Signs That You're Having An Emotional Affair

Maintaining positive relationships within your personal and professional life can be difficult. Life can simply get in the way sometimes, and while it's important to voice concerns with those closest to you and work on your relationships, that doesn't always happen. This can sometimes lead to an affair — a path that married people take more often than you might think.

A 2021 survey conducted by the Health Testing Centers questioned 441 people and found that 46% of respondents in committed, monogamous relationships admitted to having an affair (via PsychCentral). Within that group, 24% noted that they remain with their partner, and 47.5% attested to implementing new relationship guidelines — such as being open with their cell phone use — to prevent further affairs. 

Affairs are fairly common, and if you're saying, "no, that could never be me," you should know that affairs need not be physical — they can be solely emotional. Have you become close with a coworker you happen to be attracted to?  What about a friend who is more of a confidant than someone you occasionally hang out with? Is there someone at your gym who gives you butterflies every time you see them? It's possible you've already begun engaging in an emotional affair without even realizing it.

First and foremost, what is an emotional affair?

We've all heard the typical trope, "But I didn't kiss her! What's the big deal?" Well, an emotional affair is a big deal, so let's shed some light on the subject. In an article for Verywell Mind about the very topic, Sheri Stritof, a marriage and relationship expert and co-author of "The Everything Great Marriage Book," defines an emotional affair as "non-sexual emotional intimacy with someone who is not the individual's romantic partner," noting that the person involved will likely try to hide the relationship from their spouse.

Noting that some involved in an emotional affair might see it as innocuous enough, Stritof explained that many, if not most, relationship experts see this type of infidelity as cheating. "Emotional affairs can also act as gateway affairs, eventually leading to emotional and sexual infidelity," Stritof noted. "In an emotional affair, a person feels closer to the other person than their spouse or partner and may experience increasing sexual tension or chemistry along with the emotional intimacy." So it raises the question — just how many people cheat in this capacity? One study of 1,660 adults conducted by YouGov in 2015 found that 20% of participants had affairs, and 15% of those who had affairs said they never engaged in a physical relationship. 

Now that you know what an emotional affair entails and how common they are, you should know the signs to watch out for.

Your friendship grows deeper

Being told that you're potentially having an affair can feel like a slap in the face, especially if you don't see the relationship you're maintaining outside of your marriage as problematic. But, as noted by Evolve Therapy, many emotional affairs start off simply as friendships. Picture this — you're in a job that you really don't like, but there's this cute coworker who you always look forward to seeing. They make your day in the office just a bit more bearable, and the thought of chatting with them over your lunch break or their kind gesture of bringing you a fresh cup of coffee in the afternoon brightens your work experience.

Before we get into why this can be the start of an emotional affair, we'll be the first to note that having a reliable friend in the workplace is nothing to be ashamed of. Many workplace relationships are what make our careers feel worthwhile. However, it's when you start to feel a little too connected to this person that it can become a problem.

What started out as a friendship could potentially lead to the occasional long lunch, emails that aren't strictly professional, and work trips that feel more like secret getaways than business outings — all signs to look out for. When all is said and done, the "rules" of an affair — i.e., getting physically involved with someone who isn't your spouse — don't always apply. Establishing and maintaining a relationship that is friendship on steroids is the first sign that things are encroaching on the emotional affair territory. 

You get butterflies

Just as there's nothing wrong with an innocent workplace relationship or a supportive gym buddy, there comes a point in the beginning stages of an emotional affair where your dynamic with the other person can become problematic — this occurs when you identify that they are filling a void created about your relationship with your spouse.

The experts at Collins Family Law weighed in on this element of emotional affairs, noting that when one member of a marriage feels undervalued, the chances of them beginning an emotional affair increase. Such a void can be created if you and your spouse are arguing frequently, not prioritizing your time together, or simply not giving each other the support needed to maintain a healthy marriage. 

The early stages of an emotional affair can appear harmless, but Collins Family Law further revealed that if this new person in your life gives you "butterflies" or you find yourself wanting to give (and receive) compliments, things may have already taken a turn. Exchanging phone numbers and mutually following each other on social media is another step towards what Collins Family Law considered to be the second phase of an emotional affair. If you identify this behavior in yourself or your spouse, an interjection and steps towards healing — such as therapy — could thwart the affair from progressing.

You spend time together and communicate when apart

The thing about a coworker or a gym buddy is that you likely see them every day if not at least a couple times a week. With a natural frequency in your life, you may write off their presence as circumstantial — they'd be at work whether you were there or not, or they'd hit the gym even if you decided to have a rest day. This kind of self-justification, however, can only go so far. If you find yourself spending time with this person regularly, missing them when you're not together, and communicating with them in some capacity — be it via text or social media — the roots of an emotional affair have likely already taken hold.

"Emotional affairs are usually characterized by a great deal of contact with one another," therapist Marni Feuerman asserted in Verywell Mind. When this contact extends the confines of work, the gym, or whatever environment you share with this person, that's when the alarms should start going off in your brain.

"For example, you often communicate with this person at questionable hours," Feuerman wrote about the kind of communication present in an emotional affair. "You devote a lot of time texting, emailing, or video calling this person. You may even neglect your partner, family, and other obligations in order to maintain constant contact with this person." Interjection by either yourself, your spouse, or the person involved in your emotional affair is crucial at this point.

You want to share news with this person instead of your spouse

One of the many great aspects of having a spouse is that there's always someone in your corner. Whether you've had a rough day and need someone to vent to or you've had a great day and can't wait to share the news, your spouse, ideally, is there for you no matter what. However, if you're engaged in an emotional affair, you could find yourself wanting to save that happy news or waiting to cry on their shoulder instead of your partner's. noted that when we experience a wide array of emotions — excitement, happiness, sadness, boredom, et cetera — the instinct is to share those feelings with a significant other. When that desire is assigned to another person, it becomes a red flag. Therapist Marni Feuerman explained in Verywell Mind that when this element of the emotional affair takes hold, you or your spouse — depending on who is cheating in this capacity — may find themselves prioritizing the relationship, and communication, with this other person.

"You might not be intentionally hiding things from your partner, but the lack of communication means that your partner doesn't really know what is going on in your life," Feuerman asserts, further leading you or your spouse down the emotional affair path.

You're constantly thinking about them

In an article for Verywell Mind, therapist Marni Feuerman warned that when you prioritize the relationship with your "friend" over other relationships in your life, a red flag is hoisted well into the sky. And if you constantly find yourself thinking about this person — they just can't leave your mind no matter what you do — an intervention is absolutely crucial as an emotional affair is well underway. You should be aware of this person being the only thing on your mind morning, noon, and night, and the only person whose opinion you consider. 

Feuerman noted that emotional affairs start with little to no physical connection — but that doesn't mean you aren't thinking about it. As this person consumes your thoughts, you may begin fantasize about your relationship becoming physical. This can be a turning point in an emotional affair, as Florida-based psychologist Debbie Layton-Tholl told The Washington Post, "Fantasy and secrets are very powerful. They fuel the fire."

You feel this person really gets you

There's little else that many of us want than the feeling of being understood. Being seen for who we are — without conditions or expectations — allows for a kind of freedom that is incredibly special and validating. As we mature and create new relationships, this feeling of being understood can likely be found in a romantic relationship. It's no secret that we'd like to be understood by our spouses in every capacity, that they accept who we are — the good, the bad, and everything in between. But feeling misunderstood or only partially seen is a phenomenon that many people experience even in their marriages, and this sense of emptiness could aid in an emotional affair developing.

As noted by Elite Daily, failed relationships are often characterized by one party who feels like they're giving too much while the other feels as though their needs aren't being understood. This clashing of feelings often results in the ending of a union. And if you're just dating, you can easily go your separate ways. The same can't be said for a marriage. By the time you've tied the knot, elements like finances, living arrangements, children, and social circles are well established. If you then find yourself feeling understood by the person you're connecting with in your off hours and have begun an emotional affair, it's not unwise to consider the consequences.

You share intimate details about your spouse or yourself

One of the best things about having a healthy relationship with your spouse is that you can pretty much tell them anything and they won't judge you for it — or at least that's the goal. They know you better than anyone, right? Well, if you're engaging in an emotional affair and are aware that what you're doing isn't particularly kosher, you'll likely find yourself sharing intimate details about yourself — or your spouse — with them.

The Guardian spoke to a number of people who've been impacted by emotional affairs. One woman, Chloe, who'd been cheated on in this way explained how she visited her husband at work one day and was devastated by the intimate dynamic he and a coworker shared. "My heart dropped when I saw them talking to each other — they had this closeness," Chloe said. "I realized then that it was her that had come between us. He went to her with problems, shared secrets and aspirations — all those things that we used to do together."

Fifteen years after this emotional affair, Chloe is adamant things never got physical between her husband and his coworker, and that their marriage was in a bit of a transitional period at the time. They had a 3-year-old and had been married for about 12 years when her husband's emotional affair started. "Before, I thought that pain could only come from a physical betrayal — there wasn't a rulebook to follow for this type," Chloe lamented.

You compare your spouse to this person

Comparison is often the thief of joy, and as an emotional affair continues to increase in severity, a feeling of comparing your spouse and the person you're emotionally involved with could very easily come to the surface. Therapist Marni Feuerman explained in Verywell Mind that as people involved in an emotional affair become closer, unfair comparison begins. "You frequently compare your spouse to this person. You may get angry with your spouse for not doing things like the other person," Feuerman detailed, "because you are idealizing this other person, your partner begins to look worse in your eyes. You may find yourself being more critical of your spouse." 

In such cases, comparison and the sharing of intimate details with another person outside of a marriage are often seen as betrayal, according to Dr. Gayle Brewer, who spoke to The Guardian about emotional affairs. According to Dr. Brewer, this kind of emotional betrayal is often felt more by women than men, as studies have shown that men often categorize affairs as purely physical, whereas women tend to see emotional betrayal as equally severe, if not more so.

You make excuses to avoid your spouse and find time to spend with this person

When you start to carve out time in your schedule for someone instead of your spouse, children, and your familial commitments, things have gone too far. As noted by Elite Daily, not spending enough quality time with your significant other can lead to a variety of pitfalls, and making time for someone else who is not your spouse is indicative of a much bigger issue.

If you and your spouse don't spend enough time together, you may find this snowballing into a much bigger problem. Tell-tale signs that you and your partner have additional issues to fix is if you find yourself dreading your time spent with them, especially if you find yourself filling that time with work and other people, Dr. Gary Brown, relationship expert and licensed psychotherapist, told Elite Daily. "You may spend way too much time at work — either to promote your career, or even to spend time with your friends," Dr. Brown said. "But really, you're using this as an excuse to avoid your partner."

You lie to your spouse about the relationship

Here's where we get to the all-encompassing sign that an emotional affair is in full effect — you find yourself outright lying to your spouse. Telling your partner that you have a close working relationship with a colleague or a gym buddy you rely on to get through your workout is a stretching of the truth that still feels pretty yucky, but when you outright hide the full relationship from your significant other and do everything you can to maintain your affair's secrecy, things have gone way too far.

Writing for Mind Body Green, sex therapist Jessa Zimmerman explained that what's worse than the actual affair itself is the blatant covering up of infidelity. While many may justify themselves in this act because things haven't gotten physical, that element of trust being broken in your spouse is tough to come back from. "The worst part about affairs is the breach of trust, the willingness one spouse shows to disregard the feelings and experience of the other," Zimmerman wrote. "The person who had the affair needs to wrestle with the fact that they were willing to lie to their spouse and hide what was happening."

The only way to move forward, Zimmerman says, is to be honest with your partner, explaining everything they're comfortable learning. "Examine the extent of the dishonesty and the prevalence of lying in your life in general. Commit to speaking the truth and being transparent from now on," Zimmerman concluded.

An emotional affair can have just as serious consequences, if not more so, than a physical affair

The crutch of an emotional affair, if we've learned anything from this presentation of signs, feelings, and red flags, is that many will justify their behavior because the connection never breached a physical barrier. But — as any long-time married person will tell you — the physical connection you share with your spouse may fade with time. What you're left with is the mental and emotional connection you've cultivated over the years. When that level of your relationship is breached — and in this case, replicated with someone else — the consequences can feel just as extreme as physical cheating if not more so (via Brides).

If you or your partner is engaging in an emotional affair — whether the affair is in its early days or has been going on for quite some time — sitting down with a couples therapist and trying to get back on common ground is key to salvaging your marriage. If things have gone quite far, assess your own needs — especially if you're the spouse who has been cheated on — come up with a game plan, and act accordingly.