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How to Recognize an Emotional Affair

Infidelity is one of the leading causes of divorce.

According to the American Psychological Association, it’s the reason for the split in 20-40% of all divorces, and some studies rank it as the 2nd most common cause.

But does cheating always mean having a sexual relationship with someone outside the marriage? Can someone be unfaithful without physical involvement? Is it infidelity if someone is “only” having an emotional affair?

“Emotional Infidelity: the devastating, destructive love affairs that involve no sex at all,” a recent article in The Guardian explores those exact questions.

“An emotional affair is characterized by nonsexual intimacy with someone other than your partner, in such a way that violates their trust and expectations,” the article explains.

What counts as cheating is somewhat specific to an individual couple. And numerous studies have shown that women tend to view an emotional affair as more hurtful than a physical one, whereas men often think a sexual relationship is worse.

But most marriage experts agree that an emotional affair can be just as painful and damaging to a marriage—in some cases more—than actually having sex with someone else. And statistics show that about half of emotional affairs evolve into a physical relationship.

Moreover, as The Guardian points out, “…with technology enabling round-the-clock and covert communication, it has never been easier to fall into that grey area between ‘just friends’ and ‘more than friends’ – often with plausible deniability.”

Emotional affairs can be confusing and tricky to pinpoint because there’s the murky territory between a healthy, innocent, platonic friendship—even a close one—and one that crosses the line of betrayal.

You don’t want to overreact or accuse where fears are unfounded, but there are some telltale warning signs:

Something seems off

It may be that they’re suddenly distant and distracted, or you don’t feel close and connected anymore. Or there’s something that makes you uncomfortable about the way they interact with another person, in real life or online; it feels too flirtatious, familiar, cozy.

They can’t put their phone down

Our devices make it all too easy to stay in constant contact and even to interact online in an uncharacteristically flirtatious or sexual way. Beware if your spouse is suddenly tied to their phone constantly, often in private, and won’t leave it lying around.

Talking about someone all the time

When someone suddenly comes up in conversation an awful lot, it signals that they are very much on the mind, which can be a symptom of emotional attachment.

Sharing too little, avoidance

Your spouse used to tell you every gory detail of what went on at the office. But ever since the new hire arrived, there’s nothing to say. Now when you ask, “how was work?” they only say, fine, and it doesn’t sit right with you.

Suddenly way less—or more—interested in sex

If your partner shows a lack of interest in intimacy with you or seems detached during sex, that can be a red flag. On the other hand, sometimes, the sexual energy of an extramarital emotional entanglement finds release in your bedroom.

Inappropriate overshares

It can hurt to find out that your partner has shared intimate, personal details of your relationship with someone else.

Lack of commitment, uncertainty

Your partner suddenly seems to be having doubts about your relationship, not wanting to talk about the future.

Making comparisons, criticizing, being insensitive or unkind, picking fights

It’s not unusual for someone involved in an emotional affair to suddenly start finding all kinds of fault with their spouse, almost as a way of justifying to themselves the reason for disloyalty, their need for the other person.

It’s essential to look at any one of these signs in a larger context. It comes down to whether your partner is pouring time, energy, care, and closeness into someone else in a way that changes the dynamic between you, usually with an element of secrecy that erodes intimacy and trust in your marriage.

Only you can decide whether to stay in the relationship after an emotional affair. The pain is real, but some couples heal with patience and hard work, and help is available if you want to save the marriage.

When it comes to filing for divorce after an emotional affair, it’s important to know that in a no-fault divorce state such as California, the reason for your split has no impact on the division of assets.

Suppose your spouse’s emotional betrayal has brought you to the difficult decision that you need to end the marriage. In that case, the attorneys at SFLG can help you navigate these complex and contentious disputes to help keep proceedings as amicable and straightforward as possible. Our attorneys specialize in family law with decades of experience to help clients define their goals and bring them to fruition.

By Debra Schoenberg