When you think about an affair, you probably think of something physical. Your mind may go to two people meeting in a grimy hotel room to secretly hook-up behind their partners' backs. The narrative about affairs is most-often about sex.
But the most common way to cheat may mean that you never even touch the other person.
Emotional affairs are defined as platonic or friendly feelings towards another person that gradually turn into romantic or sexual ones while you're in a monogamous relationship with someone else. Simply put: An emotional affair crosses the boundary of friendship and veers off into an inappropriate path.
These types of affairs are increasingly common. Around 45% of men and 35% of women have admitted to having some sort of emotional affair, which is more than 20% more than people who admit to having a physical affair.
One reason for the commonality is that many people don't view emotional cheating as cheating. People can obviously have close friendships with people of the same genders they're attracted to, but having an emotional affair skirts a line further than friendship — and not everyone knows when they've crossed that line. They can easily connect with a new person on social media or simply through a text, which makes an emotional affair easier to achieve and easier to hide.
Another reason is that people are busy and don't take the time to emotionally connect with their partners. Because of this, they may not view them as someone they can still connect with on an emotional level.
"In the tasks of daily life, our emotional needs often get pushed to the side," Lynn Saladino, a clinical psychologist, told me. "We stop seeing our partner as an emotional being and more as a person who helps us complete tasks and meet obligations. When this happens, it can be very tempting to seek support elsewhere."
This type of emotional attachment is scarily-easy to achieve and can even rear its ugly head in situations as simple as people being distracted by their phones.
"Emotional disconnection is a breeding ground for affairs. In today's world, it's so easy to be emotionally disconnected from others," relationship expert and psychologist Vijayeta Sinh told INSIDER. "We can be eating dinner with a friend, and chatting with another on Facebook. Most of us wake up and check our phones before we even say good morning to the person sleeping next to us. This kind of being-far-away while still-being-close allows us to hold secrets from people we care about, and hide things conveniently. It's actually quite dangerous because it makes us think we are close to someone when in fact we may not be."
Despite many feeling like a emotional affair may not even be cheating, the damages it can have may even be worse than a physical affair.
About 88% of women said that they were more concerned about their partners being engaged in an emotional affair than a physical one.
"I think emotional affairs are worse," Brian Kearney, a single man, told INSIDER. "Human beings have sexual needs, and although there’s no excuse in my eyes, physical affairs can be purely physical, while emotional affairs are connecting with someone on a level deeper than a purely physical affair could offer."
An emotional affair usually begins when you become close to the other person. Maybe you begin to look forward to your chats, become eager to get their input on a difficult decision in your own life. You might begin to hold their opinion highly above others'. This can be from anyone from a coworker — 60% of emotional affairs begin at work — to someone you're chatting with online.
"They are common because many people are emotionally distant from their partners because of their busy and distracted lives," David Bennett, counselor and co-author of the site "The Popular Man," told INSIDER. "Some partners may literally go days without a significant, distraction-free, emotional interaction with each other because of careers, hobbies, etc., so they seek it elsewhere."
But then something shifts. You may begin fantasizing about them sexually or thinking about what it would be like to date them. Your attraction to them becomes more romantic than friendly and you begin to rely on them emotionally because of the connection you've formed.
From there, the affair can go even further — this is usually when people become consciously aware that they are having an emotional affair. You begin to engage the other person by flirting, expressing your romantic feelings to them or eventually even turning the affair physical.
These are similar to the signs of a "normal" physical affair, and should be treated as such. Once you recognize you're having an emotional affair, you need to assess if you want to stay in your partnership or terminate the relationship. Either way, you need to come clean to your partner.
"If you've been caught, the first thing you do is own up to it. All of it," said Michelene M. Wasil, a licensed marriage and family therapist. "Stop trying to lie and cover up, it only makes things worse in the long run. Your partner will eventually find out, especially if you decide to try and save the marriage."
If you do try to salvage your relationship, it's important to attempt to identify why you strayed from the relationship. It's not your partner's fault that you cheated, but an emotional affair can be indicative that some emotional need is not being met in your relationship. This can be the result of a partner's actions or your own unwillingness to be vulnerable with your partner.
"While it’s common to assume that people cheat because they feel like they had no other choice or, rather, cheat because their partner made them feel invisible, emotional cheating also happens because the person cheating does not know how to let their partner in entirely," said Chelsea Leigh Trescott, a relationship advice columnist and breakup coach. "From this perspective, emotional cheating happens not because their partner isn't showing up for them and another person will, but because the person who is cheating is running away from showing up for themselves and their partner when they need to most."
Emotional affairs may be easier to slip into than a physical one, but there are ways to prevent this decline.
Have a talk about what you define as cheating and encourage your partner to check in about how they're feeling and what you can both do to connect more.
"Couples begin taking each other for granted, leaving one or both parties feeling undervalued in the relationship," Kayce Hodos, a professional counselor, told INSIDER. "If someone else comes along who is willing to listen and invest time, it can feel refreshing. Talk to your significant other the minute you sense some distance because it will only get worse if you don't confront it."
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