9 Signs You Might Be Cheating Emotionally

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison

In a recent study at Kentucky State University, researchers found that two-thirds of the women they surveyed said that they would be more hurt by an emotional affair than a physical one. When people talk about cheating, they’re usually referring to physical infidelity, but we shouldn’t discount the capacity of emotional cheating—the forming of deep romantic attachments outside of one's primary relationship—to cause pain and destroy relationships. The thing with physical infidelity, as painful as it obviously can be in so many ways, is that it can sometimes (at least in theory) be reasoned away as a temporary lapse in control over one's impulses; "It was a mistake," "It only happened once," "I don't know what I was thinking," etc. But when it comes to emotional affairs, it's hard to fall back on the "mistake" narrative. The simple fact is, to accumulate a meaningful connection to another human being that isn't sexual takes at least a little bit of time (and usually, much more than "a little bit") which means making the repeated decision, over the course of many days, weeks, months, and even years, to continue nurturing feelings for someone, and engaging in behavior that is dishonest and in breach of the agreement of honesty and fidelity you have with someone else. When you think about it, it makes sense that so many people consider this kind of cheating—even if there's no sexual contact—so much harder to deal with.

One of the most difficult aspects of emotional affairs is that they aren’t always easy to identify, even when you’re the one doing the emotional cheating. Recognizing a physical affair is pretty straightforward: if you let someone have sex with you who isn’t your monogamous partner, you’ve definitely crossed a line. But emotions are more complicated, and the boundaries of “OK” and “not-OK” connections are way fuzzier. What makes identifying and dealing with emotional affairs especially hard is that a lot of the behaviors that define these types of affairs are totally normal and fine in moderation. In a long term relationship, of course you’ll experience crushes on other people once in a while, and of course you’ll get a little kick out of flirting with that cute mail guy at work, and it’s all fine: you’re LTR isn’t endangered by it. But when you cheat emotionally, you’re not simply engaging in a casual, harmless flirtation; rather, you’re making a deep emotional investment in someone else—an investment that comes at the expense of your long term partner. Below are nine signs that you may have stumbled into “emotional cheating” territory. Do you fit these criteria?

1. You feel the need to hide what's going on from your partner

You have the right to have a private life. We all do. Having things that your partner happens to not know about (they don't necessarily need to hear about every single conversation you have throughout the day) is NOT the same as intentionally keeping certain things from them. Your partner shouldn’t be checking your email, reading through your texts, or spying on your social media interactions. But if you’re spending lots of time going out of your way to make sure that your partner doesn’t see your conversations, that’s a problem. You wouldn’t feel the need to hide if you didn’t feel that somehow what you’re doing is wrong.

2. You dress up for your crush

Most of us can admit that it’s fun to feel like other people think we're hot, whether we’re in relationships or not. But if you’re finding yourself dressing to impress one particularly person—if you’re putting makeup on in the morning and finding yourself hoping that your coworker will like your smoky cat eye and not wondering what your partner will think—then you need to consider whether you’re getting too attached to someone outside your relationship. This is such a hard line to walk, to be honest: It's fun to have harmless little crushes, whether it's at the office or the cute person at the coffee shop you stop at in the morning. If you make sure you look put-together simply because you want them to think of you as a generally hot person, that's one thing. If you find yourself putting more energy into how you look because it garners actual attention from them, that you willingly participate in—maybe it triggers flirting, and you know/hope it will, and THEY know you hope it will—then it's not just wanting to look nice for the sake of looking nice. It's engaging in a wordless exchange with another person. You'll know where that line is because chances are, you'll feel a little guilty about crossing it.

3. You have consistent daydreams and/or sexual fantasies about this person

Again, having random fantasies about people other than your partner isn’t a big deal—it’s simply part of being human. But if you’re consistently fantasizing (both sexually and otherwise) about someone—to the extent that it’s interfering with your attraction to your partner—then you’re risking major damage to your relationship.

4. You communicate with your crush more than with your best friends

Your long-term partner can’t be expected to fulfill every single social need you have, so of course you have friends and family with whom you communicate regularly. However, if you’re spending significantly more time emailing or chatting with one particular person than you do with your best friends, you should sit down and consider why you’re investing so much time in someone who isn’t your partner.

5. You downplay how much time you spend with this person, or how much you like them

When you talk to your partner, do you find yourself downplaying how much time you actually spend with your special “friend”? Do you lie about your relationship? Do you find yourself saying things like, "I don't even like them that much, to be honest. They're kind of annoying."? If there was nothing problematic about that relationship, you wouldn't feel hesitant to openly enjoy them as a person. Like, "Yeah, he/she is so great and I'm stoked to know them! They're awesome!" are the kind of things you say about a friend when they're genuinely just a friend. If you feel like you can’t be honest with your partner about your relationship with this supposed-friend, that’s a sign that deep down you know something’s off.

6. You complain about your significant other to your crush

Of course, we all need to confide in our friends sometimes. But if you’re constantly complaining to someone else about your partner—and not ever confronting your partner about these issues—it might mean that you’re looking for a way out of your current relationship.

7. You keep your partner and your “friend” in separate spheres

Does the idea of hanging out with your friend and your partner at the same time make you really uncomfortable? Does it fill you with a vague sense of guilt? That’s a sign that somewhere along the way, you’ve crossed a line you shouldn’t have.

8. You flirt

Randomly flirting with people in the checkout line is harmless, but really, honestly think about your behavior with this person: Are you behaving in a way that, if you were single, would mean that you were interested in a romantic or sexual relationship? If you are, that’s not fair to your partner or the person you’re flirting with.

9. Your relationship with your “friend” feels more intense than the one you share with your partner.

Are you investing more emotional energy into your friendship than you are in your romantic relationship? Does your friendship feel more important than all of your other relationships? If you’re answer is “yes,” then you may need to rethink what you actually want from your current partner, and really try to be honest about what's happening in both relationships—for everyone's sake.

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