What *Exactly* Is Considered Emotional Cheating? Relationship Experts Weigh In
That harmless flirting might not be as innocent as you thought.
When the idea of cheating comes to mind, more likely than not, your thoughts automatically go toward physical transgressions—but, what about emotional lapses in judgment? Can those count as cheating, too?
That’s what we’re here to go over today. Ahead, with the help of relationship, intimacy, and sex therapist Dr. Carolina Pataky and “passionate expert” and licensed psychologist Dr. Kelly Rabenstein-Donohoe, you’ll discover once and for all where emotional cheating falls on the spectrum of relationship wrongdoings.
What is emotional cheating?
For starters, it’s layered. According to Rabenstein-Donohoe, emotional cheating is not only when your partner directly shares emotions with another person, but when they repeatedly siphon time, attention, money, and affection away from your relationship and toward a new potential romantic interest.
Here’s where it gets tricky: Sometimes friendships can feel like emotional cheating—especially if you have unresolved insecurities at play. Because of this, Rabenstein-Donohoe says that the best way to know if someone is emotionally cheating is to look at your own relationship. “The loss or damage to the primary relationship is the main way to know if someone is cheating—[emotionally or otherwise],” she says.
Is flirting considered cheating?
Another time when the definition of emotional cheating gets tricky is when flirting comes into play. After all, flirting is an example of paying attention to a third-party person, so is flirting emotional cheating?
Rabenstein-Donohoe says not always. “It’s important to consider how often it happens, if it leads to sex or further communication, if your partner spends money on the person (such as buying drinks, etc.), and/or whether your partner could be paying more attention to you instead of flirting,” she says. If it doesn’t lead to any of those things, then it may be harmless.
When all is said and done, however, both Pataky and Rabenstein-Donohoe agree that whether or not flirting is emotional cheating is subjective. “The most important factor to consider is whether or not the flirting upsets you and interferes with your connection with one another,” Rabenstein-Donohoe says. If you would (or your partner would) feel hurt by the conversation or exchange, and if it’s something that you (or they) would hide, then Pataky says—red flag—it’s emotional cheating.
Emotional cheating signs:
Once upon a time, emotional cheating was easier to spot than it is nowadays. That’s because, as Pataky points out, cheating can now be done virtually thanks to texts, DMs, dating apps, and other messaging sites. And, sadly, because of these technological advances, emotional cheating has become easier than ever to commit. After all, the other person is just a click away.
With this in mind, Rabenstein-Donoho says that the biggest tell-tale sign of emotional cheating is distance.
“Partners who cheat (no matter what kind) tend to eventually pull away from the primary relationship,” she says. As a result, you might notice secrecy. “With devices, this can look like notifications turned off, phones placed facing down, reading the phone carefully so you can’t see, and acting anxious when you look at their devices,” she points out.
Another sign of emotional cheating is when a partner takes a defensive stance when questioned about a new co-worker, friend, or even social media follower. “When you express your concerns, your partner may defend the relationship or call you jealous,” Pataky says. “The fights may seem never to resolve, and your partner may be unwilling to end the third party relationship.” (Of course, this is not to say that your partner must unfriend any person you’re uncomfortable with, but they should absolutely be open to communicating about it in an empathetic, constructive manner.)
How to talk about emotional cheating:
Speaking of communication, it’s important to approach topics of concern with care.
“If you choose to confront your partner, you can start with questions,” Rabenstein-Donohoe says. “Ask if they are happy in the relationship and note the ways you’ve noticed a disconnect or change between the two of you. Each relationship is different, but a direct question about whether they have connected with someone may prove most effective.”
If you’re not comfortable getting straight to the point, Pataky says you can start by expressing concern with a new friendship or social media follower, and then ask how the relationship began, what it’s doing for them emotionally, why it’s important to them to continue the relationship, and whether or not it’s turned physical. Additionally, Pataky says you might want to ask if alcohol or substances are involved, as both can impact in-the-moment decision-making.
“Though the answers to these questions may be painful [to hear], they may give you some insight into what needs to be addressed in your relationship,” Pataky concludes.
How to get over emotional cheating:
If you come to the conclusion that your partner has emotionally cheated, it’s up to you whether or not you can forgive them.
“It is possible to overcome almost anything in a relationship that doesn’t involve abuse,” Rabenstein-Donohoe says. “If your partner is honest with you; lets you know what happened; agrees to be honest and to do the work of repairing trust—which is arduous and difficult work—and you both want to stay in the primary relationship, then many people make it work.”
The trick is to find understanding for emotional cheating and approach healing from the ordeal as a couple. “After you’ve established a way to rebuild trust, it is essential for both partners to look at the relationship and the role they played in the creation of space where the cheating grew,” Rabenstein-Donohoe says. “It can be very difficult to lower our defenses after cheating of any kind and to look inward, but it never hurts to see how both people played a role.”
While you may not have been the one cheating, ask yourself if you’ve been available to your partner, emotionally, sexually, or otherwise. If you haven’t been, then, while it’s not your fault that they cheated, it helps to understand your own perspective on the matter and to determine how to fix anything you may want to work on to improve the relationship.
All that said: If you can’t imagine moving forward without resentment and constantly holding their mistake against them, then it’s best to move on.
While meditation, exercise, talking with friends, distracting yourself with hobbies, and getting involved in new projects can help heal you from emotional cheating and find yourself outside of the relationship, it’s important to be honest with yourself about how the event impacted you. If you think it may trickle over into new relationships and manifest as trust issues, seeking a therapist’s guidance can help.