What Is an Emotional Affair?

An emotional affair generally starts innocently enough as a friendship. But when a person invests significant emotional energy and time in a close friendship outside of their marriage, it's possible for the friendship to form an emotional bond that ultimately threatens and hurts the person's intimacy with their spouse or partner.

While there are those who believe that an emotional affair is harmless given that there is no sexual relationship, most marriage and relationship experts view it as a form of cheating. Emotional affairs can also act as gateway affairs, eventually leading to both emotional and sexual infidelity. For many, the most hurtful and painful consequence of a partner's emotional cheating is the sense of being deceived, betrayed, and lied to.

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 other relationship.

In an emotional affair, a person feels closer to the other person than their spouse or partner and may experience increasing sexual tension or chemistry along with the emotional intimacy.

If you believe your spouse’s emotional energy is limited, and they’re sharing their most intimate thoughts and feelings with someone else, it's possible that an emotional affair has developed.

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 close platonic friendship and an emotional affair is that the extent of their emotional investment and intimacy is downplayed or even kept secret from the spouse or partner.

Another key difference is that people involved in emotional cheating often feel a sexual attraction to 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."

In micro-cheating, "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," she says.

An emotional affair, on the other hand, inherently involves more 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."

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

Emotional affairs commonly develop over time progressing toward deeper and deeper emotional investment and intimacy. Though they may develop gradually and unintentionally, there are several warning signs that your close friendship is 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 emotional cheating with, "We're just friends."
  • Withdrawing from your spouse

Questions to Ask Yourself

If you have a close friendship that you think may have crossed the line into an emotional affair, consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • 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 the friendship or the depth of your friendship?
  • 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 avoid talking about your interactions with this friend?

Signs Your Spouse Is Having an Emotional Affair

Conversely, if you are worried that your spouse or partner is having an emotional affair, there are some warning signs to be aware of:

  • 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.
  • Your spouse's friend gets mentioned a lot. You seem to hear much about this person's opinions and yours seems to count less and less. (Or, conversely, you suspect your spouse is connecting with someone else, but they are being secretive about it.)
  • Your gut tells you something is going on. You are normally trusting and do not get jealous easily, but something 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 From Emotional Cheating

There are differing views on how to protect a relationship against emotional cheating, some of which aren't without controversy.

For example, in his book "Emotional Infidelity: How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage and 10 Other Secrets to a Great Relationship," M. Gary Neuman suggests limiting your interpersonal relationships or friendships. Specifically, he recommends that readers insulate and protect their marriage against emotional infidelity by avoiding friendships with members of the opposite sex.

In fact, Neuman goes as far as to say that limiting your relationships with others is "the single most important thing you can do for your marriage." And he is not alone.

But others call this approach problematic. Not only does it not address the underlying issues that can motivate someone to seek emotional intimacy outside of their marriage, but it can create a sense of isolation for married and partnered people. Friendships and social support are important for psychological well-being, and having them does not need to come at the cost of your primary relationship.

The reality is that it takes both partners in a relationship to guard against emotional infidelity. A marriage or partnership is best protected when both people work together to build a marriage on a strong foundation of friendship and trust.

Neuman's other suggestions, such as having weekly dates and setting aside time for discussions and conversation, support this idea. Other ideas that can bolster emotional intimacy and trust within a marriage include:

  • Being supportive of one another.
  • Communicating daily about everything from practical issues and plans to events and personal feelings.
  • Enjoying dates and creating ways to have regular quality time with one another.
  • Learning how to engage in healthy conflict.
  • Repairing hurts quickly and genuinely.
  • Showing 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.