Emotional cheating doesn’t get the same fiery real estate in movies—let’s face it: watching two people text back and forth isn’t ~quite~ as riveting as seeing them caught with their pants down in bed—but IRL, it can be even more traumatic.
You see, unlike physical cheating, an emotional affair can never be blamed on alcohol or one poor decision. You just can’t foster a deep attachment with someone overnight, explains Melissa Schacter, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist. Emotional cheating typically takes weeks or months of interaction to develop, and it involves mutual or unrequited feelings—which don’t just go away after a night of irresponsible sex.
There’s no fixed definition for emotional cheating, Schacter notes, because it’s a concept that keeps evolving. She thinks each couple is an expert in their own relationship and gives her patients the freedom to decide what constitutes as emotional betrayal based on the rules and boundaries they’ve set for themselves.
That said, Schacter views emotional cheating as having three components: an emotional connection, secrecy, and an element of eroticism.
A close, platonic friendship is one thing. But if you’re in a monogamous relationship and you find yourself exchanging daily texts with, say, a coworker (emotional connection) that you don’t want you partner to see (secrecy), and the thought of kissing him or her excites you (eroticism)—you may be veering into emotional-cheating territory.
And sadly, according to Schacter, it’s now easier than ever to start an emotional affair, because cell phones and social media make people accessible 24/7 (and make those conversations, well, private). The whole “sliding into the DMs” thing is so real.
So…how do you know if your partner is emotionally cheating on you? Are there any signs? In short, yes—though they’re less obvious than a forgotten thong shoved in a closet. Here’s what to look for:
Signs Your Partner Is Emotionally Cheating On You
1. They don’t want you anywhere near their phone.
If your partner is suddenly positioning themselves away from you while using their phone—or gets annoyed when you go anywhere near it—they may be…dun-dun-dun…trying to hide something.
A noticeable increase in texting and social media use can also be reason to be wary of emotional cheating. But if they’re now stashing their phone in their pocket or bringing it to the bathroom when they used to leave it chilling on the couch, that’s even more suspect.
2. They’re acting…different.
On that note, any obvious change in your partner’s behavior may be worth investigating, says Schacter. This applies regardless of whether they’re spending significantly more time on Facebook, or if they suddenly want to hit the gym alone instead of as a couple.
A clear change in behavior doesn’t necessarily mean they’re emotionally cheating, but it does mean something is likely up. They might not even be spending time with this person…but they could be seeking more physical distance from you to match their emotional gap.
3. They seem to know a lot about this person.
If you notice your S.O. drops a friend’s name and shares details about them or their life from time to time, it’s likely NBD. But if you start to notice that they frequently bring up the same person (of the sex they’re attracted to) for random reasons (“Oh, my friend Rachel loves that beer”), don’t take it too lightly. Not only does your partner clearly know a good amount about this person, they’re also thinking about said person enough that they’re consistently on their mind.
Keep in mind, this is typically a pretty subtle and early sign of emotional cheating, since once an actual emotional affair starts, your partner might be extra careful not to talk about their other love interest in front of you (because, hi, obvious). So take note of it when you can.
4. They’re sharing a lot less.
In a healthy relationship, it’s important to talk openly about what’s going on in each others’ lives, even if it’s just boring day-to-day stuff. So if your partner stops sharing stuff with you and is fielding questions with third-grader answers (“fine,” “nothing,” “okay”), it could be a red flag.
They may be avoiding you because they know they’ve done something wrong. Or, it could be slightly worse than that: They might be spending so much time communicating with whomever they’re emotionally cheating with that they’re all chatted out by the time they come home. Oof.
Sure, it’s totally possible that your partner could be going through a rough patch at work and prefers to spare you the gory details. But again, if his or her behavior seems atypical, it’s best to trust your gut and talk about it, Schacter says.
5. You no longer feel like a priority.
Unlike a one-night stand, an emotional affair requires time and energy from the person involved in it, given its intimate nature. So if you begin to feel like an afterthought instead of a priority, it could be that your partner is too preoccupied with someone else.
For instance, if you’re out together and they seem distracted and/or are glued to their phone without a legit explanation, that’s…a problem.
The same can be said if your partner has gotten into the habit of canceling plans with you at the last minute (especially if it’s to hang out with one person in particular).
“Ask yourself if you’re being treated fairly and whether your partner’s behavior seems off,” says Schacter. If you can honestly say no to the first part and yes to the second, it’s time to address that with them.
6. They get upset with you for no reason.
Picking fights out of the blue can be a sign of many things, and one of those includes emotional cheating. Quite simply, if your partner has feelings for another person, they may lash out on you at times either out of frustration or a temptation to ease their guilt. If they’re mad at you or you’re mad at them, then they have an excuse to talk to someone who they get along with…right? In their mind, yes.
7. They get super defensive with you.
Whether they’re picking arguments or not, if they jump onto the defense every time you get into a touchy conversation, that’s a sign they might be hiding something. If they take things a step further and start making you feel like the person in the wrong for having suspicions, they could be teetering into a type of manipulative emotional abuse called gaslighting.
Gaslighting isn’t always a sign of cheating (emotional or otherwise), but people rely on the tactic when they want to make you feel guilty instead of themselves. So try to notice if they call you “crazy,” dismiss any civil attempts at talking about the state of your relationship, and/or regularly turn accusations or negative feelings around on you.
8. They’re not as interested in sex.
So your other half no longer initiates in the bedroom or appears disconnected during the act? That’s a possible cause for concern, particularly if you’re unaware of any major issues currently going on in their life.
Whether it’s intercourse, kissing, or holding hands, physical intimacy is a huge and vital part of a successful relationship, and any sudden change in that department may be a sign of a bigger problem.
In certain cases, an emotional affair can be a gateway to sex because it’s a logical next step, Schacter explains. However, for some, emotional cheating might be purely about how another person makes them feel (and thus a physical relationship isn’t on the table).
But either scenario is, obviously, really hurtful.
9. You’re suddenly having a lot more sex.
On the flipside, sometimes when a person is emotionally cheating but they haven’t made any physical moves, the frequency of sex within their committed relationship can increase. “The passion for the other person they desire is played out in the relationship they’re already in,” explains Ginnie Love, PhD, a psychotherapist practicing Florida.
If this happens, don’t jump to the conclusion that your partner is having an emotional affair. But do consider the change in context with their overall behavior.
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What To Do If You Think Your Partner Is Emotionally Cheating On You
Okay, so there’s been a noticeable shift in the relationship and you find yourself nodding along to this list (so sorry). Now what?
For a lot of people, the natural default is to play detective, but it’s best to avoid being accusatory when approaching your other half about your suspicions, Schacter says.
Instead, she recommends you act curious and start the dialogue by asking questions related to **just** your relationship. A few solid options:
- “How do you feel about our relationship? Are you happy?”
- “Do you feel like there’s something missing between us?”
If they say everything is A-okay and they’re happy—but you’re still concerned—a couples’ therapist can provide the necessary tools to help you work through the issue in a productive manner.
The Aftermath Of Emotional Cheating: Cause For A Breakup?
Truth: Staying in or ending the relationship is entirely up to you. If your person is willing to have an honest conversation and take responsibility for their transgression, Schacter says it’s totally possible to move past it.
And while healing and forgiveness take time, a couple can learn from this type of crisis—and even strengthen their bond. (Communication goes a long way.)
Also worth noting: Emotional cheating doesn’t **automatically** mean there’s an underlying issue in the relationship.
People don’t cheat only because they’re looking to fill a void, explains Schacter. Sometimes they are happy with their partners but are craving a little novelty or want to be reminded of a certain time in their life.
So if you find yourself with someone in the middle of an emotional affair, it doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed.
It just means your bond could use some work…but both partners—and zero third parties—need to be fully involved.