What is emotional cheating? Relationship experts explain and share 7 tips to work through it

It might be difficult, but couples can work through emotional cheating

Unhappy couple laying back to back in bed
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Worried about emotional cheating? We speak to family and relationship experts about this difficult form of betrayal - they discuss what you need to know about it, and the best ways to work through it. 

Relationships are complex and nuanced, and couples can run into difficulties for a number of reasons. For those with children, women can be affected by the process of matrescence, and the burden of the mental load - while grappling with difficult feelings and bodily changes, it's unsurprising that a marriage or relationship isn't top of a woman's list of priorities.

Lack of intimacy and falling into a sexless marriage can breed resentment, and feeling each other's needs aren't being met. This can result in behaviour that blurs lines between what constitutes cheating - sending suggestive text messages or finding emotional comfort outside your marriage might be different to straight up cheating, but can be equally damaging. 

To broaden our understanding of emotional cheating, we spoke to three experts who specialise in family and relationship therapy. BACP registered therapists Natasha-Rae Adams, Stefan Walters, and Cate Campbell share their knowledge on what constitutes emotional cheating, and how you can work through it.

Stefan tells us: "There are many types of cheating and disloyalty within relationships, to varying degrees, but perhaps one of the easiest to overlook is emotional cheating. This is when one partner starts to share intimate thoughts or feelings with a third party, without the knowledge of their partner. As the saying goes, an affair can often start with a simple text message."

What is emotional cheating?

Emotional cheating is more than just a sharing banter with a really good friend. Although nothing physical happens in the emotional relationship, feelings similar to those occurring in a sexual relationship can be felt. Natasha-Rae tells us "One of the core elements that distinguishes emotional cheating from a close platonic relationship is that the emotional connection threatens the bond or intimacy the person already shares with their partner.

"In the emotional affair, the bond between the two people feels more intense than a bond between the person and their partner. Further, feelings of sexual attraction, tension or chemistry may develop alongside the emotional connection. As emotional cheating develops, the person may begin to overstep the threshold of boundaries, ultimately harming trust in the relationship. The person may become preoccupied with thoughts of the other person, resulting in a lack of interest in their partner."

Stefan adds: "Things can seem innocent at first, but if this becomes flirtatious or inappropriate, or excludes the partner, then this can quickly become a case of emotional cheating. There may not even be any sexual content to the exchange (eg. it could be all about work stresses), but if things start to develop a sense of shared intimacy, then this may be construed as emotional cheating."

Overall, emotional cheating relies on a co-dependency between a partner and someone outside their relationship. When families are busy and intimacy is low, someone in the partnership can be left feeling 'ignored' if they don't communicate this need effectively. This can result in emotional connections developing quickly, or with people those doing the cheating wouldn't ordinarily be interested in - the mental connection fulfils a need, and feels more special than it actually is. 

7 ways to overcome emotional cheating

  1. Address intimacy issues. Issues relating to intimacy should be discussed in a partnership before someone is left feeling frustrated. Natasha-Rae tells us "In terms of resolving an emotional affair, the first thing to address is the intimacy issues in the current relationship. Emotional affairs can worsen an intimacy issue that was already present; as the person engages more in their emotional affair, they withdraw from their relationship, which in turn, sustains the emotional affair. It becomes a vicious cycle." 
  2. Check how connected you are. Similar to looking at intimacy issues, problems around connection should be discussed. Natasha-Rae adds "It is important to ask oneself how connected they are feeling to their partner and why there is a lapse of connection there. Where there is a lapse of connection, it is useful to have regular check-ins that involve vulnerable discussions about emotions and feelings. It is through a rebuilding of trust and intimacy that connections can be restored. Remember, it is natural for relationships to ebb and flow as long as we recognise when there is distance and how to come back to one another."
  3. Re-frame what is normal. Relationships are far from perfect, and while me might think others are experiencing a fantasy partnership full of romance and lust, they really aren't. Natasha-Rae shares "Another important issue to address is whether the emotional affair is connected to idealistic fantasies. Sometimes emotional cheating can be born from our own lack of fulfilment and desire for a ‘perfect’ life. We can sometimes see the person that we engage in the emotional affair with as a vehicle to happiness. If your thoughts surrounding this person are utopian and unrealistic, this may be occurring. Remember that all healthy relationships experience conflict. Address the areas of your life that you feel a lack of fulfilment and try to recognise that emotional affairs can relieve stress, low mood or lack of motivation, but do not solve the root issues."
  4. Be transparent. This relates to not only the details of the emotional affair, but anything that leaves a person feeling like this was the only option available to them. Stefan tells us "In these cases, transparency is the most important part of the process of repair for the couple. Each partner will need to fully understand what was shared and why, and they both need to recognise the difference between privacy and secrecy. We are all entitled to privacy at times, however secrecy is very different. If we knowingly withhold things that may impact or exclude our partners, then that is veering into dangerous emotional territory."
  5. Be realistic. Cate tells us that whoever had the emotional affair should really look at it closely and evaluate what they thought they'd get from it and whether it's more important than their current relationship. She says "Be realistic; is the emotional affair likely to last, or would you even want it to? These relationships are often a way to distract yourself from the problems you have at home. If your primary relationship is in trouble, address this."
  6. Create boundaries. Cate also discusses setting boundaries about what constitutes emotional cheating - this can differ from person to person, and one person might not even be aware they've 'cheated.' Cate adds "Discuss relationship boundaries with your partner. It may be that you're both unclear about what the other would consider emotional infidelity. Being clearer about this could strengthen your trust in each other and the bonds you share."
  7. Allow time to grieve. This is an important one - emotional cheating is still distressing and can be a total surprise in some cases. Allow the hurt party time to grieve what they thought they knew in the partnership. Natasha-Rae concludes "Allow yourself to go through a grieving process and let the emotional affair go. Whilst going through this process, recognise what needs the affair served and construct a plan to have these needs met in a healthy way that is conducive to your life at present. Acknowledge your partner’s pain, empathising with their emotions and responses. Couples therapy can aid this. Have a renewed focus on rebuilding trust in the relationship, and recognise that this can take time. Alongside this, I think it is important to renew one’s commitment to the relationship- remind yourself of what the relationship has offered you in the past and why you want to stay." 

If you're looking to spice up your relationship, our tips will help. Meanwhile, using five particular phrases is a sign your relationship is stronger than most, and a relationship expert shares three psychological ways to tell if you're still in love.  

Natasha-Rae Adams
Natasha-Rae Adams

Natasha-Rae Adams is an experienced BACP registered integrative therapist who has her own private practice where she helps a broad range of clients. Natasha aims to make her sessions as accessible as possible and has a special interest in perinatal and trauma therapies.

Psychologist and psychotherapist Stefan Walters
Stefan Walters

Stefan Walters is world renowned London based psychotherapist and psychologist who offers in person and online therapy services to individuals, couples, and families in distress. Stefan is also a certified brainspotting therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).

Cate Campbell
Cate Campbell

Cate Campbell is a BACP accredited sex, relationship, and trauma therapist. She is also a writer, co-host of The Real Sex Education podcast. 

Lucy Wigley
Parenting writer - contributing

Lucy is a mum-of-two, multi-award nominated writer and blogger with six years’ of experience writing about parenting, family life, and TV. Lucy has contributed content to PopSugar and moms.com. In the last three years, she has transformed her passion for streaming countless hours of television into specialising in entertainment writing. There is now nothing she loves more than watching the best shows on television and sharing why you - and your kids - should watch them.