Stolen glances, harmless flirting, friendships with the opposite sex … it’s all healthy and totally normal. We aren’t programmed to desire any and all attention from only one singular partner, nor is our partner designed to fulfill our every waking desire.
But when does a smile, a compliment, or a friendship cross the line into total collateral damage? Is cheating without physicality really cheating? Professor, therapist, sex and relationship expert, and Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Shamyra Howard, lays it all out for us.
“Imagine this. You’ve been going to this same gym for a while, and you meet a gym buddy. You and your gym buddy begin sharing recipes and workout routines. Eventually, you exchange social media handles and begin following each other in the virtual world. You text each other funny memes and eventually begin having more intimate conversations. You look forward to seeing this person at the gym, you look forward to conversing with them when leaving the gym, and all throughout the day. You think about them when you’re with your partner and even find time to communicate with them often. Your partner doesn’t know. But is this really cheating?
I remember there was a time that whenever cheating was brought up, it was clear that it was about sexual infidelity. Now, many couples are wanting to get more clear on the difference between a relationship violation, and what is considered cheating.” It can be referred to as an emotional affair, and yes, it can be pretty powerful and, of course, hurtful.
Howard explains that “emotional affairs begin with conversation and opportunity. It’s having an emotional attachment or relationship with someone that causes an interference in the connection with you and your partner. That interference might include more time away from your partner, increased criticism of your partner, secret-keeping, and even lying. Some people are more affected by emotional affairs than they are sexual affairs.” This is because emotional affairs are intense, time-consuming, and a violation of the unspoken contract of the heart, when in a monogamous relationship.
“One way to get clear on determining what constitutes an emotional affair,” Howard suggests, “or any other type of infidelity, is to discuss and agree on your definition of cheating with your partner. You can begin by asking each other this question: how do you define cheating? Be as specific as possible. Discuss boundaries and consequences of cheating. As you probably imagine, emotional relationships are included on many people’s cheating list.”
To put it plainly, yes, an emotional affair is indeed cheating. It takes a personal investment in another person—time and energy that would otherwise be spent on and with your partner. In some cases, it may be a sign that the monogamous relationship that is victim to the emotional affair may be on the outs, or perhaps it’s a more intrapersonal issue.
Howard suggests that if you’re involved in an emotional affair or you’re concerned your partner might be, reach out to a professional relationship therapist to help you figure out the best way to approach the situation.