What Is Emotional Cheating, Anyway?

Twelve people reveal where they draw the line.

by Laken Howard
Originally Published: 
emotional cheating is defined differently by every couple
Johnce/E+/Getty Images

When you think about being cheated on, you probably imagine your partner having sex or hooking up with someone else — but cheating isn't always physical: There's also the scary possibility that your partner will emotionally cheat, which can sometimes hurt even worse. But what is considered emotional cheating? Unfortunately, it's pretty hard to define, because it's different in every relationship: Each couple has their own unique set of relationship boundaries, so emotional cheating is very rarely a black-and-white issue. In an AskReddit thread, users shared what they view as emotional cheating, and it's clear that not everyone agrees on what behaviors constitute "emotional cheating" in a relationship.

"Emotional cheating isn’t as easy to define as physical cheating because the boundaries between friendship and emotional infidelity aren’t always clear," dating and relationship coach Jonathan Bennett tells Bustle. "However, I would define emotional cheating as forming a strong and intimate emotional bond with someone other than your partner. In general, if you are deeply connecting with another person emotionally, even for friendship, while simultaneously disconnecting with your partner, you’re crossing into emotional infidelity."

The concept of emotional cheating is somewhat hard to define as a monolith simply because there are many different versions of it that will vary from person to person. People have different lines they consider crossed for something to veer into an emotional affair. While one person might consider their partner sharing everything with someone else emotional cheating, another might draw the line only if their partner lies about that closeness with another person. Nonetheless, what these instances have in common is that they can be hurtful, as both involve the trust and boundaries of a relationship being violated.

Ultimately, emotional cheating is whatever you define it as, and if your partner's connection with someone else makes you feel uneasy or upset, it's important to have a conversation to re-establish your boundaries. If you're curious how other people see emotional infidelity, here are 12 examples of what emotional cheating can look like — and hopefully none of these ring true in your own relationship.


Lying About How Close You Are To Someone Else

LumiNola/E+/Getty Images

“Anything you have to lie to your partner about re: level of closeness to another person. 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.”


If you feel the need to hide the depth of your connection with someone else from your actual partner, that's a pretty clear sign that something untoward is going on between the two of you. Successful relationships begin with honesty and openness. Just as hiding a physical affair is hurtful, so too is concealing an emotional one.


Complaining About Your Partner To Someone Else

“I’d say emotional cheating is taking all the problems from your relationship to someone else. Instead of talking to the person you’re in the relationship with about what’s wrong, you find someone else to vent to and they’re always there for you. And vice versa. So you end up being emotionally connected with this other person, instead of actively working out the differences of your relationship with your partner.”


It's OK (and actually healthy for you) to vent about your relationship troubles to friends and family. That being said, there's a huge difference between texting your pals about a fight you had with your partner and complaining to a potential love interest about being unhappy in your current relationship.


Always Sharing Big News With Someone Else Before Your Partner

“When you receive excellent news, such as a promotion or an aced final exam, and immediately want to tell the person who isn't your SO or family member.”


It's super upsetting when your partner shares big, exciting news with another person before they share it with you. If you always want to share life events with someone else first, consider why that is and why you don’t tell your partner right away instead. On the flip side, if this is something your partner does and you’re uncomfortable with it, definitely let them know. Some people may not even realize that it’s a problem.


Sending Inappropriate Messages

“I think the simplest answer is if your messages or conversations being read or heard by your spouse would not be acceptable to them (as long as they are a normal reasonable person!)”


If you know your partner would be hurt by the contents of your messages to someone else, that's probably an hint that some emotional cheating is going on. While it’s pretty commonly accepted that sharing nudes with someone else is cheating, messages with just words can be just as damaging — be it sexting or sharing strong feelings.


Making Your Partner A Placeholder

“my ex got a crush on someone else but still continued to date me for a long time and wasn't connected to me at all. like I was a placeholder until they could get with someone knew.”


It's totally normal to have innocent crushes while in a relationship, but if you start to use your partner as a placeholder for someone else you think you'd rather be with, that's not a good sign. Staying in a monogamous relationship with someone while you’re actively pursuing or lusting after someone else is unfair to all parties, as you won’t be able to give your full emotional attention to any one person.


Deleting Texts Or Calls

“If you delete or hide messages/calls from someone, that's a huge red flag.”


If you're someone who likes to regularly delete all your texts, that's one thing. But that seemingly innocent habit can become problematic if you're selectively deleting texts — aka there's one person whose conversations you want to hide from your partner. Chances are, if you are being secretive about your interactions with another person, you’re leaning into infidelity territory.


Putting Someone Else Before Your Partner

“Emotional cheating starts in the head. It's about who comes first. So, as the one who's cheated on, you can never be completly sure, because you cannot see in the other persons mind. But as the one who is cheating, ask yourself who has the first spot in your thoughts everyday. If it's not your SO, but someone else, it might be cheating.”


In a healthy relationship, both partners make sure to always put each other first. So, if you start to subconsciously put someone else first, that's a clear indicator of emotional cheating. And it’s a sign that you either need to stop what you’re doing and give more emotional energy to your partner, or realize that things just aren’t working out between you two anymore.


Showing Signs Of "Puppy Love" Toward Someone Else


“When your partner acts puppyish around someone who isn't you. When they are always the one starting the conversations with the person they are cheating with, and those conversations are always fawning over that person. And meanwhile, you get absolutely no preferential treatment.”


There's nothing wrong with giving a friend a genuine compliment every now and then when it's warranted, but there is something wrong with constantly showering someone who isn't your partner with attention and compliments. Of course, some people are naturally more flirty than others, but if you find that the way you interact with others makes your partner uncomfortable, that’s a sign to at the very least have a conversation and think about things.


Lying About Someone Who's "Just A Friend"

“If you feel the need to lie about an ‘innocent’ friendship, you need to reevaluate that friendship

Edit: Innocent is in quotation marks not because I'm accusing someone from the perspective of the cheated-on SO, but from the perspective of the person doing the emotional cheating. Wherein they would be lying to themselves that its ‘innocent’ despite feeling the need to lie about the friendship”


PSA: A friendship isn't innocent if you feel tempted to lie about things, such as how often you talk or hang out. There’s nothing wrong with being close with other people while you’re in a relationship — in fact, it’s healthy, and any good partner will respect that. However, being untruthful about the nature of those relationships is unfair to your partner.


Always Sharing Big Worries Or Concerns With Someone Else

“When they share things with someone else that they'd never share with you. This could mean little things, but mainly I'm talking about huge things, like stuff that's been bugging them for a while or worries they have or questions about their happiness, that sort of thing. When it comes to topics on that scale, I believe you should be an open book to your partner, and visa versa, more than with anyone else, otherwise it's going down like the Titanic.”


The best part of a relationship is knowing you have someone you can share your worries with, and if you're stepping outside the relationship for huge amounts of emotional support, that can be incredibly hurtful to your partner. It could also be an indicator that your current partner just isn’t giving you the emotional support you need them to. And if that’s the case, that will likely warrant another discussion.


Messaging Other People For Attention

“When your SO goes to someone else for attention when they could get it from the one they're with. Even if my SO isn't having any sexual relations with someone else, but they are getting attention from someone else. I consider that emotional cheating”


If you're reaching out to someone because you like the attention they give you, and not because you actually want to talk to them, that's something that will likely upset your partner. People in relationships often feel hurt when their partner is looking for attention elsewhere and it can lead to feelings of inferiority. If your partner isn’t giving you enough attention, say so, but if you’re looking for attention elsewhere purely for the fun of it, that’s not cool.


Going To Someone Else For Comfort

“it was obvious to me when instead of getting upset with me, she would get passive aggressive and immediately begin messaging someone else about it. didnt really care about me understanding what was wrong or how to fix things, and cared more about recieving their comfort from someone else. every time even a minor thing came up it would just turn into a bad look and the clicks of her furiously typing to some weasel of an ex. i think the bar where i consider it cheating is when their first resort for comfort switches to someone else.”


Finding comfort in someone other than your SO can be a pretty big indicator of emotional cheating. There's nothing wrong with having a close friend be a sounding board for you about your relationship, but turning to another person consistently instead of trying to work through things with your partner is a sign that something is up.

How To Avoid Emotional Cheating In Your Relationship

There's no denying that cheating, in all its forms, is an awful thing to go through — but emotional cheating in particular can be devastating to a relationship, because you're destroying the trust and intimacy you shared with your partner even beyond the bedroom.

"Although physical cheating is traditionally regarded as damaging to relationships, emotional infidelity can be just as devastating," Bennett says. "Drawing close to another person while pushing away your partner, even if emotionally, is a breach of trust and breaking a bond of intimacy."

Whether it's intentional or not, emotional cheating can be super painful — so how can you avoid it in your own relationship?

"The best way to avoid emotional cheating is to be honest with yourself about your emotional relationship with the other person," Bennett says. "Emotional cheating is very easy to justify because it’s so difficult to define with precision. Generally, I recommend asking two questions if you feel you are emotionally cheating: First, how would I feel if my partner acted this way with another person? Second, how would I feel if my partner read a transcript or heard a recording of the conversations? These questions will help you look at the issue more objectively. If you know you would feel jealous towards your partner doing the same thing and worried or ashamed if your partner knew what you were saying, then you’ve crossed the line into emotional cheating."

If you haven't yet, now is a great time to talk to your partner and define what emotional cheating means to each of you, and set specific boundaries about what you are and are not comfortable with. If you truly love and respect each other, you'll both stick to those boundaries with no problem.


Jonathan Bennett, dating and relationship roach and owner of The Popular Man

This article was originally published on