Emotional Cheating

Emotional cheating photo of two young women, shown from behind, sitting on the edge of a lake and embracing

Emotional Cheating

We talk a lot about the importance of trust and setting boundaries in a healthy relationship. Your boundaries help define what’s important to you and help you feel safe. It’s really important for partners to talk about and be aware of each other’s boundaries, and to be able to trust that the other person won’t cross or ignore them.  

When certain boundaries are crossed in a relationship, it’s sometimes called “cheating.” What people consider cheating can be a range of things; it’s really about what each person considers a violation of trust and boundaries. You and your partner may decide that one of your boundaries is not seeking out or forming sexual relationships with people outside of your relationship. If that type of physical boundary is violated, it’s considered cheating.

Some people also believe that it’s possible for a partner to cheat emotionally. The idea of emotional cheating can be a little more complicated. Emotional cheating implies that one partner has created and pursued a deep, emotional connection or emotional bond with someone who is not their partner by sharing certain things (feelings, activities) with them.

At loveisrespect, we hear from people who believe that their partners are cheating “emotionally” because they have deep or important relationships with others. This idea of emotional cheating can have strong roots in the belief that once someone has a romantic partner, that person should be the priority over everyone else and that relationship must be the deepest and most intimate. But this belief is problematic for a few different reasons.

To start, it is important to keep in mind that every relationship is different, and every person is comfortable sharing different things with different people. It’s healthy for people who are in a romantic relationship to also pursue and maintain deep friendships with others who are outside of the relationship. Depending on the person, that could be a great friendship with a co-worker, a strong relationship with family members or a friendly connection with a teammate. In a healthy relationship, it’s totally okay for someone to prioritize different people at different times. If a romantic partner takes issue with this and believes that they must be the only deep connection in their partner’s life, that is a red flag because it can lead to behaviors that isolate their partner.

This belief about emotional cheating can also stem from jealousy or insecurity, as oftentimes some people don’t believe their partners should have any kind of relationship with other people they could potentially be attracted to (for example, a girl in a same-sex relationship might not think her girlfriend should be friends with other girls). However, trying to control who your partner talks to or spends time with is an unhealthy behavior that can become abusive. A healthy relationship is built on trust, and trust is a choice we make. We either choose to trust someone or we don’t. When trust is the foundation of a relationship, those who are in the romantic relationship believe that their partner will choose to respect the boundaries that have been previously agreed upon, regardless of who they are around. Jealousy and insecurities may crop up from time to time for some people, but they are not excuses to try and control what a partner does. If a romantic partner is using their personal insecurities as a reason to try to dictate who their partner is allowed to build friendships with, that is also a red flag.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable about something in your relationship, you have the right to bring it up in a respectful way. Try to use “I” statements (like, “I feel uncomfortable when…” or “I would like for us to…”) rather than attacking, accusing or making demands. It’s important for this to be a conversation; you and your partner should feel free and safe to express your feelings. It’s also important to think about and discuss each other’s needs and boundaries. Remember: a healthy boundary is one that protects and respects a person; an unhealthy boundary seeks to control or harm another person.

Both partners in a healthy relationship should feel free to live their own lives, and that includes having friends or forming emotional connections with other people outside the relationship. If you feel like you can’t trust your partner and need to check up on them, or if you feel extremely jealous of their friends and how they spend their time, then you may want to reconsider whether the relationship is right for you.

Need to talk to someone about your relationship? We’re here 24/7! Call 1-866-331-9474, chat here on our website or text loveis to 22522.

Comment section

12 replies
  1. After a super fun weekend, my SO at the time told me my brother and her were compatible and I could’ve dated her sister. Sounded like a red flag to me. Still not sure what she was trying to say, but it hurt. What do you think her intentions were?

    1. Hi ThirdEye,

      Thanks for your comment! We’re sorry to hear that your partner hurt you like this. If you feel safe doing so, the best way to find out what she meant is to ask her. Our communication tips might be helpful to you. If you do not feel safe talking to her about it, that is a red flag. You’re welcome to contact us and talk through the situation first. Call 1-866-331-9474, chat here on our website or text loveis to 22522 any time!

  2. I’m so glad someone is finally saying this. While I do think there is such a thing as emotional cheating, I think the way it’s so loosely defined makes it a perfect tool of abuse. Of course if someone is expressing romantic or sexual things to another person in a monogomous relationship (like sexting, saying I love you in a romantic way, etc), that’s emotional cheating. But I really fear how it’s so undefined can make it used by abusers as this article says. Abusers love to falsely accuse their victims of cheating when they aren’t, as it gives them an excuse for their abuse. Making it even more broadly defined makes it even harder for a victim to defend themselves and identify it as manipulation. And like the article says, you should be able to have close friends while dating. As long as nothing is romantic/sexual, that’s healthy! I’m bi for example. Does that mean I should have no friends?! Really, if you can’t trust your partner to not cheat (what’s actually cheating), it’s not healthy and you need to break up. It really frustrates me how people are so quick to jump on this emotional cheating thing without defining it just to make their insecurities feel better without stopping to think how this could be used by cruel people to abuse and isolate their partners further. It really is one of the most dangerous concepts I’ve seen pop up in a while as far as giving abusers more tools than they already have. Again, if it were clearly defined like I did, it might be different. But I rarely see it defined and it could mean anything from sexting someone
    else to simply having a conversation with another person.

    1. Hey LM,

      Thanks so much for this insightful comment! You’re absolutely right that it’s necessary for partners to define what “cheating” means in the relationship. The idea of emotional cheating can be really fraught, as you’ve pointed out, because it can open the door to some unhealthy or even abusive behaviors. We appreciate you sharing your thoughts with our community!

  3. I give and I give all my love, heart, and soul to the one I’m with……….but don’t get it back….why??

    1. Hi Gemma,

      Thanks for your comment. It sounds like you’re in a really difficult and heartbreaking situation. It’s so tough when the person we love doesn’t love us back. You totally deserve to be in a relationship with a partner who truly loves you and treats you with respect. If you’d like to talk about your relationship confidentially with one of our advocates, we’re here to help. Just call 1-866-331-9474, chat here on the website or text loveis to 22522!

  4. Good day,

    I am seeking advise. I have being in a relationship for 15 years with that being said today was the third time that i was abused after we had an argument. There is trust issues and whenever i want to express myself i am always the one in the wrong scared to express my feelings. My husband always stairs at my stepmom and other woman he went out once and taken off his wedding ring and at events he has flirted with other woman when i confront him he blames it on my low self esteem and my past as I was rejected when I was a baby. today he threw my wedding ring at me and I was pushed to the thrown to the floor and grabbed by the throat. He blames me for the argument and his Temper I am the reason caused he did it. He always have an excuse for his behavior and see nothing wrong with him starring at other woman he blames it om my low self esteem. I promised myself that if this ever happens again that I will leave him. I am scared to leave him and I have 2 small kids with him. Is this behavior ok?? He never opens up to me he hardly ever talks to me.

    1. Hi Tonia,

      Thanks for your comment. This sounds like a really difficult and dangerous situation. In short, no, your husband’s behavior is not okay. It is never okay for someone to blame you for their own behavior, push you or choke you. Your husband is making the choice to act this way, and it is not your fault. We encourage you to seek support as soon as you feel safe enough to do so. You can always give us a call at 1-866-331-9474, chat here on our website or text loveis to 22522 to speak confidentially with an advocate.

  5. I disliked this article.
    Emotional affairs are a real thing and I feel like this really minimizes the hurt and damage they can cause.

    I almost left my spouse of 6 years because of an emotional relationship I became involved in. It starts with that, and then when you give yourself confiding and thinking about that other person nor than your spouse, you also begin to imagine a life with that person instead.

    Controlling who another person spends their time with is obviously not ok, but please do not downplay the legitimacy of emotional affairs in order to do so.

    Women need emotional connection in their relationships, especially. If they’re not getting it from their partner, that is something in the relationship that should be addressed. They shouldn’t just be told to find somebody else to find support from.

    If a man cheats on a woman and says “but it was only physical”, does that make it ok? Most would say no. So why then if a woman (or man) dates another person but says, “but there was no physical intimacy,” does it become ok? It doesn’t.

    1. Hi Ollie,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with our community here. In this post, we’re focusing on partners who use the idea of emotional cheating to try and control who their partners hang out with or form friendships with outside of the relationship, which is a red flag for abuse. Telling a partner that they’re not allowed to spend time with other people, or that “I’m the only person you should need” are not healthy behaviors. Our point is that everyone has the right to have friendships and deep connections with people outside of their relationship. Not feeling emotionally connected to your partner can certainly be a sign that a relationship is not as healthy as it could be, and we agree that’s a separate issue that should be addressed with your partner (if you feel safe doing so) with lots of honest, respectful communication.

      If you have questions or would like to talk about your situation with an advocate, we’re here for you! Call, chat or text with us any time.

  6. Where shoild the line be drawn? If I view my hudband’s behavior as romantic towards a female friend (sending her roses on Valentine’s Day, heart emojis in texts, saying I love you to each other) but he refuses to acknowledge that those things make me uncomfortable (he insists they’re just friends), who is in the wrong? Am I being possessive because I’m uncomfortable with their relationship, especially since he is very withholding towards me. Am I being controlling?

    1. Hi Sus,

      Thanks for your comment. This sounds like a difficult and confusing situation, and we’d be happy to talk it through with you. We’re here 24/7 whenever you feel comfortable reaching out. Just call 1-866-331-9474, chat here on our website or text loveis to 22522!

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