How an Emotional Affair Impacts Your Marriage

An emotional affair generally starts innocently enough as a friendship. Through investing emotional energy and time with one another outside the marital relationship, the former platonic friendship can begin to form a strong emotional bond which hurts the intimacy of the spousal relationship.

While there are those who believe that an emotional affair is harmless, most marriage experts view it as cheating without having a sexual relationship. Emotional affairs are often gateway affairs leading to full-blown sexual infidelity.

For some individuals, the most hurtful and painful consequences of emotional cheating is the sense of being deceived, betrayed, and lied to. Any part of one's life that is essentially kept a secret from a partner is dangerous to the trust between spouses.

signs of an emotional affair
Verywell / Jessica Olah

What Is Emotional Cheating?

Emotional cheating is when a person not only invests more of their emotional energy outside their marriage but also receives emotional support and companionship from the new relationship.

In an emotional affair, a person feels closer to the other party and may experience increasing sexual tension or chemistry.

If you believe that a person's emotional energy is limited, and if your spouse is sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with someone else, emotional cheating has developed.

Although people who cheat are often guilt-free in an emotional affair because there is no sex involved, their spouses typically view emotional cheating as just as damaging as a sexual affair. Much of the pain and hurt from an emotional affair is due to the deception, lies, and feelings of being betrayed.

Emotional Affair vs. Platonic Friendship

A platonic friendship can evolve into an emotional affair when the investment of intimate information crosses the boundaries set by the married couple. Emotional cheating is opening a door that should remain closed.

One of the differences between a platonic friendship and an emotional affair is that an emotional affair is kept secret.

Another key difference is that people involved in emotional cheating often feel a sexual attraction for one another. Sometimes the sexual attraction is acknowledged, and sometimes it isn't.

Emotional Affair vs. Micro-Cheating

Clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, one of Verywell’s Review Board Members, defines micro-cheating as “moderately small actions which just cross the threshold of appropriateness with a person other than one’s partner.”

Dr. Romanoff continues, “These are things, when examined in isolation, might not be characterized as infidelity, but are irrefutable violations of trust. When examined collectively, these actions can readily be perceived as leading to overt cheating in the future.”

An emotional affair involves, inherently, more of an emotional investment and there's generally involvement from both parties. According to Dr. Romanoff, in an emotional affair, “you will tend to experience mental fixation on the other person.” However, in micro-cheating, she writes, “you might engage in behaviors (e.g., liking their social media post or repeatedly visiting their profile) that don’t necessarily require reciprocity or emotional connection."

Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Micro-cheating differs from emotional cheating as in the latter you will tend to experience mental fixation on the other person. They will occupy more space in your mind, and in turn, your behaviors might shift to create more moments to connect with them.

— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD

Warning Signs of Emotional Cheating

Here are several warning signs that you may be having an emotional affair:

  • Anticipating alone time or communication with your friend
  • Beliefs that your friend understands you better than your spouse
  • Decreasing time with your spouse
  • Giving your friend personal gifts
  • Keeping your friendship a secret
  • Lack of interest in intimacy with your spouse
  • Preoccupation or daydreams about your friend
  • Sharing thoughts, feelings, and problems with your friend instead of your spouse
  • Responding to confrontations about the apparent emotional cheating with, "We're just friends."
  • Withdrawing from your spouse

Emotional Affair Quiz

If you answer "yes" to more than three of the questions below, you are in an emotional affair.

  • Are you experiencing repetitive hostility and conflict in your marriage?
  • Do you feel an emotional distance from your spouse?
  • Do you find it difficult to talk with your spouse?
  • Are you sharing more with your friend than you are with your spouse?
  • Do you think your friend understands you better than your spouse?
  • Are you sexually attracted to your friend?
  • Is the phrase, "We're just friends," your rationalization for your close friendship?
  • Does your spouse know about your friendship, or is your friendship a secret?
  • Do you look forward to being with your friend more than being with your spouse?
  • When you talk to your spouse about your day, do you never seem to mention your interactions with this friend?

Signs Your Spouse Is Having an Emotional Affair

Here are some warning signs that your spouse is having an emotional affair:

  • Your spouse starts withdrawing from you or criticizing you.
  • Your spouse acts secretive, hides their phone, or shuts down the computer screen suddenly when you are around.
  • Your spouse seems interested in certain technology or hobbies seemingly out of the blue.
  • Your spouse seems to always work extra hours on a "project" with this friend.
  • This friend of your spouse gets mentioned a lot. You seem to hear much about this person's opinions (and yours seems to count less and less).
  • Your gut tells you something is going on. You are normally trusting and do not get jealous easily, but this definitely feels off to you.
  • When you try to discuss any of these things with your partner, you are met with defensiveness or are made to feel like you're out of line.

How to Protect Your Marriage

Although there are differing views on how to protect your marriage from being hurt by emotional cheating, your marriage is likely best protected by the two of you working together to have a marriage built on a strong foundation of friendship and trust.

Some may agree or disagree with the often-made suggestion to limit your interpersonal relationships or friendships. M. Gary Neuman makes some controversial statements in his book, "Emotional Infidelity: How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage and 10 Other Secrets to a Great Relationship." He recommends that readers insulate and protect their marriage against emotional infidelity by avoiding friendships with members of the opposite sex.

Neuman believes that limiting your relationships/friendships is "the single most important thing you can do for your marriage."

One of the reasons some people question this suggestion to limit certain friendships is because it can create a sense of isolation for couples. Isolating a spouse from friendships is one of the warning signs of emotional abuse. A spouse does not have exclusive, 100% rights over a mate's friendships, interests, and sense of space and privacy.

Neuman's other suggestions include:

  • Have a weekly date.
  • Have a long discussion with one another four times a week.
  • Plan an all-out romantic lovemaking night once a month.
  • Touch each other five times a day.

Affair-Proof Your Marriage

You can affair-proof your marriage by working together to have a relationship based on friendship and trust. Here are some suggestions on how to build that foundation and keys to protecting your marriage from an emotional affair.

  • Be supportive of one another.
  • Communicate on a daily basis—talk about practical issues, plans, events, and personal feelings.
  • Enjoy dates with each other and create ways to have fun.
  • Learn how to have healthy conflict in your marriage.
  • Plan on living a balanced life with one another.
  • Repair hurts quickly and genuinely.
  • Show respect for each other.
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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Neuman MG. Emotional Infidelity: How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage and 10 Other Secrets to a Great Relationship. Penguin Random House; 2002.

  2. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Infidelity.

  3. Northwestern University. Healthy and unhealthy relationships.