Aug 292008
am i cheating emotionally

Innocent friendships can cause problems in marriage or romantic relationships. (image by digital art Berlin, flickr)

When an “innocent” friendship causes problems in a love relationship, it’s emotional cheating. This description of emotional cheating includes tips from psychologists and marriage counselors.

Emotional cheating can be difficult to wrap your mind around. It’s not a physical affair; it’s a meeting of the mind and heart — which is why it’s called an “affair of the heart.” It’s an intimate friendship with someone of the opposite sex – not your partner.

Emotional infidelity doesn’t necessarily break spoken vows, create unwanted pregnancies, or spread physical illness. It’s an intimate friendship that crosses boundaries.

If you know your spouse cheated – or if you cheated on your partner – read After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful.

Intimate friendships cause serious problems in love relationships, and can be as devastating to a marriage or partnership as physical unfaithfulness — if not more so. Determining the difference between harmless flirting versus cheating is important to a healthy relationship, and can strengthen your relationship or marriage.

How Emotional Cheating Starts

Most people don’t plan to be emotionally unfaithful. Emotional cheating starts by casually chatting with coworkers or people they see regularly – and it grows into more than “friends.” They go for lunches, take business trips, or make special efforts to see the person’ to whom they’re getting attached. They think about their “friend” more and more, until it becomes a definite emotional bond. Those are signs of emotional cheating, and they definitely don’t help you achieve your marriage goals!

Internet relationships are more and more popular since everyone’s wired up. Emotional cheating now begins in chat rooms, forums, or discussion groups…and evolves into private conversations and emotional infidelity.

“Innocent” Friendships Online

In emotional infidelity over the internet, “friends” may never meet. This means that relationships can flourish in public places like the office or in private places, like one’s own home. Bonds can grow and emotional cheating can occur even when the coworker is at the other desk or the family is in the same room.

Anonymity is a potential problem with online relationships and emotional infidelity. There’s greater intimacy because you’re anonymous; you’re free to share the deepest darkest parts of yourself (parts you’re reluctant to share with someone in person). Further, you can build your friends up into the most wonderful, kind, smart, and funny people in your mind because you haven’t met – and you certainly haven’t dealt with dirty socks, disciplining kids, or getting lost in a new city together. Your relationship hasn’t been tried or tested. Emotional cheating becomes a slippery slope when you’re involved with a mysterious stranger.

If you’re wondering if your husband is cheating – emotionally or physically – read Is Your Husband Cheating? 5 Signs of an Affair.

Are Women More Likely to Have an Emotional Affair?

Women are usually the ones who push the relationship further. Women want relationships to move from friendship to love, from computer to reality. Women tend to get more emotionally involved and are more emotionally invested than men. Men, on the other hand, see the online relationships or emotional infidelity as part of their lives – a nice part, but just one part. Women envision soul mates or life partners; men are just having fun and connecting with other people.

Some marriage counselors say that emotional cheating is more difficult to survive than physical infidelity.

If your boyfriend isn’t just cheating emotionally, read Is Your Boyfriend Emotionally Abusive? 4 Ways to Get Strong and Leave.

6 Signs of Emotional Cheating

An affair of the heart happens when you:

  1. Discuss your partner and relationships with your innocent friend. You share your fears, hopes, and dreams (this is emotional intimacy).
  2. Meet your “friend” for dinner or lunch without telling your partner.
  3. Keep your computer, files, and internet sites password-protected.
  4. Hide or are secretive about your life, relationships, and activities.
  5. Keep your partner waiting while you spend time with your “friend.”
  6. Stay in regular, intimate contact with ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends. Emotional cheating can spring from close relationships with past lovers.

Instead of assuming or vowing emotional infidelity will never happen to you, spend time with your partner. Have open and honest discussions about your relationship. Have fun together; the more you make your partner happy, the more likely he/she will reciprocate! And, work on achieving your relationship goals together.

And, sometimes it helps to learn why good relationships go bad.

Don’t forget what brought you together in the first place. “It’s so easy,” says marriage counselor Gary Neuman, “to forget why we fell in love.”

Have you had an innocent friendship with a member of the opposite sex that caused problems in your relationship?  I welcome your comments below…


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  133 Responses to “What is Emotional Cheating? How Innocent Friendships Cause Problems”

  1. Dear confused,

    The first thing that would worry me is that your fiance keeps talking to her ex boyfriend even though it really bothers you. Her friendship with him may be perfectly innocent – he may be the nicest, goodest guy in the world – but she should put your feelings first.

    The second thing is the emotional and physical distance. That is often a sign of pulling away.

    If I were you, I’d talk to her about the distance. Set aside a couple of hours, and spend time talking about what’s been going on. Listen to what she says without arguing or getting defensive. I don’t know what’s going on with her, but you might be able to find out if you’re open, kind, gentle, and listening without talking.

    Let me know how it goes!


  2. Hello, my fiance has been talking with an ex boyfriend text and pic swap. It really bothers me and she knows it. I even let her go alone to see him after I met him. She says he is a good person. She has become distant both emoitionally and phsically and emotionally. We are together all the time. What can I do?

  3. Dear Mora Leigh,

    If you feel guilty about being friends with him, then you need to let him go — for your own good and his. Whether or not you call it “emotional cheating”, the fact is that he needs to be working on his marriage. He has to start talking to his wife, and investing his time and energy on building a better relationship with her.

    In my opinion, you’re not helping him become a better man. Before he can build friendships with women, he needs to make sure his marriage is solid.

    I’m sorry – I know that you care for him and like spending time with him. I believe this is one of those times that you have to be cruel to be kind.

    What do you think? What is the right thing to do? Think with your head, not your heart…


  4. My friend got married to his ex girlfriend a few months ago. He’s in the marines and was just wanting someone to love him.. Before he went through with it he would tell me he didn’t know if it was right to get married and opened up to me about his feelings. I’ve always been there for him and tried to help. He’s home from out of state for Christmas and we’ve been spending a lot of time together.. We’re really emotionally connected and he’s regretting getting married… I feel guilty about the whole situation and wish the circumstances were different. I don’t want to be a factor in him getting divorced but I think it’s to late that for that… Nothing physical has happened between us.. It feels like we are meant to be together but It feels like we’re doing something wrong at the same time! He goes out I state again soon and idk how things will work out I majorly need advice:(

  5. Dear hurting,

    My advice is to find ways to be kinder and more gentle to yourself. I tend to be the same way – I beat myself up for mistakes and have a hard time forgiving myself for even the littlest things!

    I’ve learned that if we’re hard on ourselves, we’re hard on the people we love. It’s not possible to be harsh and unforgiving with ourselves, and kind and loving with the people we’re closest to.

    I’m forgiving of everyone except myself, my husband, and my closest family members. For some reason, I hold the people closest to me to extremely high standards. This is very painful and destructive for both me and them, and for our relationship.

    So, my advice is to un-learn your negative ways of thinking. I’m a big fan of counseling – sometimes you only need a couple of sessions to start to change how you think and treat yourself. Books are also good — I recommend books about being more compassionate to yourself. I get books from the library – I search for books on self-compassion, self-forgiveness, etc.

    Learning how to be kind to yourself will improve your emotional health, your marriage, and even your friendships with others. It’s so important — I hope you

    Here’s an article I wrote about self-forgiveness and overcoming self-hatred:

    I hope this helps – and encourage you to start exploring ways to stop punishing yourself so harshly! Maybe you need to figure out why you do it, where the roots are. Or, maybe you just need to work on thought-stopping (a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy). I don’t know – this is something you need to explore in person, with a counselor.

    I wish you all the best, and would give you a big hug if you were here! :-) Come back anytime, share your thoughts.


  6. Laurie,

    Thank you so much for your reply.

    I did exactly as I described in the original post. I have always been one to punish myself harshly. Self-guilt and shame have always been major issues of mine. I am sure that the man we are speaking of doesn’t even think of all the times we talked to each other. He referred to me numerous times as “his friend”. I referred to him several times as “my friend”. The fact that we were friends was reinstated numerous times. Again, I sometimes think he would have reached for more if I would have let him.

    I just love my husband so very much. I would never hurt him for the world. I always punish myself harshly. It’s hard for me to get over mistakes I have made or wrong I have done. In my heart of hearts, I do not think I engaged in an emotional affair. I think my crime was not severing ties earlier and not “calling him out” when he would try to flirt with me just to keep a level of friendship. I’m a friendly person–I love talking to people and getting to know them.

    I just doubt myself so much. I constantly doubt myself. I think my problems lie in that. I reached out to you, Laurie, for your advice. Can I have your thoughts?

  7. Dear hurting,

    One of the most difficult parts of being married is hurting your spouse, forgiving yourself, and moving on.

    You made a mistake. You regret your connection with this man, and you severed it. You have a renewed focus and dedication to your husband and marriage, and you want to make your husband happy.

    I’m a bit confused about the degree of self-loathing, shame, and guilt you’re carrying around. From what you say, you were chatting with your friend on Facebook every day, but you talked about stuff that you’d talk about with your friends. Either you did more with this man than you describe here, or there is something else fueling your self-perception. It seems like your self-punishment does not fit the crime of emotional cheating.

    Think about how much self-loathing and shame you feel…is it appropriate to the mistake you made? You can answer me here — or just think about it.

    The way I see it, you made a mistake. This won’t be the last mistake you make in your marriage, I’m afraid. I’ve hurt my husband more times than I can count, which makes me feel absolutely terrible. But, I tried to learn from each mistake I made. And I tried to make it up to him by not repeating my mistakes.

    The first few years of our marriage were the hardest, because the learning and growth curve is so steep! Being married is an art, and it takes time to learn it. You’ll make more mistakes — and you need to learn how to forgive yourself and move on.

    What do you think?


  8. Dear Laurie,

    I am hurting. I’ve been married for a little while now, I’m young, and I just started a new job last year. Whenever I started this job, several of the men started to flirt with me. I’ve never really been a very flirtatious person, so I would just be friendly (not flirtatious) back.

    One of these men began messaging me on Facebook. Again, we would just have small talk back and forth. It got to the point where we would talk daily–just small talk (movies, music, books, work, life etc.). I never looked at him as more than a friend. I told him things that I would tell any of my friends. When we would talk, I always referenced my husband often–daily.

    I think this man tried to flirt with me often and I never really picked it up. The times that I did notice, I would always quickly change the subject or not play along. I noticed that he seemed to be very unhappy in his marriage/life. The few times he ever mentioned anything like that to me, I would always tell him that I would be praying that things would turn around.

    We hadn’t talked in a month or so and I was just sick of Facebook in general. I later went on to delete my Facebook–this has been several months ago. I also wanted rid of it because this experience made me realize that not everyone’s intentions are pure. I just wanted rid of the avenue. We still work together and all seems to be well.

    To make a long story short, I feel so guilty. I feel terrible that this person flirted with me and that I allowed it out of partial ignorance and that I merely looked at him as a “friend”. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. I do not believe in making mountains out of molehills. I think if I would have “picked up” on his cues, he would have acted on them. I basically think he was “filling me out”. It hurts me and it makes me feel guilty. I absolutely adore my husband–he is the love of my life. I do not want anyone else nor have I ever wanted anyone else. I, by nature, am a friendly person. I enjoy talking to people and getting to know them.

    Laurie, I need your advice. I need your help. I would never intentionally hurt my husband. Every marriage has its struggles and we have had our share of them. However, we truly adore one another and are dedicated to making it work. I just carry around so much self-loathing, guilt, and shame. I find myself breaking down to cry often because I’m so angry with myself.

  9. Christine,

    Yes, a husband who looks a pictures of girls on the internet is cheating on his wife.

  10. Also, how long has it been since you and he have been together without him contacting his ex-girlfriend? It took me a long time to get over my husband’s past, just because it takes time to heal.

  11. Dear Stephanie,

    I know how you feel – I was so insecure and jealous about my husband’s ex-girlfriend for the first 3 years he and I were together! And he kept reassuring me that he didn’t want to be with her, that he was completely over her.

    It was my own insecurities that kept me trapped in the web of suspicion, distrust, and pain. I was jealous not because of him, but because of me.

    Is this you?

    Your boyfriend hasn’t emotionally cheated on you, and is physically faithful to you. What is preventing you from trusting him?

  12. Laurie,
    When I first met my boyfriend, I knew he was the one. But then a problem occured – He would call his ex all the time, lied to her on the phone when I was with him saying “No I am not dating anyone, when at this time I had moved in with him, he would talk about his past sex/sextoys with her to me, go visit her, personal favors for her, and pay her bills. We were living together and I said we are not paying her bills.. he agreed, 4 months later i found receipts from stuff he paid for her.. he would talk to her, he saved pictures of her including some naked ones, and when i asked him to get rid of it, he would move it somewhere else, etc. I confronted him every time something happened, and one day i had my bags packed. After that day everything has changed.. he know longer does what he did before. However, his ex is constantly trying to contact him for money and favors. He doesnt give in. I m proud of him, forgave him and moved on.. Things were great, off and on I would think of it, but woukd push it out of my head. A trigger would happen every now and then (seeing the blanket that she was naked in, in a picture) and I would become upset. He is VERY VERY Supportive of me when I have a dream, or have a sad day becasue of it, or a trigger happens. I know he wont do it again, I trust him and love him to the moon and back, but the past is haunting me. I have dreams ALL the time about it, I have triggers in the house that bring back thoughts… when this happens he supports me, but i feel like im holding it over him and thats not my intention cause I want to move forward, for US to move forward. Help me : (

  13. I am very confused. My hubby of 20+ years began coming home from work talking about “Cat”, a new girl at work in his group …..all I heard about for weeks was her. I was getting suspicious because he began to be on the cell phone a lot, of course it was “for work”. Then we went on a trip and while he was in the shower I noticed his cell phone was on. I looked and found texts from him to her that were “more than friend comments”…the last two were “sleep tight :)” and “if I get bored in the middle of the night and can’t sleep I will text you”…..I confronted him, he denied any wrong doing. He also said she is just a friend. Two weeks later, he lost his wedding ring…he said he had to take it off for a work project! He thinks I am crazy and I think he is too close to this girl…..Am I wrong to feel like something is not kosher?