sexual relations with a person outside of their relationship and doing so without permission from their partner(s). Emotional cheating, on the other hand, is much harder to summarize.

“Emotional infidelity is a type of infidelity that is harder to define because it’s incredibly nuanced,” says Natasha Marie, sexual wellness expert at MysteryVibe, an award-winning sex toy company. “What makes emotional infidelity such a divisive subject is that everyone will have a different understanding of what constitutes emotional cheating. It’s not always as tangible as a physical betrayal, like having sex with someone other than your partner.”

The lack of tangible “proof” can make witnessing or even identifying emotional infidelity difficult, as well as addressing it with your partner, says Marie. What makes emotional cheating even more complicated is that people aren’t necessarily intentionally pursuing this type of infidelity. Instead, more often than not, they’re simply turning to someone outside their relationship for advice, solace, and support.

“Emotional infidelity can happen when one person intentionally seeks external validation or affection, but can also occur from a misunderstanding, miscommunication… or an innocuous attempt at building a friendship that took another direction,” says Marie. “It is possible to inadvertently develop a relationship that constitutes emotional cheating.”

Emotional cheating
Credit: Djim Loic/Unsplash

However, as this bond develops and strengthens, it can reach a point where engaging in intimate conversation or emotionally relying on someone other than your partner becomes a conscious choice. Of course, it’s natural and very human to look for advice and friendship in people outside your relationship — your romantic partner can’t single-handedly meet all your human-connection needs. That said, maintaining a healthy relationship is still about staying within those established boundaries. It involves being cognizant about what you share with someone and recognizing when you might be stepping over the line. Even if you don’t want to admit it to yourself, when you go a little too far in disclosing information that you shouldn’t or lean too much on someone who isn’t your partner, you can feel it.

“For example, avoidance or inaction is a conscious choice,” says Marie. “If you decide to ignore your intuition or the signs that the relationship you’re developing might breach an emotional boundary, that’s a choice. Emotional infidelity is still infidelity, even if your partner never finds out. It’s as much about your internalisation as the other person or persons.”

Emotional Cheating vs. Flirting

Some people believe flirting to be harmless, but it certainly doesn’t always feel that way when you’re on the other side of the relationship — and especially if all that flirting is directed towards one person. So is there a line between emotional infidelity and flirting? Well, that can be a slippery slope and involves the boundaries you and your partner have set for your relationship.

“Upon entering a serious or exclusive relationship, many couples adopt what they assume are the standard boundaries of monogamy instead of having an open conversation about what works for them,” says Marie. “For instance, what is the difference between flirting with a friend and emotional infidelity? Is flirting always considered emotional infidelity? It depends. It is if that’s what you and your partner established. Some couples are more flexible about flirting, and even encourage it, as long as it doesn’t lead to anything physical.”

“Emotional cheating is different from flirting in its longevity and depth,” says Nicole Moore, a relationship coach and love expert. “Flirting is typically a one-time thing and very lighthearted. Emotional cheating, on the other hand, takes place over a prolonged period and usually involves ever-increasing intimacy taking place.”

Flirting is surface-level fun that can give your ego a boost and isn’t meant to substitute something in your relationship with your partner. However, emotional cheating is a substitute and runs far deeper than a surface giggle here or there, explains Moore.

What Does Emotional Cheating Look or Feel Like IRL?

For starters, unlike physical cheating, emotional infidelity is missing a neon sign. It’s subtle, like private jokes and knowing glances. But there’s no exact evidence of emotional infidelity because it looks and feels different based on the people involved.

“For some, emotional infidelity may be spending time one-on-one with someone in a setting that looks like a date,” says Jessica January Behr, PsyD., a licensed psychologist and founder/director of Behr Psychology, a private psychotherapy practice in New York City. “For someone else, emotional infidelity may be texting with someone specific without your partner’s knowledge. For others, it may even be liking an Instagram photo.”

If you’re experiencing guilt over your behaviour, it’s probably because you know you’re crossing either a spoken or unspoken boundary within your relationship, says Behr.

What you might consider a sign of emotional infidelity is very much based on the expectations you and your partner have for each other and the boundaries you have set. But there are some things to look out for when it comes to emotional infidelity, according to Marie:

  • Developing sexual tension for a person other than your partner
  • Developing a romantic attachment to a person other than your partner
  • Preferring the company of another person to your partner
  • Developing feelings of intimacy and closeness that you don’t normally experience in other friendships
  • Constant communication with the person to whom you have a level of romantic attraction
  • Preferring more frequent communication with a person over your partner
  • Sharing intimate details of your life and thoughts with a person other than your partner
  • Feeling like you have a “special” and “unique” connection with this person
  • Lying to your partner about your communication with this person
  • Feelings of guilt due to the nature of your relationship with the person who isn’t your partner

How Boundaries Can Help Prevent Emotional Cheating

Healthy relationships need boundaries — not assumed boundaries, but boundaries that are discussed and hammered out very early on in the relationship. With boundaries come expectations as to what’s okay and what’s not okay for the relationship and the people in it. And, because no two people are the same, that means no two relationships are the same, nor is everyone’s idea of infidelity a spitting image of every other person’s idea of infidelity, boundaries, and rules.

“Due to the nuances of emotional attachments, communicating and establishing boundaries within your relationship is extremely important in preventing potential harm and for the overall improvement of the relationship,” says Marie. “It’s important to note that these boundaries might evolve throughout a relationship and are worth revisiting occasionally. As you grow, your understanding of yourself and life might change, your life circumstances and/or relationship dynamics might change; thus, your ethics might change.”

Because of all this change and evolving, emotional boundaries should be an ongoing conversation. Too many people interpret the boundaries as if they have no space for movement or growth, but that’s not the case. “Boundaries can be fluid and liberating when they work to align and support your relationship,” says Marie.

While no one can promise you that there won’t be some level of emotional infidelity in your relationship, either on your part or on that of your partner, if you’ve done the work required to understand what this type of infidelity means, then that’s something to be proud of. Relationships and the people within them change over time. Keeping the lines of communication open in your relationship will help you and your partner stay on the same page no matter which chapter of your relationship you happen to be in.

How to Deal with Emotional Cheating In a Relationship

No matter which side of the cheating you’re on, getting through emotional infidelity is all about taking a look at your personal needs and whether or not they’re being satisfied in your current relationship.

“To deal with emotional infidelity, you must decide what your needs are and how, if at all, your partner is meeting them,” says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City.

If you believe your partner may be emotionally cheating on you, remember that you don’t need to stay quiet and just deal with the situation as-is. “Oftentimes, when patients struggle with staying with cheating partners, they have an underlying expectation that they must ‘make due’ with the little they are given,” says Romanoff. But “making due” with a situation, whether it’s emotional infidelity or physical infidelity, is never fair to the one who’s being cheated on. In this case, it may be hard, but you need to talk to your partner, tell them what you need, and redraw the boundaries.

“Be honest with yourself and consider the breadth and depth of your needs,” says Romanoff. “Do not settle for someone who cannot meet them or makes you feel like you are asking for too much.” Remember that you are worthy of love and that you’re not stuck in this relationship, even though it may feel that way.

On the other hand, if you are emotionally cheating, it’s important to look at what you’re not getting from your relationship, and how this other person may be filling that void.

“If there is any confusion about if you are engaging in emotional cheating, you might want to ask yourself a few questions,” says Behr. “For example, do I think I am doing something wrong? Am I experiencing guilt? Where is the guilt stemming from? Why am I doing this? Is it the attention? Would [I] be hurt if [my] partner were behaving in the same way [I am]?”

From there, you can try to take steps to make changes within your relationship so it better meets your needs. (Understanding both your and your partner’s love language may help you figure out why one or both of you aren’t feeling loved and appreciated.)

“It all comes down to communicating and discerning if you and your partner have compatible views on the boundaries of your relationship, have similar motivations to maintain those boundaries, and to what degree are capable of conflict resolution when a disagreement in values or opinions does emerge,” says Behr.

It’s important to communicate how you’re feeling about what’s going on, and how it’s affecting the relationship. You’ll both also need to see eye-to-eye on what emotional cheating is (and isn’t) in your personal relationship. If you struggle to find a middle ground on the matter, then a couples therapist might be your next move.

This story first appeared on www.shape.com

(Main and Feature Image Credit: Getty Images – Design: Alex Sandoval)

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