What is an emotional affair?

Romantic partnerships thrive on trust, intimacy, and honesty. When something starts to infringe on or inhibit that in a relationship, it can threaten its well-being. Though physically cheating is one of the most talked about ways that such trust gets broken, emotional affairs should also be taken into account.

An emotional affair is characterized by having emotional closeness and a deep connection with someone who is not the person’s romantic partner. Though it doesn’t align with some people’s definition of “cheating,” it can still cause major problems and mistrust between partners.

What Is an Emotional Affair?

An emotional affair is a type of connection or relationship that goes beyond platonic friendship but stops short of being physically intimate. It involves emotional intimacy and closeness with someone other than one’s committed partner. 

In an emotional affair, individuals may share deep feelings, personal thoughts, and intimate details about their lives, creating a strong emotional bond. This connection often includes elements of secrecy and exclusivity, as the individuals involved may hide the extent of their emotional involvement from their respective partners. 

While there is no physical aspect to an emotional affair, it can still be highly detrimental to a committed relationship, as it undermines the trust and emotional connection between partners. Emotional affairs can be challenging to identify, but they can have significant consequences on the overall health and stability of a romantic relationship.

Emotional Affair vs. Physical Affair: What’s the Difference?

The key distinction between an emotional affair and a physical affair lies in the nature of the connection between the individuals involved. 

An emotional affair is characterized by a deep emotional intimacy and connection with someone other than a committed partner, where individuals share personal feelings, thoughts, and experiences. While there is no physical intimacy, the emotional bond can be intense and exclusive. There’s often an element of secrecy—though the primary partner may know that their partner knows the other person, the details of the relationship might be kept secret, as their partner may realize that the primary partner would not approve.

On the other hand, a physical affair involves engaging in intimate and sexual activities with someone other than one’s committed partner. In a physical affair, the primary focus is on the physical aspect of the relationship, and it often includes actions that breach the boundaries of a monogamous commitment. 

Both emotional and physical affairs can be damaging to relationships, but they impact different aspects—specifically emotional trust and connection in the case of emotional affairs, and physical fidelity and commitment in the case of physical affairs.

What Happens During an Emotional Affair?

An emotional affair typically involves a deep, emotional connection between two individuals outside of a committed relationship. Unlike a physical affair, there may not be any physical intimacy involved, but the emotional bond can be intense and potentially damaging to the primary relationship. Some common elements of emotional affairs include:

  • Emotional intimacy: There is a strong emotional connection between the individuals involved. They may confide in each other, share personal thoughts and feelings, and seek emotional support.
  • Secrecy: The participants may keep the nature of their relationship a secret from their respective partners. This secrecy can contribute to feelings of betrayal from the primary partner.
  • Time and attention: The individuals invest significant time and attention in each other, sometimes at the expense of their primary relationship. This can lead to neglect of the partner in the committed relationship.
  • Fantasy and escapism: Emotional affairs may involve romantic fantasies and provide an escape from the challenges or dissatisfaction present in the participants’ primary relationships.
  • Comparisons: One or both individuals may start comparing their emotional connection with the affair partner to their relationship with their committed partner, leading to dissatisfaction.
  • Jealousy and guilt: Feelings of jealousy and guilt can arise, especially if the emotional affair starts affecting the primary relationship.

It’s important to note that emotional affairs can be subjective, and what one person considers an emotional affair, another might see as a close friendship. The impact of emotional affairs on relationships can vary, but communication and addressing underlying issues are crucial for resolving conflicts and rebuilding trust if necessary.

How Long Do Emotional Affairs Usually Last?

The duration of emotional affairs can vary widely and is influenced by numerous factors. The length of such affairs is dependent on the individuals involved, their level of emotional investment, and the circumstances surrounding their relationships. 

Some emotional affairs may be short-lived, lasting only a few weeks or months, while others can persist for years. Factors such as the intensity of emotional connection, the ability to maintain secrecy, the individuals’ commitment to their primary relationships, and the person(s) willingness and ability to want to work through their primary relationship to rebuild it​​ all play a role in determining the duration of emotional affairs. 

It’s important to note that emotional affairs can have significant consequences on the individuals involved and their primary relationships, regardless of their duration.

How Do You Know if It's an Emotional Affair?

Identifying an emotional affair can be challenging, as it involves recognizing subtle emotional connections between individuals that extend beyond the boundaries of a typical friendship. 

Unlike physical affairs, emotional infidelity is characterized by a deep emotional intimacy with someone outside the committed relationship. It might include frequent and intense communication, secrecy about the nature of the relationship, sharing personal details and feelings that should be reserved for a partner, and a sense of prioritizing the emotional connection over the primary relationship. 

Emotional affairs often involve a breach of trust and may lead to feelings of betrayal. It’s essential to pay attention to changes in behavior, communication patterns, and the emotional distance that may emerge between partners in order to identify and address potential emotional infidelity in a relationship.

Signs of an Emotional Affair

The main sign of an emotional affair often includes a deep emotional connection between two individuals that may even rival the intimacy found in a romantic relationship. 

Other signs include: 

  • Heightened level of secrecy or guarded nature of the relationship: Individuals can be reluctant to share details of the relationship with their partner. 
  • Excessive communication: May have frequent and prolonged phone calls, text messages, or online interactions
  • Shift in emotional focus/confiding in person other than the partner: This emotional distance from one’s partner can lead to decreased intimacy within the primary relationship.
  • Sense of guilt or defensiveness when questioned about the relationship: Individuals involved in emotional affairs may be aware of the inappropriate nature of their connection. 

Overall, recognizing these signs can be crucial in addressing and navigating the complexities of emotional infidelity within a relationship. However, it is important to note that not every instance of emotional distancing points to emotional or physical infidelity—distancing can be due to many factors, and the best way to address it is to have open, honest conversation about how you are both feeling.

Emotional Affairs: Their Impact on Relationships

Emotional affairs can have a profound impact on relationships, often causing significant emotional distress and strain between partners. 

Unlike physical infidelity, emotional affairs involve a deep emotional connection with someone outside the primary relationship. This connection can lead to deep feelings of betrayal, as emotional intimacy is a crucial aspect of a romantic partnership. 

Partners may experience a sense of neglect or emotional detachment, leading to a breakdown in trust and communication. The affected partner may feel inadequate or insecure, questioning the depth of their connection with their significant other. The secrecy and emotional investment in the affair can create a wedge between partners, fostering resentment and hindering the ability to rebuild trust. 

Ultimately, emotional affairs can jeopardize the foundation of a relationship, requiring very open communication and emotional transparency, often conducted with the help of a mental health professional, to navigate the challenges and work toward healing and rebuilding trust.

How Many Marriages Survive After an Emotional Affair?

There are no specific statistics on the survival rate of marriages after emotional affairs. The impact of emotional affairs on marriages can vary widely depending on the individuals involved, the nature of the affair, and the efforts put into rebuilding trust and communication. 

If you’re facing such a situation, it’s advisable to seek professional help such as couples therapy to navigate the challenges and work towards a resolution.

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Is an Emotional Affair Love?

An emotional affair typically involves emotional intimacy with someone outside of one’s committed relationship. While it may not always be driven by romantic love, it often involves a deep emotional connection that goes beyond a platonic friendship. 

Emotional affairs can be fueled by various factors such as dissatisfaction in the current relationship, seeking validation, or a desire for emotional fulfillment. However, the specific motivations can vary from person to person, and not every emotional affair is necessarily rooted in romantic love.

Do You Ever Get Over an Emotional Affair?

Overcoming an emotional affair can be challenging, but it is possible with time, communication, and effort from both parties involved. Here are some general suggestions:

  • Open communication: It’s crucial to have honest and open communication about the feelings and emotions involved. Discuss what led to the emotional affair, the impact it had, and the reasons behind it. “I” statements can be helpful for facilitating healthy dialogue.
  • Seek professional help: Couples therapy or counseling can provide a neutral and supportive environment to work through issues. A therapist can help both partners express their feelings, understand each other better, and work towards rebuilding trust.
  • Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries to prevent the recurrence of similar situations. This may involve limiting contact with the person involved in the emotional affair, setting guidelines for communication, and being transparent about activities and friendships.
  • Rebuild trust: Rebuilding trust takes time. Consistent and reliable behavior is essential. Both partners need to demonstrate commitment to the relationship and take steps to regain trust.
  • Reflect on relationship issues: Understand the underlying issues within the relationship that may have contributed to the emotional affair. Addressing these issues can help strengthen the foundation of the relationship.
  • Forgiveness: Forgiving is a process that takes time, and it’s not always easy. Both partners need to be willing to forgive and move forward. This involves letting go of resentment and not holding the emotional affair against the other person.
  • Work on self-improvement: Both individuals can benefit from personal growth and self-improvement. This may involve self-reflection, addressing personal issues, and becoming more aware of individual needs and boundaries.

It’s important to note that every relationship is unique, and the process of overcoming an emotional affair may vary for each couple. Additionally, if the emotional affair has caused irreparable damage or if there are underlying issues that cannot be resolved, some couples may choose to end the relationship.

Table of contents

What Is an Emotional Affair?

Emotional Affair vs. Physical Affair: What’s the Difference?

What Happens During an Emotional Affair?

How Do You Know if It's an Emotional Affair?

Signs of an Emotional Affair

Emotional Affairs: Their Impact on Relationships

Is an Emotional Affair Love?

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  • Potter-Efron, R. T. (2009). The emotional affair: How to Recognize Emotional Infidelity and what to Do about it. New Harbinger  Publications.

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