Is Emotional Infidelity A Real Thing?

Updated November 30, 2019

Reviewer Karen Devlin, LPC


People often bring up the term 'emotional infidelity' when they feel their partner is neglecting them or getting ready to leave them. To those people, it seems like a very real problem. To the person being accused of it, it can seem like a bogus way for their partner to seek attention. If you want to know the truth behind this subtle phenomenon, the best way to figure it out is to start by getting clear on what it means.

What Is Emotional Infidelity?

When we think of infidelity, we usually associate the word with sex. Emotional infidelity must be different, or there would be no need to add the modifying term, right? So, what does the phrase mean? Is it something your partner made up? Is it in your imagination? Or, is something significant going on?

What Do People Mean By 'Emotional Infidelity?'

For anyone who hasn't made a study of emotional infidelity, understanding or stating exactly what it is can be difficult. Each person has their definition. Finding out what someone means by emotional infidelity isn't a particularly hard thing to do. If you're skilled in communications, then all you need to do is have a conversation with them. If not, then those are skills you need to learn.

Or, if you suspect your spouse is emotionally unfaithful, you might have trouble explaining why you feel the way you do. If you don't get an answer that makes sense to you or can't sort out exactly what it means to you, you might need to dig deeper for a more objective perspective.


A simple definition of emotional infidelity is that its emotional involvement with a person you feel attracted to. Someone who is having an emotional affair may or may not also be sexually unfaithful. This emotional connection is with someone outside of the marriage or primary relationship.

How To Recognize Emotional Unfaithfulness


The above definition, though brief, is clear enough for most people to understand. Still, it fails to give details that can help you pin down exactly what it means in concrete terms. Like any definition, it's just a starting point to true understanding.

Signs You're Emotionally Unfaithful

If you think you're emotionally unfaithful, there's a high probability that you are. After all, most people understand what it means to feel physically attracted and emotionally connected to someone. If you still aren't sure, here are a few signs to watch for:

  • You think of the person often when you aren't together, sometimes even when you're with your spouse.
  • You feel sexual chemistry when that person is around and feel sexually attracted to them even if you aren't having a sexual affair.
  • You send flirty texts, messages, or emails.
  • You buy them personal gifts that are more like romantic gifts you would give a girlfriend/boyfriend or spouse.
  • You have deep, meaningful conversations with that person but talk only about practical matters with your spouse.
  • You try to hide your feelings for that person from your spouse.
  • You get extremely angry when your spouse suggests you're getting too involved with the person.
  • When you feel dissatisfied with your marriage, you tell that other person negative things about your spouse that you wouldn't ordinarily share with anyone but your spouse.
  • You fantasize about being in a relationship with the other person.
  • You begin to see this other person as being superior to your spouse, often thinking of them in positive terms while thinking of your spouse in negative terms.

Signs Your Spouse Is Emotionally Unfaithful

While it's relatively easy to determine if f you are having an emotional affair, it can be extremely difficult to know whether your spouse is. A part of the reason is that they are invested in hiding it from you. The result is that you begin to doubt yourself. If you feel that something is going on but don't know whether it's your imagination or not, consider these possible clues.


  • Your significant other spends more time with another person they seem to be attracted to than they do with you.
  • Your partner seems happiest after spending time with that person.
  • Your relationship with your spouse has become distant while their relationship with another man or woman has become closer.
  • Your spouse often seems angry with you for no apparent reason.
  • If you bring up your suspicions, your partner becomes defensive rather than supportive.

How Can You Be Sure?

If you're having an emotional affair and look at the situation as objectively as you can, you'll probably know it by answering the questions above. However, if your partner is cheating on you emotionally, it can be very difficult to be sure. Whether they are or not, something is making you feel uncomfortable about their relationship with the other woman or man.

It's best to address those feelings and suspicions with your spouse. If you still can't resolve it or you are no longer close enough to manage the conversation, a counselor can help you,and your spouse gets to the bottom of the issue.

Causes Of Emotional Infidelity

Why do people have emotional affairs? Why do we fall into that trap when we're already in a serious romantic relationship? Why would someone do that to someone they're supposed to love? Some of the causes of emotional infidelity are relationship dissatisfaction, failure to set boundaries, and poor communications between you and your significant other. There are also gender differences that are rooted in evolution.


Relationship Dissatisfaction

When someone is having an emotional affair, they typically become more and more dissatisfied with their primary relationship. It might not start there. Often, the affair starts up after you are already feeling dissatisfied with your partner. Perhaps your spouse doesn't spend much time with you. Or, they might be physical with you but focused on something else rather than interacting with you. Maybe your spouse is tired, ill, or otherwise unable to meet your expectations of what a spouse should be. For whatever reason, the relationship doesn't live up to your image of the perfect relationship.

Failure To Set Boundaries

Just as in other aspects of life, it's always a good idea to have a clear idea of what is okay and what isn't in your relationship. You design your boundaries, and it's important to set them according to what will give you the results you choose. And, if you care about your spouse, you need to respect what she's willing to live with and what she isn't, too.

When you don't set healthy boundaries, you leave an easy path to emotional cheating. You may start out having a truly platonic relationship. Then, you or the other person feels a moment of attraction and acts on it in some way. If you or they respond in kind, you're vulnerable to being emotionally unfaithful. It doesn't matter how trivial the romantic words or behaviors seem, without boundaries, they can quickly escalate into a full-blown emotional affair.

Poor Communications

Good communication is a vital part of any primary relationship. Without it, you can't resolve your differences when they come up. If one of you feels dissatisfied with or worried about the relationship, you can't address those feelings in any effective way.

Perhaps you've never learned to communicate in a long-term relationship. If so, any problem in the relationship can get out of control quickly. Maybe you are usually a good communicator but begin to have trouble talking to your spouse. Either way, you need to get some practice talking to them in a serious, meaningful way.


How Gender Differences Play A Part

While men are typically more hurt by their spouse's sexual infidelity, women are usually more worried when their spouse has an emotional affair. The reason for this lies in the beginnings of humanity, and perhaps, even farther back.

Long ago, the man's relationships were based primarily on sex. Women could only have a few children, but men could have much more if they had sex with different partners. They didn't want their mate to have sex with another male. If the woman did that, they might be unavailable for nearly a year. So, sex became their relationship focus.

Women, on the other hand, needed their mate to support them even when they couldn't give them another child. They needed an emotional bond that would transcend their mates need to father children. Therefore, the emotional aspects of the relationship became the focus for them.

Of course, times have changed dramatically since then. Women no longer need a man to help them survive in the world and raise their child, although many women still prefer it. Men no longer need to have many children, and in fact, with child support laws in place, it began to be a disadvantage.

For all the change, men and woman mostly have the same feelings as their long-ago ancestors. Men may very naturally have a hard time understanding emotional infidelity, while women still fear emotional infidelity more than the mere physical act of sex. Even so, both men and women can be emotionally unfaithful, and both men and women can suffer when their mate has an emotional affair.

Effects Of Emotional Infidelity

Why does it even matter if you or your partner has an emotional affair? What could it hurt, anyway? After all, there's no sex going on. No one is going to bring a new child home after having just an emotional affair. The truth is that emotional infidelity can have harmful effects on both partners as individuals as well as on their relationship.

If Your Partner Is Emotionally Unfaithful

Since it's very difficult to be sure whether your partner is having an emotional affair, many of the effects surround that issue. While you notice small signs that something is going on, your mate, the person who you think is supposed to want the best for you, is telling you that you imagine things. Your self-confidence drops, your self-esteem plummets, and you may even begin to doubt your grasp on reality.


You may also become anxious and worried that the relationship is about to end, and you might be right if neither of you takes any action to change things for the better. These problems don't just happen if you're emotionally unstable already. They can happen to anyone who is getting mixed signals from their partner.

If You're Emotionally Unfaithful

You chose to be with your partner for some reason. If that reason is still valid, your emotional infidelity can keep you from having the kind of primary relationship that means so much to you. You may feel like you've lost all connection with your spouse. You might feel like they're drifting away from you.

You may also feel uncomfortably angry or hurt that your spouse doesn't seem to trust you when you feel you've done nothing to deserve that mistrust. Then, if the other man or woman chooses not to start an affair, you can end up alone even if that isn't your ideal choice.

What Happens To The Relationship?

Most relationships can't survive ongoing emotional infidelity. What's more, emotional infidelity very often leads to sexual infidelity. If both of you are committed to staying in that primary relationship, you can overcome emotional infidelity.

Avoiding The Trap Of Emotional Infidelity

Emotional infidelity is a trap. The reason you get involved with it is that it seems so harmless, especially at first. The reason you doubt yourself if your spouse is emotionally unfaithful is that you, too, may have a hard time justifying your feelings. You may not even realize how serious it is until it's almost too late. You and your spouse can recover your relationship if an emotional affair has already started. However, the best option is to avoid it altogether.


How Can You Prevent Your Partner From Being Emotionally Unfaithful?

You can never be guaranteed of controlling someone else's thoughts, emotions, or behavior. It's best not to try. However, you can build the kind of relationship that is resistant to emotional infidelity. Here are some tips for helping your partner feel motivated to be emotionally faithful to you:

  • Learn and practice good communication.
  • Share your fears but try to avoid harsh accusations.
  • Spend quality time with your spouse.
  • Avoid sarcastic remarks and other passive-aggressive attempts to uncover the truth.
  • Share with your partner your dreams, goals, and successes.
  • Tell them when you have pleasant memories of the two of you together.
  • Let them know how you feel about other things in your life and encourage them to do the same without pushing.

How Can You Avoid Being Emotionally Unfaithful?

To avoid becoming involved in an emotional affair, you need to be very sure of two things. First, you need to be sure you want to be in your primary relationship. Second, you need to understand both how easy it is to slip into one and how serious its effects can be. You can also use many of the same tactics listed above. Here are a few additional tips:

  • Talk to your spouse and find agreement on boundaries you both want for the relationship.
  • When you have negative thoughts or feelings about your spouse, remind yourself of the positive things you like about them.
  • When you have a problem, ask your spouse for their opinion and

Avoiding And Dealing With False Accusations

If you've read this far and nothing is ringing a bell, it may be true that your other relationship is only platonic. Even if so, you need to avoid being defensive and hurtful if your spouse suggests you're emotionally unfaithful. Chances are they aren't saying that to hurt you or because they're a bad person. They may need help overcoming problems of their own. As their partner, you're in the ideal position to listen and offer your support.

One important key to avoiding false accusations of emotional infidelity is to be transparent with your spouse about friendships outside the marriage. When you don't share your life with your partner, it can easily seem like you're hiding something. If you have nothing to hide, share your life openly with your loved one.

What To Do When Emotional Infidelity Threatens Your Relationship

In the end, it doesn't matter so much what someone else means by emotional infidelity. What matters is how you and your partner understand it. If you don't agree on its meaning or what to do about it, you need to look for an objective opinion from outside the relationship. Often, talking to a counselor is the ideal way to sort it all out.


Licensed counselors are available at for online therapy whenever you want, wherever you have an internet connection. A counselor can help you,and your spouse learns to communicate your thoughts and feelings with each other in ways that benefit the relationship most.

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