Do You Think Emotional Affairs Really Happen?


Is an emotional affair just the first stop on the way to full-blown affair land?

by Stephanie Kaloi, Content Manager

woman taking photo of a man

In general, if you ask someone what an emotional affair is, they’ll probably rattle off a list that includes at least three or four of these characteristics:

  • You are physically, mentally, and emotionally attracted to a “friend”
  • You find you’re thinking about your “friend” more than you think about your partner
  • You share important life changes, events, or great news with this person before sharing with your partner
  • You start suggesting changes your partner can make, and those changes would make your partner a lot more like your friend
  • You share secrets with this friend that you would never share with your partner
  • You talk about areas of your married life that have previously been off-limits with anyone else (your sex life, etc.)
  • This friend has entered into your fantasy life, and/or you realize you love talking to this person more than talking to anyone else (like, you know, the person you’re married to)
  • You rush home to send an email to this friend, or you blow off others to spend the night texting
  • Your partner has never even met this person

Here’s the thing about emotional affairs, though: I’m not sure I believe in them. Instead, I think of what we’ve classified as an “emotional” affair is actually just a full-blown affair waiting to happen, and I think we’ve tacked on “emotional” in front of the word “affair” to soften the blow. You know why? Because if my husband had a “friend” in his life and that person was on the receiving end of the list above, I’d consider him to be having a (possibly as-yet-unconsummated) affair.

This doesn’t mean that I’m right, though. When the topic came up over the APW team Slack, varying opinions were launched around the imagined conference room. For some of us, emotional affairs are real:

For me, emotional cheating has three components: intimacy with another person, decline/withdrawal of intimacy with my spouse, and hiding the level of intimacy with the new person from the spouse. Everyone should have the freedom to have close friends outside of their marriage, but it shouldn’t supersede or replace the intimacy with your partner. That coupled with secrecy makes it emotional cheating and out of bounds for me.

For others… not so much:

I reluctantly think they could be real, if my partner withheld extensively from me (to the point of it causing possible relationship issues) and I found out they’d been confiding in someone else (that they’d actually be attracted to IRL). In that sense they are breaking trust and creating distance, which is what the core of cheating is. But generally having super intimate friendships isn’t a problem; it’s rad.

And:

I think you’re having an affair (that maybe you haven’t consummated yet), or you have a good friend. I think our society treats marriage as some sort of emotional prison, where your partner is supposed to be your everything, and I think that’s wildly unhealthy—aka if you’re doing something you know is wrong, you’re just having an affair. But my partner can have all the close friends they want, and talk to them about whatever they want. As long as they are not, you know, sexting… which in our book is a no-go.

Another member of the chat brought up the concept of windows and doors—that is, that there are windows into your marriage, and there are doors. Maybe you’re okay with letting a close friend see through the windows, but you’re not about to let them walk through the door. So maybe you have a coworker that you feel a strong friendship for, but that friendship doesn’t bleed over into your relationship with your spouse… or maybe it does, and you’re pretending that it’s no big deal. Or maybe your reality is something else entirely, and you’re about to lay it on us.

what do you guys think—are emotional affairs real? why or why not? have you had an emotional affair? how would you react if your partner admitted to one?

Stephanie Kaloi

Stephanie is a photographer, writer, and Ravenclaw living in California with her husband, their seven year old metalhead son, and a crew of beasts. She is super into reading, road trips, and adopting animals on a whim. Forewarning: all correspondence will probably include a lot of punctuation and smiley faces.

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  • laddibugg

    “Instead, I think of what we’ve classified as an “emotional” affair is actually just a full-blown affair waiting to happen, and I think we’ve tacked on “emotional” in front of the word “affair” to soften the blow. You know why? Because if my husband had a “friend” in his life and that person was on the receiving end of the list above, I’d consider him to be having a (possibly as-yet-unconsummated) affair.”

    Eh. Not all affairs have any sort of emotional intimacy. It’s possible to sleep with people–multiple times, perhaps for years–without talking to them for any other reason besides time and place. The quoted part makes it seem like you can’t fathom separating emotional intimacy from sex. Some people who have ’emotional affairs’ DO consider actually having sex as a true affair, and that just talking is a grey area. Life isn’t Minority Report–it’s not fair to convict people of crimes they haven’t yet committed.

    • Amy March

      I agree. I sort of come at it from the other direction. Was it just a necklace? Was it a necklace and sex? Was it a necklace and love?

      I do think a lot of emotional affairs are just a step on the way to a physical relationship, but I think the distinction is meaningful.

      • idkmybffjill

        Ooh totally. And this will be different for everyone, I’m sure. For me, a necklace would hurt me alot more than a one night stand, to be honest.

      • Maddie Eisenhart

        “Was it just a necklace? Was it a necklace and sex? Was it a necklace and love?”

        You’re my hero.

        • Violet

          I can’t even tell you how many times we watched that movie before my husband goes, “Oh! She’s upset because he might be in love with her! Not because he gave *her* a necklace and she only got a CD!” *facepalm*

          • Laura

            Well, at least he picked up on it eventually!

          • Violet

            Seriously. He’s gotten a lot more insightful over the years, thankfully!

          • heyqueen

            What movie is that quote from?

          • Violet

            It’s from Love, Actually.

  • heyqueen

    This comments section finna be lit haha.

    From the title of the article, I thought the point you’d be making was that “emotional” affairs aren’t really affairs, but I’m glad that isn’t the direction you went in. To be honest, I don’t see this as a topic that will have a cut and dry answer/resolution. Everyone has different comfort levels. Some people will consider an emotional affair more egregious than physically cheating, and other could feel relieved because sex hasn’t been introduced to the relationship. I also think we tack on the word “emotional” onto affair because we’ve deemed the physical act of sex the highest level of disrespect and hurt to your partner (not saying it isn’t). Sentiments have been expressed that an emotional affair is just one that hasn’t been physically consummated, and I 100000% agree.

    Do I consider emotional affairs the same as physical affairs? Yes.*Insert standard disclaimer that this is only my opinion and applicable to my relationship blah blah* For me, part of being in a relationship/marriage to someone is that level of vulnerability. You’ve opened up yourself and shared your innermost desires ect with this person. That can be even deeper than physical intimacy for some. For your person to betray your partner’s confidence by making another person your confidant is astronomically not ok. People can develop romantic feelings purely off an emotional connection. Opening that up with someone who isn’t your partner is a very slippery slope.

  • Sara

    I believe that they’re ‘pre-affairs’. They can become affairs, or they can help you realize something is missing in your primary relationship but they’re the emotional tipping point. This isn’t to say you can’t have close friends – I have several close male friends I hang out with sans wives or friends I talk about deep relationship stuff with. But they know where their line is.

  • Juliet

    Hmmmm. The premise of the emotional affair, real or not, is troubling to me, because it implies one should not have a deep emotional connection with anyone they aren’t in a romantic relationship with. Obviously this is something that needs to be discussed and negotiated within each individual relationship/marriage, but the idea that emotional connection should only be reserved for romantic partners seems limiting, and even repressive in some circumstances. I think lots of women withdraw emotionally from important friendships after marriage, siting the ’emotional intimacy is for marriage’ sentiment of our culture, and I call shenanigans on that. I think it it’s okay to have friends you tell everything to and feel a deep connection with- and it’s okay for those friends to be of a gender you experience sexual attraction towards, and it’s okay be married and have those types of connections. Just me?

    • Eenie

      I agree with the fact that emotional intimacy should not be specifically reserved for marriage. But – I do still think that an emotional affair can be real and damaging. For me personally what puts it over the line is if my husband were to hide the fact that it is that close of a friendship. He has female friends that he is very close to, but he also told me this and didn’t hide it like a secret (and I have the same thing). Another factor would be if the “venn diagram of emotional intimacy” started to heavily grow on the friend only side. Equal, mostly overlapping, or my side bigger – probably ok.

      • Ashlah

        Oh yes, the secrecy is a huge part of it too. Forgot to include that in my comment.

        • Eenie

          Yup. Because really, without it being a secret, I have the obligation to step up and say “I’m not comfortable with what’s going on, can you do XYZ or stop doing ABC because it makes me feel crappy.” At least in my marriage, that is the understanding for how we operate.

      • This, I don’t need to know every detail the SO says in a convo with his female friends, but if he hides or lies about having a conversation from me it would be upset. Regardless of the content of the conversation.

      • April

        Exactly. I feel like it’s the betrayal part of it that makes it an affair. I feel like the rules are the same for other people’s involvement in your relationship, regardless of whether it’s emotional or physical. if everyone in the relationship has all the info and agrees on the situation, then great. If not and someone is hiding something from the other… that would be an affair.

      • Eh

        My husband is very close to one of my best friends. She set us up. She is married to his cousin. Before my husband and I started dating there were tons of rumours going on in his family that the cousin’s wife/my friend was having an affair with my husband because they would go to movies together. They like the same type of movies. Her husband doesn’t. They went as friends. End of story. The husband/cousin knew that they were at the movies so that was not hidden from him. The husband/cousin trusts both of them and knows that even though they care for each other (they are related – cousin’s in-law) that it is not in a romantic way. One of the family members pulled me aside and warned me about their relationship when I first started dating my husband. It would be pretty weird for my friend to set me up with him if she was having an affair with him. In this case, the emotional intimacy piece probably wasn’t encroaching on her husband’s space. Actually, she probably shares more with me than she would have with my husband.

    • Ashlah

      For me, an emotional affair requires not only an emotional connection with someone outside of your relationship (which is a-okay), but specifically an emotional connection with someone that takes precedence over your emotional connection with your partner. If my partner, for example, started reaching out to someone else with their good and bad news before or instead of coming to me, I would be very hurt. But I would not ever expect him not to share that news with anyone else at all, or not to get support/advice/commiseration/celebration from others. I just expect my partner to turn to me first (and vice versa).

      • Anon

        I do think there has to be a level of attraction too, though to be considered an emotional affair.

        If my husband started sharing his good and bad news with, say, his sister before/instead of me, I would still be hurt by that but it would be because I felt like he was still treating his origin family as being primary, not because it was an “emotional affair” (because, uh, gross).

        But if it was a non-related someone who made his eye glean and his smile deepen, then I’d be on Affair Red Alert. It would be a totally different conversation at the very least.

        • Eenie

          I disagree that there needs to be a level of attraction. But I also don’t agree on the premise that an emotional affair is a pre-affair.

          • Amy March

            I’ve been pondering this. I think for me it does? Like, if you’re overly emotionally invested with your mom or your best friend or your frat brother, without attraction I’d just call that a problematic relationship, not an emotional affair.

          • BSM

            Yep, just posted basically the same thought below.

          • BSM

            Not trolling, but sincerely wondering what an emotional affair would look like without some level of physical attraction. Maybe it’s the Mondays, but I can’t picture this.

            Like, could I have an emotional affair with friend who’s a woman if I’m straight? Or would it have to be with a guy (in my position), even if I didn’t find him physically attractive?

          • Eenie

            My example would be my husband’s online video game friends. He spends a significant amount of time with these people. He hasn’t met or doesn’t know what some of them look like. There have been times where I’ve felt betrayed because of a lack of transparency within these relationships. Not quite crossing the emotional affair line, but I could see it reaching there if it hadn’t been brought up when it did.

            In my mind the big deal is not that he’s attracted to him/her or could want to do something physical, but the hiding of the relationship and intimacy is what is super problematic for me.

          • Amy March

            Yeah I get how those relationships could be a problem, I just can’t wrap my head around calling a relationship with an online video game friend with no romantic interest an affair.

      • Nicole

        Bingo.

    • Violet

      I agree with Ashlah and eenie’s conceptualization. In The Sopranos, Tony cheats a lot. But the one thing he does that really irks my husband is when he eats dinner with his mistress and then is too full to eat Carmela’s dinner when he gets home. I asked why he got so heated about that (rather than all the sex, sex, sex) and he said, “It’s because he should prioritize Carmela. Extra curricular is one thing, but if it interferes with his ability to be a good husband, that’s not right.” So, if emotional connection is a lasagna, and my partner is eating his fill on someone else and has no room left for me (or substantially less) that would be a problem.

      • Eenie

        I like your analogy better than mine!

        • Violet

          Ha, thanks! I gotta give credit to my husband on that one!

      • Jess

        This is a very easy to understand way to explain exactly what I’m thinking.

      • April

        This is how I feel about it, pretty much exactly.

      • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

        My fiancé and I just finished watching The Sopranos together a week ago, and I really appreciate your husband’s observation/your analogy.

      • Juliet

        I totally understand this perspective and analogy. But I can’t help but think, we miss dinners all the time in married life for a variety of reasons beyond affairs, right? What if Tony came home full because he had a dinner meeting with his accountant and didn’t tell Carmela about it? Would the betrayal be the same?

        I totally understand this is just an analogy, but I think we do have varying degrees of emotional connections in our lives with different people, and I’m not even sure I agree with a premise that your most important emotional connection should be with your spouse. I certainly think it absolutely CAN be, but I don’t know that a great marriage can’t exist between two people that get the bulk of their emotional support outside the marriage. Does that make sense? I do see how a shift that involved replacing a connection with a spouse could really hurt a relationship.

        • Violet

          This was not a situation of people of goodwill just dealing with the realities of scheduling. He had a pattern of not considering her needs. This was not a one-time, “Oops, so sorry! I forgot to tell you about my accountant!” Or a “Hey, I know we talked about dinner, but I have to see my accountant instead.” He was very systematically, intentionally, turning his time and attention away from her, and not as part of any kind of agreement she consented to.
          I’m always on board for recognizing that not everyone does marriage the same way. If I didn’t think that, APW would not be the site for me. So I know this isn’t everyone. But the premise of my marriage is, in fact, that the emotional connection with my spouse takes priority over other relationships. For us, that’s kind of the entire point. I’ve got close friends and family I love, and they’re deeply and profoundly invaluable to me. Still doesn’t make them my spouse. If I got to the point where I felt more emotionally connected to someone other than my husband (or visa versa), I honestly wouldn’t even recognize my marriage anymore. And I wouldn’t want to be in it.

    • Her Lindsayship

      I mean, I totally agree with you, and also I don’t think Stephanie’s article suggests that emotional connection can’t exist outside of marriage AT ALL. She does a lot of qualifying that pretty well removes that interpretation from the table, I think.

    • Amy March

      I think of emotional affairs as secretive and destructive. It’s a close connection that you feel the need to hide from your partner and that takes away time, energy, and connection from your partnership.

    • Nicole

      “…because it implies one should not have a deep emotional connection with anyone they aren’t in a romantic relationship with.” I don’t think this is what it implies at all. Rather, the term “emotional affair” pays attention to the fact that people can be in love with and betray those they’re in exclusive romantic relationships with through the use of intimacy, trust, time, communication, and love, and not just with their bodies. I agree with you 100% about the necessity of close friendships and community that continue to buoy you up after and beyond marriage – but that’s not what’s at stake here.

      General comment: as I mentioned above, I had a long relationship (and engagement) end over my partner having an emotional affair. In the months before this relationship ended, my partner began to aggressively befriend this new person, would insist on hanging out with them on their own (very rarely with me), flirt, text, and began creating an intense intimacy that was unlike their other close friendships. I was deprioritized in this situation. Ultimately, my partner did not come home one night, and stayed up all night with this person discussing their romantic feelings for each other. This was an affair (and it was a large part of what ended our relationship, though not the entire reason alone), regardless of the fact that nothing physical transpired between them until we were separated, and it took significant and focused therapy to heal from.

    • thebeadedkusudama

      I agree 100%, though in my case it was the opposite. I had a really great platonic male friend for many years, but once I met my husband, my friend pretty much dropped me. We’re still FB friends and all that but he stopped talking to me. I truly believe that it’s because he’s very conservative and he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for a single man to be friends with a married woman. Which makes me really sad because I just miss my friend! We have some mutual friends who are single women, and they really don’t think that’s his reasoning, but I can’t help but wonder if he will do the same thing to them if they become involved in a romantic relationship.

  • Her Lindsayship

    Someone I’m very close to got divorced after multiple “emotional affairs”. The cheater never felt like he had cheated because nothing physical had happened, but there were text exchanges at all times of day and night, and long phone calls, and a level of closeness kept secret from his wife. Speaking as someone on the outside of the situation, I don’t think it would’ve made much difference if the affair had become physical – the root of the problem was there without any ‘consummation’. In this couple’s case, although my friend tried very hard to make things work (more than I can say I would’ve done, at least), her husband wasn’t willing to address what went wrong or try to fix it. He was not really in the partnership anymore.

    This certainly isn’t the case every time someone develops a close friendship outside of their marriage. But I think if you’re in a position where you’re seeking any kind of intimacy with someone else that you don’t feel comfortable telling your partner about… you’ve crossed a line. Personally, I don’t think I’d be as open to patching things up as my friend was with her husband, because from my perspective he had already quit the team. But I think it differs greatly for different people, and again, I was on the outside looking in, so who knows what it was like to be her. (She’s doing awesome now, pretty much living her best life, just to end this story on a positive!)

    • A friend of mine is in a similar situation with her boyfriend.
      He says nothing ‘physical’ has happened, but still hides texts & conversations that he has with other people after he has told his girlfriend that he has ‘gone to bed’.
      And I am like, even if you take the ‘lying about going to bed’ part out of the equation it just seems mega not OK to continue a conversation with a ‘friend’ while ignoring your girlfriend.

    • Mariah

      Yeah, I also have a friend in a similar situation. Her husband has been less than honest about a number of his relationships with women in the past, including a multi-year correspondence he’s had with someone (like, my friend found a box of letters from the other woman under their bed without ever having known that the woman even existed). His position is that because he’s never gotten physical with them, it’s not cheating, and it does seem like he moves in and out of these relationships without them ever crossing over into the typical definition of an affair.

      However, I HATE that he ends up proclaiming “I’ve never slept with them!” like he deserves a medal, and makes her feel like she’s crazy for having an issue with what he’s been doing. Obviously, I’m biased, and you never truly know what’s going on in someone else’s relationship, but I think emotional affairs exist and have the potential to be just as destructive as physical ones.

      • laddibugg

        I DO NOT CONDONE HIS ACTIONS BUT….Why the hell would you put the letters under the bed? I feel like he wants her to find them.

        • Sarah

          Ooh. Good question. If I were trying to keep something an actual secret from my partner that’s certainly not the course of action I’d take. Then again, maybe it’s part of his “I never slept with them!” denial – “I wasn’t keeping it a secret, the letters have been right here all along!”.

        • rg223

          Possibly, but I don’t know how far I’d read into that. I’ve found literally everything my husband has ever tried to hide from me (presents, craft things he used to make nesting dolls to propose to me with, etc). Some people are just really bad at hiding things.

        • Maybe he did want her to find them? Some people love drama and maybe he wanted his wife to “up her game” out of jealousy/fear/etc…

      • AP

        +1 to “But I never slept with them!” being used as a form of gaslighting.

  • Rhie

    I was the other party in an emotional affair just after college (so I was single but he was married) and although I didn’t necessarily think of it in those terms at the time, that’s definitely what it was… not my proudest moment. The man was much older than me and it got very intense very quickly. I grew up pretty fast after that. All this to say that emotional affairs are absolutely real and depending on the type of person, maybe even more dangerous. Sex can be just sex or it can be an emotionally fulfilling experience that brings you closer to another person, but telling someone your hopes and dreams and fears and secrets is only ever going to be telling them your hopes and dreams and fears and secrets and it can be so difficult to get yourself out from under that kind of connection.

  • Rebekah Jane

    I think the line is hiding something from your partner. If I can give my fiance a breakdown of what just happened in the bathroom (and yeah, we do) but can’t tell him about a conversation I’m having with a friend, no matter the gender, I would think it was an issue.

    Example time: I had a very close friendship with a member of the opposite sex that I continued right up until my then-boyfriend/now-fiance and I moved in together. I had known the friend for nearly a decade, but I ended the friendship because of how my friend started speaking about my partner and to me. The closer our move-in date approached, the more he talked down about my partner/spoke inappropriately to me until I was aggressively defending my boyfriend and telling him to keep it clean during every one of our weekly calls. I realized that it was ridiculous for my friend to even have this opinion, since he lived in a different state and had never visited during the span of our relationship (and hadn’t seen me in about two years) until it hit me – I wasn’t telling my boyfriend/fiance about this. I was keeping it from him and I realized that this secrecy was my “friend’s” way of trying to move me closer to him and away from my boyfriend/fiance. It could have been the seeds of an emotional affair. It was a harsh awakening and a sad one that caused me to end a long friendship, but I felt that a line had been crossed and I knew where my priorities and my future was rooted. So, friendship ended, partner informed and harsh lesson learned – not every friend is a good one.

  • I absolutely think that emotional affairs exist. For me & the fiance, the cheating line is ‘any relationship I feel the need to hide the details from my SO’.
    Not that we can’t have secrets from each other, I totally believe in giving each other space for privacy & personal relationships. But the line could be totally different for different people.
    We’ve discussed things like dancing with someone at a club, or playing innocent spin the bottle at a party are NBD for us. But, if I went to the movies with a friend and lied about who was there (even if nothing physical happened) it would TOTALLY be crossing the line.

  • Nicole

    I have an issue with the way this question is posed above and the way some people are reacting to it. First of all, sex is not the be-all, end-all of intimacy, in romantic or general terms. So to phrase the question as, “simply an affair waiting to happen” is presuming that sharing serious, exclusive emotional intimacy is somehow a lesser level of danger or betrayal than people being involved in a physical affair.

    Full disclosure: I say this as a person who had a long relationship (and engagement) end over my partner having an emotional affair. Frankly, the pain is deep and real and has taken years to rebuild trust in lovers again.

    (The general caveat, of course, is that every relationship has its own boundaries and rules for intimacy between partners, and so emotional affairs won’t look the same in any given context.)

    • LJ

      I’m kinda miffed that the premise of this article is “does this exist”, and not “if you find this happening, what can or does it mean and how can you address it”….. nothing quite hits to the gut like an entire discussion questioning the existence of something that can be incredibly hurtful.

      • Jess

        Agreed. Lack of emotional primacy is a big deal in a lot of relationships, and is the basis for a whole bunch of trust and intimacy.

        It is real hard for me to be emotionally open to someone to begin with, and I find it really hard to imagine what would happen to the foundation of emotional security for me to find out my partner was backing away from me in that way.

        It also felt off for me to equate “emotional affair” with having a good friend. Those… aren’t really the same thing?

        • toomanybooks

          ‘It also felt off for me to equate “emotional affair” with having a good friend. Those… aren’t really the same thing?’

          Agreed.

    • AmandaBee

      I feel like this article could have really benefited from the perspective of someone who had been involved (one way or the other) in an emotional affair.

      As it is, the article feels…lazy at best, damaging at worst. There’s an attempt to recognize multiple perspectives, but far more weight is given to the assumption that “real” affairs involve sex. Which also comes with the problematic assumption that we can/should restrict sex to a marriage, but can’t expect emotional boundaries or standards. I understand that it’s an attempt to make a space for a discussion, but it seems to be one that starts by marginalizing the voices of people who have experienced an emotional affair in the way it was written.

  • LJ

    “affair” is a fancy word for “cheating” and “cheating” is a spectrum that each relationship defines uniquely. Of course there’s no one answer to this. Everyone’s comfort levels differ, from incredibly constricted monogamy to compersion-filled polyamoury to everything in between….the “trick” is to trust your partner[s] and have open communication.

  • Ebloom

    I think the term “emotional affair” was probably created to validate the experiences of people with partners who have had affairs, but never consummated. I imagine it’s stressful to be in a situation that feels like an affair, looks like an affair, but where one’s partner never acted physically. One probably questions everything, receives bad advice from friends and family that equates to, “they never did anything so it doesn’t count.” But it does count. It does. Thus, emotional affairs. And- I think they can be one sided. I think one can be head over heals for someone, do all the things listed as requisites for the affair, and the object of affection can still be mostly clueless about how deep it’s become for the other person. Clueless out of obliviousness, choice, or lack of information.

    Full disclosure, I was in an emotional affair for years starting in college. It was awful for everyone involved. I’m not proud of this, so if you comment, just realize that I’m a person and stuff was complicated. I’ve grown a lot since then, and have way way way better boundaries now.

    When I met the other person (C) she was in a relationship and I did everything I could to not see her once I found out about her relationship status (at 2am, when we’re already cuddly and sharing our deepest secrets). But she kept showing up, and it was hard for me to turn her away because of my own feelings. She would also leave copious amounts of notes and little gifts outside my dormroom door. C had no intention of leaving her partner (they stayed together for another 3 years) yet would not abide by any set boundaries. I was madly in love with her, there is no other way to describe how I felt. As time passed and we graduated, things fizzled down a bit, but C was a continuous presence in every relationship I had (much to the frustration of my partners) until I met my soon-to-be wife. We no longer talk, which is for the better. I don’t think either of us feel proud about how we treated each other or our former partners with the emotional affair, but I strongly believe it’s something I had to go through to understand how to set boundaries with people in the future, and protect my own heart. Anyhow, that’s how emotional affairs happen. We had 4 years to act on it, and never did, but emotionally we were all in. It was screwed up for more than just hurting people we cared about. We hurt ourselves, and each other as well.

  • toomanybooks

    Maybe an extreme comparison of wording, but is “emotional affair” to “affair” what “emotional abuse” is to “abuse”? In the context of abuse, we understand both emotional and physical to be valid.

    • Sarah

      I think this comparison is spot-on. Nobody thinks emotional abuse is less serious than physical abuse, and nobody would see emotional abuse as simply “physical abuse waiting to happen” either. They are two separate things that may or may not coexist, and neither is better or worse or more of a thing than the other.

    • PAJane aka Awesome Tits

      Similarly, both can be more difficult to diagnose.

  • JenC

    I think emotional affairs are a thing. I disagree that the word softens the blow, your partner has still crossed a line and sought intimacy with someone else. I don’t think it’s about ruling out or forbiding close friendships as such, I believe we all have an intimacy boundary for our romantic relationships and that isn’t something we should be finding outside of our relationship. For example, I’m happy to hug people but I’m not going to cuddle anyone but my husband. If I suddenly find myself cuddling a “friend” I have crossed a line. I have several boundaries for intimacy but if one of them was crossed then I’ve had an affair by creating intimacy with someone else. My boundaries are going to be different from my husband’s and so it’s about recognising our own personal intimacy boundaries as well as our partners. This is why it’s also so difficult to draw a line under what is strictly an emotional affair and what is a physical affair.

    I think as some of the other comments point out the lack of physical contact seems to make the affair weaker for some people. There’s no physical contact so the person didn’t really do anything wrong. Even though the other person has been receiving gifts or knows that secret that previously only your spouse knew or knows how ticklish you are behind your ears. Whatever it is that crosses that intimacy boundary. However, avoiding physical contact doesn’t make the betrayal any less hurtful. Why would it? When your trust has been betrayed by your favourite person, the person who possibly holds next of kin responsibilities for you, the person that you have been choosing over all others for the last X number of years, why shouldn’t it shatter you? Why should sex rank higher than late night conversations?

    I think part of the problem with emotional affairs is they can grow from something seemingly innocent. You can be the person who swears they will never cheat but you find yourself with a great new friend. Somewhere the friendship can grow and you might not have been attracted to them at the beginning but your attraction grew as your closeness grew. It’s fine though, you would never cheat and you love your partner, even if your friend is becoming more attractive to you. This is just a really great friendship. You’re still just friends so it doesn’t matter that you tell them this or you tickle them or cuddle. Sometimes I think it’s too hard to spot how close you become from the inside until it’s sadly too late.

  • LJ

    I’ve got some food for thought. One of the principal assumptions of this body of text is that all emotional affairs, as defined in this discussion and in the article, have the potential to lead to physical affairs:

    “Here’s the thing about emotional affairs, though: I’m not sure I believe in them. Instead, I think of what we’ve classified as an “emotional” affair is actually just a full-blown affair waiting to happen, and I think we’ve tacked on “emotional” in front of the word “affair” to soften the blow. You know why? Because if my husband had a “friend” in his life and that person was on the receiving end of the list above, I’d consider him to be having a (possibly as-yet-unconsummated) affair.”

    Where are the registered clinical counselors/psychologists on this website? What are the studies? Is there a cause and effect? Or are there other variables? Do people who maintain close, arguably romantic, ties with people who aren’t their primary partners tend to eventually have physical relations? Nothing in this article is more than anecdotal and I don’t know what the true answer is.

    Here’s a quick study I pulled from google scholar http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00926230701620878

    It basically says that people who were emotionally involved with the person they had an affair with were generally not happy with their primary relationship for a variety of reasons. Why not make this article about nurturing a strong connection in your primary relationship? Instead of giving an opinion that could be wrong (some things are opinions, some are musings that can turn out to be disproven), why not dig a little deeper to see why or how people cheat and what emotional stuff factors in.

    I would also love to see more mention of non-monogamous couples. My partner and I have wide, wide parameters for what’s physically acceptable (the main line being “don’t lie about it, just tell me”) but we are very emotionally monogamous. Are you saying that I couldn’t be cheated on then because there isn’t much my partner could do that’s physically cheating since we’re both ok with that? Emotional betrayal is huge, real, and can have devastating consequences.

    I’m obviously having a hard time with this article hahaha…it could have been much more practical and inspired a much more meaningful conversation than has happened here so far.

    • Sarah

      I see what you’re saying and I didn’t take a whole lot away from this either (I’m just like “Are emotional affairs a thing? Yes. Next question!”), but to be fair, this site already has articles about nurturing a strong connection in your primary relationship. There are also discussions about why people cheat, about non-monogamous couples and about what does and doesn’t constitute cheating in different relationships. That’s just not what this piece was about. I’m pretty sure that’s intentional and personally I think it’s fine to post anecdotes and personal musings (as long as they aren’t presented as facts), especially when the purpose is to kick off a conversation. I’m looking forward to seeing the discussions and (hopefully) further articles that come out of this.

      • Meg Keene

        Yup, that’s totally the point of articles like this, and this is almost always how we broach a discussion for the first time. Here are some various opinions of staffers, what are your opinions and experiences? Then we generally read through comments and discussions and figure out what further articles are needed. Sometimes we hire professionals to write them. But we NEVER couch non-professional discussions and opinions as professional. We do both here, but it’s always very clear which is which.

        Also, for the record, while the comments from staffers here are anon, they include non-monogamous staffers.

    • Amy March

      I, on the other hand, have zero interest in reading studies or being lectured to by experts. Stephanie clearly presented this as her opinion, and I think the discussion about it was very interesting.

      An article about nurturing a strong connection in your primary relationship sounds lovely, and completely different than this.

    • Meg Keene

      Some of our staffers (quoted here) are non-monogamous, and we posed the question curious about what all kinds of couples with all kinds of boundaries think about this.

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  • Eh

    Two of my exes had emotional affairs (3 and 5 year relationships). One turned into a full blown affair and then we broke up shortly after that. The other justified it by saying that he “respected” me enough not do act on his feelings while we were still together (this was in a conversation about staying together, but we broke up shortly after that because of his feelings for the other woman). In both cases the emotional affair caused harm to the relationship before I even knew about my exes feelings. Both of them were acting strange (distant, depressed, uncomfortable) and I had noticed that and confronted them about it. In the first case someone had actually told me about the affair but I believed my ex when he said she was just a coworker (actually in both cases they were coworkers).

  • Loran

    I think for me that an emotional affair is way worse than a purely physical one. I get physical attraction and I can totally comprehend acting on it, but inviting someone into your emotional and spiritual world – as a support, as a crutch, in place of the person or persons chosen to be your support is insidious. Now there is a line, and I think “supplant” is probably the appropriate verb to define that line, between close friends (member of one’s supportive community), and emotional adultery – if the relationship is superseding those chosen priority relationships, then those chosen priority relationships are in danger of no longer being the priority and that’s a problem. But if the relationship is adding to and enhancing the priority relationships then there’s no transgression. A clue for me would be if I feel comfortable disclosing information about that friendship with my partner: if it needs to be secret from your partner(s), there’s probably something not right going on.

    • I agree with this. And, in my experience, I got emotionally supplanted (good word for it) in the very short time before my now-ex decided to take it physical and leave me for the other. I think emotional and physical affairs don’t necessarily go together, but I think it’s often the case that the other person gets more and more priority until the spouse or primary relationship has been supplanted (also called the devaluation and discard). Once devaluation has happened, it’s not a big jump to discard the former priority and choose the new priority. And for me, secrecy is the key thing. If a partner isn’t sharing about the time he’s spending with someone else, there is likely a reason…

  • anonemoose

    I also think, and I hope nobody takes this the wrong way because I don’t mean all the time, that sometimes the term “emotional affair” is like the boogeyman that some people use to cut their significant others off from their support network. I’m bisexual and once had an ex suggest that having a friendship with someone whose gender I am attracted to is automatically an emotional affair and I took it as a warning sign and ran screaming into the night, basically.

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  • Emma

    My general rule when cultivating a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex is: if my significant other were doing this with someone else and I found out, would I feel uncomfortable? If my significant other had the feelings of attachment that I’m feeling for this third party for one of his own, would I feel betrayed?

  • raissaemail

    Well, I believe I’ve had an emotional affair: I started a new job and everything was overwhelming, I just wanted them to like me..finally I managed to find a Connection to my direct superior, and a distant but friendly relationship formed. Suddenly I found myself attracted to him. I wanted to flirt and dreamed of him. I knew my husband was the one for me and nothing was worth losing him. It was complicated and I felt so confused. And horny!! I had no idea what was happening to me. I tried to act normal, be a good wife and connect with my husband. Eventually my crazy feeling more or less normalized and I was just happy to have an allie at work. Eventually we moved and I never contacted him. It has to do with my dad-issues, I don’t like it but more than work on it I can’t do.