What is—and isn't—emotional cheating? We asked real couples
If there’s one thing we find scary, it’s cheating—specifically the emotional kind. Having sex or hooking up with someone else without the other person’s consent is universally considered cheating, but emotional cheating doesn’t have the same sort of “one-size-fits-all” answer. It’s more complex, and therefore oftentimes more difficult to pinpoint when it might be occurring in your relationship.
Is it frequently texting someone you’re attracted to? Or prioritizing someone else’s needs outside the relationship? Is it simply thinking about someone else 24/7? In order to find some sort of consensus, I polled various individuals on Facebook, Reddit, and IRL, all from different backgrounds and relationship statuses. Their responses were informative, educational, and enlightening, but the general theme seemed to be that emotional cheating is creating a connection with someone outside of your relationship while simultaneously disengaging from your partner.
At the end of the day, it’s up to the couple—both of you—to define emotional cheating. But if you’re wondering how others might interpret the phrase, below are some examples:
When you’re lying or hiding conversations.
“My ex used to text this girl who I knew of, but he always claimed to be just friends with her. However, she used to send him texts of her while she was lingerie shopping. When I would ask about this, he’d claim that she was going through her own relationship problems and he was helping her spice it up. However, these texts were flirtatious on both ends. We had also discussed how nice it would be to be able to run into our exes and have a civil conversation with them as both of our previous relationships ended in a not so ideal way. I come to find out he ran into his ex at a bar and they talked. I wasn’t mad that they spoke, as I was happy to know they were able to have that civil conversation—what felt off to me was that he hid it from me for months.”
When you’re prioritizing someone else.
“When you’re getting out of plans with your S.O. to spend time with the other person, when you’re telling the other person things you aren’t telling your S.O., when you’re so flirty with the other person that people assume you’ve broken up with your S.O., when people think of you and the other person as being an item before they think of you and your S.O., when you lie to your S.O. in order to preserve your relationship with the other person, when you make efforts to never discuss the S.O. in front of the other person because it could risk your relationship with the other person… I could go on and on!”
When you lead someone else on as a “back-up.”
“My ex used to accuse me of emotional cheating when I did normal things like smile at the barista at Starbucks, or glance at a regular guy on the street and smile. He thought that when I complimented someone or laughed at someone else’s joke, I was automatically flirting. It got really ridiculous, but after we broke up, I actually found out he was emotionally cheating on me by texting his ‘friend’ [during the relationship] and keeping her within arms reach because he knew she liked him. Three weeks after I broke up with him, he was in a relationship with her.”
When you’ve ditched your reality to constantly fantasize.
“I think it’s abandoning the reality of one’s current relationship to explore the thought of ‘what if’ with someone else. I have done it once and it deeply hurt my partner. I was so lost in the world at the time, having been let go from a job which brought up a lot of unprocessed trauma in my life, and I needed anything that would externally validate me—not that I am trying to justify it, simply contextualize it.”
When you’re lying about your closeness to another person.
“Anything you have to lie to your partner about regarding the level of closeness to another person [can be emotional cheating]. I don’t expect to hear all the private details of discussions a partner has with others, but once hiding aspects of the relationship comes into play there’s a problem.”
When you’re doing something you know your partner wouldn’t like.
“I think the simplest answer is if your messages or conversations were read or heard by your S.O., they wouldn’t find them acceptable—as long as they are a normal reasonable person!”
When you’re sending and deleting text messages
“He shared intimate photos of himself, and she shared hers with him too. They even swapped ‘I love yous’, and then he deleted a lot of his messages in case he was ever found out. He was in a long distance relationship with his ex, and in a short distance relationship with me. He never physically cheated on me, but I felt that—all of it—emotionally.”
When “just friends” is clearly not the case.
“My ex and I were monogamous, but while we were together he became very close to a coworker. They talked daily at work and texted when they weren’t together, sometimes late into the night. Whenever she was going through something difficult she would ask for him to drop everything and come to provide her with emotional support. They would also go on hikes together, go to the movies together, go on various sorts of “dates” together, sometimes without him informing me, or with attempts to hide what he had been doing when he hung out with her one-on-one. He would go to her and discuss any struggles we had with our relationship as well.”
When you destroy the intimacy of your relationship.
“My ex and I had an open marriage. We broke up because he started texting this girl how much he couldn’t stop thinking about her… Personally I didn’t care how many people my partner slept with, but when he started getting verbally intimate with someone, that’s emotional cheating for me.”
When you’re knowingly violating your partner’s boundaries.
“I would say emotional cheating is when you provide support to someone who is not your partner in a way that violates your partner’s boundaries.”
While the topic of emotional cheating may seem daunting, it’s important to explore in order to establish clear boundaries and expectations within your relationship. Emotional cheating, while not physical, can be just as painful to endure, as the intimacy and trust built within the relationship is ultimately destroyed, or at the very least, highly jeopardized.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re worried you might be the one emotionally cheating, consider asking yourself some questions: Would I care if my partner found out about this? How would I feel if I found out my partner was doing this? If you’re attempting to hide feelings or conversations, that’s typically a clear sign. Having crushes, doubts, or small fantasies is normal—but acting upon those thoughts in an emotional way that could potentially destroy your partner’s trust, is disrespectful and damaging.
At the end of the day, emotional cheating can truly only be defined by you and your partner. While it might seem uncomfortable at first, talking about your expectations of one another will ultimately strengthen your relationship.