Relationships
A couple talking about emotional cheating in their relationship.

What Is Emotional Cheating? Here’s How To Recognize The Signs

And how to deal if it happens to you.

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When it comes to cheating in a relationship, most people are quick to consider the physical aspect. Crossing the line could range from inappropriate touching to a drunken kiss at the bar to full-on sex. But other forms of infidelity — like emotional cheating — aren’t so easily defined. Since non-physical cheating isn’t so black-and-white, it can cause misunderstanding between partners and can even be the cause of breakups.

So, what is emotional cheating? According to licensed mental health counselor Colleen Wenner, LMHC, emotional cheating is “an affair of the mind.” She says that while it sometimes feels harmless to talk to someone outside of your relationship, if the connection is taking away time, attention, and energy away from your partner, alarm bells should be ringing. Many people think emotional affairs are harmless if they don’t involve sex, but according to Wenner, secretive dynamics can be just as damaging.

It’s hard to pin down a universal definition for emotional cheating because the term encompasses many different situations. Maybe you just became official with your partner, but you still keep up with your longtime Bumble crush. Or perhaps you share innocent memes with your coworker, but one day, your convo veers into flirtatious territory.

Although emotional cheating can be hard to identify, there are many telltale examples and signs to watch out for. Here’s what experts want you to know about emotional cheating, and what to do if you believe it’s happening to you.

What Is Emotional Cheating?

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According to Joni Ogle, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and sex addiction therapist, emotional cheating refers to a type of intimacy with a person who isn’t your partner. “Emotional cheating happens the moment someone starts to share intimate thoughts, feelings, and desires with someone other than their partner,” she says. “It's often seen as the first step towards physical cheating, but it can also be its own standalone betrayal.”

Ogle explains that when a partner forms a bond with someone outside the relationship, it can lead to conflict and trust issues. “Cheating is about betrayal, and the moment you give a part of yourself to someone other than your partner, then you have betrayed their trust,” she explains. This breach of trust can often lead to feelings of jealousy and insecurity.

Although emotional cheating is usually associated with having a crush on someone, it doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic or sexual to count as infidelity. Ask yourself: Is there another person who is serving as a distraction or taking energy away from your primary romantic relationship? If you have a connection with someone that your partner would likely be uncomfortable with, you might be in emotional cheating territory.

What About Emotional Cheating vs. Friendship?

Cheating and close friendship may look similar on the outside, but according to Ogle, there’s a fundamental distinction. Friendship can be lighthearted and purely platonic, whereas emotional cheating typically involves a deep, special connection that goes beyond what is considered normal for a friendship. “Friendship typically refers to a more superficial level of connection,” Ogle says. “Although friends can certainly provide emotional support, it is not usually to the same extent as what is experienced in an emotional affair.”

Your friends are there to listen to you vent and talk about your relationship problems, not to fill a void. But closeness can become an issue when your friend becomes the first person you go to for the good and bad in your life. If your “friend” occupies your thoughts and emotions more than your partner, the connection may be outside the bounds of a healthy friendship.

If you’re unsure if you’re emotionally cheating, think of it this way: Would you feel comfortable with your partner reading your text messages, or would you rather keep the correspondence a secret? Let’s say you’ve been with your partner for a few years, but lately, you’ve been texting your cute neighbor. The more you text each other, the more you find yourself wondering what it would be like to kiss them — even more than your own partner. If you’re annoyed your S.O. is texting you back because you’re still waiting to hear from the person down the street, take note.

Signs Of Emotional Cheating

If you think your partner might be emotionally cheating and you’re looking for clarification, Ogle and Wenner share some clear examples and signs:

You’re Not The First Person They Turn To Anymore

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“If your partner seems more engaged and enthusiastic when they're talking to someone else, it's a sign that they're getting emotionally attached to that person,” Ogle tells Elite Daily. Maybe your partner is constantly texting a mysterious girl from work or reaching out to them every time you leave town.

Emotional cheating is about sharing an intimate connection with someone and taking the steps to deepen contact with the person, with your partner none the wiser. Having other friends and connections can be healthy, but if you have a gut feeling that something is off with your partner and their new friend, it might be.

Your Partner Compares You To The Other Person

If your partner is emotionally cheating, they may start comparing you to the other person they’re talking to — in both subtle and explicit ways. For example, during fights, your boyfriend may talk about how well he gets along with his coworker, or how much he wishes you would understand him like his childhood crush. If your partner is bringing up another person constantly and making you feel like you’re in the wrong for voicing your feelings, their behavior may be a warning sign something is amiss.

When you bring up your suspicions, see how your partner either validates or dismisses your concerns. Your partner should hear you out and take steps to make you feel safer. If they’re saying, “It’s just a friend!” without actively hearing you out, the shutdown could be a red flag.

Your Partner Hides You On Social Media

Social media is the ultimate place to gather receipts and determine someone’s relationship status. If you notice your partner is no longer posting about you, is archiving old photos of you together, or starts taking down traces of you from their social media accounts, Ogle notes it could be a sign that they’re becoming emotionally invested in someone else.

“Even if they don't plan to pursue anything physical with this other person, the fact that they are willing to hide evidence of your relationship so easily shows that they're not as committed as they should be,” she warns.

Your Partner Seems Less Invested In The Relationship

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Sometimes, you can’t put a finger on it, but you feel like your partner is acting differently. Maybe they seem less interested in sex lately or they’re starting more arguments seemingly out of nowhere.

“When apart from our partners, we tend to crave each other's presence,” Wenner says. “But if you notice that your partner is spending less time with you than usual, even though they claim everything is fine, it could be that your partner is looking for attention elsewhere.” Maybe they’re just having an off day, but if you don’t feel like a priority anymore, it could be a sign that your partner is moving on.

Your Partner Is Being Secretive Or Lying

Communicating in secret can be a big red flag that emotional cheating is happening. For example, if your partner texts someone else, they may turn their phone away from you or hide their Snapchats. Are they being sketchy about their whereabouts? Do they say they can’t hang out but don’t offer an explanation? When you want to meet their coworkers or new friend, does your partner brush you off? If your partner is always withholding information or explicitly lying about their whereabouts, it’s a bad sign.

Ogle explains that often, people who are emotionally cheating try to keep their behavior a secret. “Cheaters will often go to great lengths to keep their affairs hidden, such as lying about where they were or what they were doing, deleting text messages and emails, or even making up cover stories,” she says. This may be due to guilt, shame, or simply not wanting to get caught. “If you notice that your partner is being secretive, it's worth asking yourself why they might be hiding something.”

But fair warning: Just because your partner is setting boundaries and being more private doesn’t mean they’re emotionally cheating. Overall, emotional cheating is about a pattern of repeated offenses instead of a few isolated incidents.

What To Do If You’re Being Emotionally Cheated On

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If you fear you’re being emotionally cheated on, Wenner recommends communicating openly with your partner. “Talk to them about what you've noticed. Be open and honest about how you feel and why you believe they are cheating, providing just the facts,” she says. Sticking to clear evidence you’ve observed can help you stay calm, focused, and avoid bringing anger or intense emotions into your conversation.

If you’re feeling nervous, try these conversation-starters:

  • I see that you hide your phone when you’re around me sometimes, and it’s making me really uncomfortable. Are there conversations you wouldn’t want me to see?
  • Lately, I’ve been feeling disconnected from you. It feels like we aren’t as close. Is there someone else in the picture you’re getting support from?
  • I’m noticing there’s been some emotional distance in our relationship. I miss being the person you go to for everything. Would you be open to a conversation?
  • I’m a little uncomfortable with your connection with [the other person]. It feels like they’re getting more time and attention from you than I am. Are you open to hearing me out?
  • This might be awkward to say, but I have a feeling you’re attracted to your friend and I want to talk to you about it. How do you feel about them?
  • You keep comparing me to your friend, and I’m wondering if there’s something more to why you’re bringing them up. What’s going on?

Can You Forgive Emotional Cheating?

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If you’ve determined your partner has crossed a line and emotionally cheated on you, it’s up to you to decide what you want to do next — whether it’s a breakup or working on the relationship. “When dealing with emotional cheating, it is essential to remember that forgiveness does not mean forgetting,” Wenner tells Elite Daily. Chances are, once your partner has cheated on you, it’ll be difficult to forget. But she says there may be ways to move forward.

Wenner suggests taking the time to process your emotions and then setting boundaries and limits with your partner. Since the definition of emotional cheating varies for everyone, it can help to talk about what you both consider a betrayal of trust. Make a list of behaviors and actions that you’re not OK with, and hear your partner out, too. These may include: cuddling, making out, sexting, flirting with someone at a bar, keeping in touch with old Hinge hookups, being around old exes, writing a thirsty comment on someone’s IG, hanging out with certain people alone, or even sharing sensitive details about your relationship.

Let’s be real: Cheating can be a blow to your self-esteem. But remember, people cheat for many different reasons, and your partner’s actions aren’t a reflection of you. If you’re feeling self-conscious, Wenner recommends practicing self-compassion. “Please don't beat yourself up over it. Instead, focus on how you can improve yourself and your relationship,” she says.

Emotional cheating can be a slippery slope with hurtful consequences. It can be a painful realization to find out that your significant other had feelings for someone else. If you want to work it out, the next step is clarifying blurred lines and getting crystal clear on what’s appropriate and what’s not. Communicating openly with your partner can solidify your commitment to each other, and ensure that you two have each other’s back — always.

Experts:

Joni Ogle, licensed clinical social worker, certified sex addiction therapist, and CEO of The Heights Treatment

Colleen Wenner, licensed mental health counselor and Founder of New Heights Counseling