Emotional cheating vs. friendship: What's the difference?

Cheating doesn't always involve sex. In fact, more often than not, infidelity stems from much deeper and more emotional issues.

In an interview with Woman's Day, author Peggy Vaughan defined emotional infidelity as a connection with someone that translates into you channeling more of your emotional energy, time, and attention into someone who isn't your partner. Emotional infidelity can happen to anyone in any relationship at any time, and it doesn't always turn into a big, dramatic affair. Sometimes, it can happen without you realizing it. 

The difference between emotional cheating and friendship is how you or your partner handles this other relationship. Are you or your partner talking about things that should only be talked about with a boyfriend or girlfriend with this other person? Are you spending more alone time with them instead of your husband or wife? Is there a need to gloss over or hide certain parts of the relationship from the spouse? If the answer is yes to any of the above, then it's considered emotional cheating. 

Regardless of your gender or sexuality, emotional infidelity can be just as painful as a physical affair. So what are the best ways to make sure the lines aren't crossed? 

Set boundaries between you and your friend

It's incredibly important to have quality relationships outside of your marriage or partnership. Without those friendships, we can feel lost, or we might miss out on the valuable advice only people outside of your relationship can give you. However, the lines can get blurred if you strike up a friendship with someone you could be attracted to while you're seriously dating someone else.

The most straightforward way to ensure fidelity is to set clear boundaries with your partner and with your friends about what lines you can or can't cross. It should start as a conversation with your partner before it becomes an issue, ideally. However, it's understandable if this isn't the first thing you want to talk about in your relationship, especially if it's a new one. 

Great examples of boundaries could include not discussing topics like your sex life with other people, not hiding text messages from the other person from your partner, and not talking about your relationship issues with people you could be attracted to.

"People aren't really good at resisting temptation," said Gretchen Rubin, the creator of The Happiness Project in an interview with The Atlantic. "It's easier to have a rule that you just follow, so you're not constantly having to weigh circumstances." Rubin explained a list of rules one should follow to avoid having an office affair, where a lot of affairs first begin (via HuffPost). Among other rules, you should never take the first step in flirtation, and you should never confide personal details to an office mate.

Communicate, communicate, communicate!

While the definition of emotional cheating is fairly straightforward, you and your partner might have different opinions of boundaries, and what crosses the line of friendship into infidelity. Don't be afraid to ask your partner about what kinds of behaviors they're uncomfortable with, but also make sure to communicate what behaviors you're both okay with.

These kinds of conversations might bring up unresolved emotional scars from past experiences. If that happens, make sure you're being considerate of your partner's feelings. While it is important for you to speak honestly about your needs and desires, it might not resonate with someone who has baggage they need to deal with. 

It's also important to make sure that the boundaries you've set with your spouse are made clear to your friend. Sometimes, that means avoiding certain topics in conversation, while other times it means sitting down with your friend and talking through the boundaries together. If your friend really cares about your friendship, then they'll honor your requests. And if you feel like lines have been crossed in your friendship with another person, the best thing to do is to let your partner know so you can both handle it together.

Emotional cheating doesn't have to mean the end of a relationship

Sometimes, you can't avoid it. Emotional cheating happens. If it does happen, whether you confronted your partner or your partner admitted to it, it doesn't mean you have to break up

"Having any sort of affair is usually a symptom of an underlying problem in your life and in your relationship," said marriage therapist Sheri Meyers (via HuffPost). "Something is missing that makes you vulnerable to temptation." She explains that this is a good time to "press pause" on the other relationship, and focus on your actual relationship.

Relational therapist Dr. Esther Perel in her TED Talk also notes that affairs don't always spell the end of a partnership. In fact, it could be just the thing your relationship needs to make it stronger. 

"For the past 10 years, I have traveled the globe and worked extensively with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity," she explained. "Desire runs deep. Betrayal runs deep. But it can be healed...[couples can] actually be able to turn crisis into an opportunity...this new disorder may actually lead to a new order." 

If you're feeling like you or your partner is involved in emotional infidelity, there's no shame in turning to a professional for help. Sometimes, it's the only thing you can do.