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signs of emotional cheating

Recognizing The Signs Of Emotional Cheating and How To Respond To Them

You’ve been there — late-night texts, lingering hugs, or intense conversations that make your heart race with that “just a friend” person. You tell yourself it’s just a friendship, but somewhere deep down, a nagging feeling suggests otherwise. In a digital age where it’s easy to reconnect or catch up with old friends, things can escalate quickly, making it difficult to differentiate between a close bond and emotional infidelity.

You may wonder, are those secret smiles and shared secrets with your friend just innocent camaraderie or subtle signs of emotional cheating? In an era where heart emojis and deep conversations are just a click away, reflecting and recognizing where you stand is crucial. Below, we shed light on the signs of emotional cheating and how to respond when entangled in its grip.

What Is Emotional Cheating?

The Gottman Institute explains that emotional cheating is one of the betrayals that ruin a relationship, besides infidelity. It refers to forming a deep, emotional connection with someone outside of your committed relationship, often at the expense of your partner.

Unlike physical infidelity, it doesn’t involve physical intimacy, but rather a profound emotional connection that can detract from the primary relationship. This bond goes beyond mere friendship, leading to an intimate attachment that mirrors the closeness typically reserved for romantic partners.

signs of emotional cheating
Emotional cheating may look like a profound emotional connection that can detract from the primary relationship

What Are the Signs Of Emotional Cheating?

Here are some signs that might indicate emotional infidelity:

Secret conversations: If you find yourself hiding or deleting messages and calls from a particular person, it’s a red flag.

Sharing intimate details: A Gottman Institute article notes that one sign of emotional cheating is sharing details about your personal life, especially negative details about your partner and the relationship.

Thinking of them constantly: If thoughts of this friend pop into your mind more frequently than thoughts of your partner, that is a sign of emotional cheating.

Emotional distance from your partner: As you become more emotionally involved with another, you might find yourself distancing from your significant other. The distance may lead to a lack of intimacy in your marriage and mounting frustrations.

Defensiveness: If confronted about the nature of your relationship with this friend, you might become unusually defensive or downplay its intensity. In most cases, you will defend yourself with “We’re just friends” or “Don’t worry.”

Comparison: If you constantly compare your partner to this person or wish your partner could be more like them in certain ways, you’re on a slippery slope toward an emotional affair.

Anticipation: When you have an emotional affair, you’ll regularly look forward to your next interaction, message, or call with this individual more than with your partner.

How Do You Distinguish Emotional Cheating From Friendship?

Friendships are essential to our social lives, offering support, camaraderie, and genuine affection. But when does a close friendship cross the line into emotional cheating?

Understanding the difference is vital to maintaining healthy boundaries in your relationship. Let’s delve into the distinguishing factors:


At its core, friendship is built on mutual respect and shared interests, with no hidden agendas. In contrast, emotional cheating often stems from seeking something perceived as lacking in the primary relationship, be it attention, appreciation, or emotional support.


Genuine friendships respect personal and relational boundaries. There’s an inherent understanding of limits, both spoken and unspoken. Emotional cheating often involves crossing these boundaries, especially when sharing intimate details or seeking comfort for personal issues.

signs of emotional cheating upset husband and wife
Emotional cheating often involves crossing personal and relationship boundaries


Friendships are transparent; there’s usually no need to hide interactions or conversations from your partner. In cases of emotional infidelity, there’s often a level of secrecy involved, either by omission or deliberate concealment.

Physical Closeness

In a platonic friendship, friends might hug or pat each other on the back. However, lingering touches, frequent hand-holding, or intimate gestures with someone can hint at emotions that go beyond friendship.

What Should You Do to Protect Your Relationship?

Discovering that your partner is emotionally cheating can evoke a whirlwind of emotions, from betrayal and hurt to confusion and disbelief. The best thing to do is recognize that this is just a rough patch in your relationship, which our founder, Dr. Dana McNeil, says is normal.

She says that when you encounter rough patches in a relationship, “you will have to make the decision that the relationship is worth being in and working on. If so, you must commit to rolling up your sleeves and doing your part.” Here are some actionable steps you can take to steer your relationship back to the right path:

Prioritize Open Communication

Initiate a non-confrontational conversation, an approach that Dr. Gottman describes as softening your start-up. Use “I” statements to express your feelings and concerns without placing blame.

For example, instead of saying, “You are always talking to them and ignoring me,” you could say, “I feel a bit left out and disconnected when I see you frequently chatting with them. Can we discuss this?” Using “I” statements helps to convey your feelings without making the other person defensive, fostering a more open and constructive dialogue.

Re-Establish Boundaries

It’s crucial to define clear boundaries on what behaviors and interactions are acceptable outside of the primary relationship and for external friendships. Clearly defining these boundaries allows your partners to navigate external friendships without inadvertently overstepping.

Seek Understanding

Often, emotional cheating stems from unmet needs. Instead of laying blame immediately, try to understand the root causes. Reflect on what’s lacking in the relationship and see if you can address these gaps.

Prioritize Self-care

It’s natural to feel a range of emotions—hurt, anger, and confusion. Dr. Dana McNeil recommends prioritizing self-care in such situations, arguing that “you can’t physically, emotionally, or mentally give to others if you are wiped out.”

Prioritize self-care, whether that means seeking individual therapy, joining a support group, or engaging in activities that promote your well-being. This way, you can better navigate these turbulent feelings, regaining strength and clarity to make informed decisions about your relationship’s future.

How to Identify and Address Emotional Cheating

Realizing you might be venturing into the territory of emotional cheating can be both alarming and confusing. Often, it’s not a deliberate act but a slide into intimacy stemming from genuine connections. If you find yourself on the verge of or already entangled in an emotional affair, consider the following steps:


If you’re veering towards emotional cheating, engage in self-reflection and ask yourself questions like, “Why am I seeking this connection outside my primary relationship? What needs or voids might I be trying to fill?”

Understanding the root causes of your behavior can help you identify what’s lacking in your primary relationship and address it directly. This self-awareness can be the first step in making amends, preventing further emotional distance, and refocusing on the emotional health of your primary relationship.

Have an Open Dialogue With Your Partner

If you sense that you’re diverting emotional energy outside your primary relationship, it’s vital to speak about it with your partner. Choose a quiet moment, free from distractions, to discuss your feelings. Ensure that you frame your feelings in a non-confrontational manner.

This dialogue shouldn’t be one-sided. Encourage your partner to share their perceptions, as this can provide clarity and might reveal underlying issues in the relationship that need addressing.

signs of emotional cheating, open dialogue with partner, lesbian couple talking
Ensure that you frame your feelings in a non-confrontational manner

Rebuild Trust

While rebuilding trust in your marriage after emotional cheating can be challenging, it’s essential to understand that it’s not insurmountable. Start by genuinely acknowledging the hurt you’ve caused, as this acceptance, devoid of defensiveness, creates an atmosphere where healing can begin.

From there, commit to tangible changes. Words alone aren’t sufficient; your actions will solidify your commitment to restoring trust. Maintaining transparency in all your online and offline interactions can provide much-needed assurance to your partner about your dedication to the relationship.

Work with a Licensed Couples Therapist

Recognizing the signs of emotional cheating can be a jarring realization, but understanding is only the first step towards mending. The complexities of human emotions and relationships sometimes demand expert guidance to untangle.

At The Relationship Place, licensed therapists are ready to guide you and your partner through the journey of rebuilding trust and deepening connection. If you’re grappling with emotional boundaries or just looking to strengthen your bond, reach out to us and let our experts support your journey back to love and trust.

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