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When Do Emotional Affairs Become Full-Blown Affairs? The 8 Stages Explained

Written by: Shan Merchant, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Shan Merchant

Ever heard of an emotional affair? They're dangerous! The definition of an emotional affair is a deep, emotional, non-physical, non-sexual connection with someone outside your romantic relationship or marriage. And they're more common than you'd think – a YouGov study of 1,660 British adults showed that 15% had been in an emotional affair while in a relationship.

a man and a woman are arguing

As a couples therapist specialising in affairs, many people I meet who have had emotional affairs have just, kind of, 'fallen into them', i.e., they didn't intend to. In fact, most of them started innocently – "two people becoming friends". You begin with casual conversations – perhaps you're chatting about your day or sharing some problems you're facing. It feels good because it's like having a secret space where you can be yourself.

However, a slow, almost unnoticeable shift occurs if you feel your partner at home doesn't appreciate, care, or show interest in you. You start to find yourself investing a significant chunk of your emotional energy and time into this outside friendship. More and more you find yourself drawn to this person. A person who gives you the emotional support, interest, and validation that you long for, that's missing from your life.

"What's the risk?" you might say. Well, often you find yourself developing feelings! The connection you have morphs into something much bigger and more intimate – an emotional intimacy that rivals or exceeds the closeness you share with your partner.

How do you know you're in an emotional affair?

You know you're in an emotional affair when you find yourself sharing details, thoughts, or feelings that your partner doesn't even know yet. Your partner hears about these things second-hand or not at all. There might be frequent texting, in and out of work hours, and when life gets tough, this person becomes your go-to for emotional support. You talk with them about things you used to, or ideally should, share with your partner. You might also find yourself sharing the nitty-gritty of your relationship struggles.

While an emotional affair may not be as obvious as a physical one, in my experience as a couples therapist I've seen it's just as damaging, causing feelings of jealousy, mistrust, and betrayal in your partner. Furthermore, it's a slippery slope! Without careful intention and consciousness around what's happening, you may suddenly find yourself in a full-blown affair.

If you're still in doubt about whether you're in an emotional affair, the secrecy surrounding this friendship is a major red flag. If your instinct is to hide details or downplay the time spent with this person, it's a strong indication that the relationship is more than just a friendship. I also have a straightforward sense-check that I share with my clients: "If you're sending a text message or saying something intimate that you wouldn't want your primary partner to see, read or hear, a line has been crossed. That isn't friendship."

Is it classed as an emotional affair if I'm non-monogamous?

I'm afraid so! Emotional affairs can happen whether you are in a monogamous or consensually non-monogamous relationship. An ethically non-monogamous relationship is where you have agreed to date, love, or have sex with more than one person at a time. Every non-monogamous relationship differs in terms of boundaries and expectations, and you agree on these together. What defines an emotional affair – whether you're monogamous or not – is the secrecy around it, or whether you find yourself feeling guilty for your actions.

If you confided in a few of your close friends, they might tell you, "Well, it's not a big deal because it's not physical, so it doesn't count." However, as a busy couples therapist I see this differently. I view emotional affairs in relationships as a form of cheating, and here's why.

Emotional affairs act as a 'gateway drug'

The biggest danger of emotional affairs is that they often act as a kind of gateway to increased intimacy. When you're immersed in an emotional affair, you're not just sharing your thoughts and feelings; what crucially defines this is that you're excluding your primary partner from this intimate exchange. This exclusion becomes the breeding ground for a unique kind of connection – one where the other person might know more about your inner world, your dreams, and your vulnerabilities than your partner does. It's a subtle but significant shift, creating a space where emotional closeness flourishes outside of your committed relationship.

From my vantage point as a couples therapist, in a relationship I view emotional affairs as a form of cheating precisely because of this exclusivity and secrecy. Your committed partner, who in most relationship structures should be your primary confidante, is left out of the loop. The emotional energy, the dreams, and the struggles that should be shared within your relationship are redirected elsewhere. This breaks boundaries and trust.

10 things that define an emotional affair

In the world of emotional affairs, it's not just about casual chit-chat or harmless banter. Here are the types of things you might be sharing with someone who isn't your primary partner:

1. Innermost thoughts and feelings

You're not just talking about the weather. In an emotional affair, you're delving into your innermost thoughts and feelings. Maybe it's that childhood dream you've never shared or the fear that keeps you up at night.

2. Relationship struggles

Your partner's not cutting it, and you're venting about it to this other person. You're sharing the details of your relationship woes, creating an emotional connection outside your primary partnership.

3. Dreams and aspirations

It's not just the superficial "I want to travel more" kind of talk. You're sharing your dreams and aspirations – the stuff you secretly hope for but haven't dared to tell your partner.

4. Personal insecurities

Everyone's got them – those nagging insecurities that we keep hidden away. In an emotional affair, you're laying them bare, exposing the vulnerabilities you might not even share with your closest friends.

5. Daily triumphs and failures

You're not just sharing your wins and losses; you're intimately discussing the daily triumphs and failures that make up the fabric of your life. It's like this person becomes your emotional confidante for everything.

6. Secret desires

Those secret desires you've never breathed a word about to your partner? Well, in an emotional affair, they might just spill out. It could be a career move, a lifestyle change, or even something more intimate.

7. Fantasies about the future

You're not just living in the present; you're crafting fantasies about a future that extends beyond your current relationship. It's like creating a parallel emotional universe with this other person.

8. Support for personal challenges

When life gets tough, you're turning to this person for support. They become your go-to for emotional solace, handling personal challenges that, ideally, you should be discussing with your partner.

9. Comparisons with your partner

You might catch yourself comparing your partner to this other person, highlighting the traits and qualities that seem lacking in your primary relationship.

10. Expressions of love and longing

It's not just friendly affection. You might find yourself expressing love and longing, sentiments that are meant for your partner but are inadvertently finding their way to this emotional confidante.

8 stages of an emotional affair

While every emotional affair is unique, they often follow a pattern that can be loosely categorised into stages. Keep in mind that these stages may not be linear or applicable to every situation, but they can provide a general understanding.

Stage 1: Initial Connection

It typically starts innocently with the formation of a new connection outside of the primary relationship. This could be a co-worker, a friend, or someone met through social activities.

Stage 2: Emotional Bonding

As the relationship progresses, emotional intimacy deepens. There's a growing sense of connection, trust, and understanding that might not be shared with the primary partner.

Stage 3: Secrecy and Deception

To maintain the emotional affair, individuals may start keeping secrets or downplaying the extent of their connection. This stage often involves a level of deceit to avoid detection.

Stage 4: Escalation

Emotional affairs can intensify over time. What began as a casual connection may evolve into more profound emotional involvement, with participants relying on each other for support and understanding.

Stage 5: Deterioration of Primary Relationship

The emotional affair starts to impact the primary relationship. The emotional energy that was once invested in the primary partner is redirected toward the new connection, leading to emotional distance and strain.

Stage 6: Recognition or Denial

At some point, the individuals involved may recognise the emotional affair for what it is, leading to guilt, remorse, or a decision to continue. Alternatively, some may deny the emotional affair, rationalising it as a harmless friendship.

Stage 7: Decision Point

A critical stage where individuals must decide whether to address the issues within the primary relationship, end the emotional affair, or continue down a path that may lead to more serious consequences.

Stage 8: Consequences

Depending on the choices made, there are consequences to face. This might include the breakdown of the primary relationship, rebuilding trust, or dealing with the aftermath of the emotional affair.

It's crucial to note that not all emotional affairs follow these stages precisely, and some may not progress beyond certain points. Understanding these stages can, however, provide insight into the potential trajectory of such situations and highlight the importance of open communication and addressing issues within the primary relationship. Couples therapy is an appropriate and supportive place to work this all through.

What causes an emotional affair?

In my couples therapy room, I explain to couples that an emotional affair is just one type of relationship 'exit'. Relationship exits are like escape hatches we use when our relationship becomes challenging or that we use to avoid talking about the things that are bothering us.

In emotional affairs, there is usually distance, unhappiness, and unmet emotional needs and instead of talking about these directly and asking for what we need and working this through with our partner, instead we turn away and meet these needs for connection in another person.

We are usually chasing a feeling, such as what one client told me recently: "I wanted to feel heard, cherished, cared about. I felt none of these in my marriage."

Why an emotional affair hurts so much

Discovering an emotional affair can be incredibly damaging and hurtful to your partner, particularly in a monogamous relationship, because they expect to be the most significant person in your life. It feels like a betrayal because, for most people in a committed relationship, you expect all the same highs and lows to be shared between you two. Now, there's a whole emotional part that's happening separately.

The partner feels cheated on because emotions are personal, right? They're left wondering, "Why isn't he/she sharing this with me? Am I not good enough?" It breaks the trust that you thought you had and makes you question your role in their life.

What to do if I think my partner is having an emotional affair

If you suspect that your partner is having an emotional affair, it's important to have an open and honest conversation with them. Open up about your feelings but remember it's a chat, not an interrogation.

Couples who successfully work through emotional affairs ask the right questions of each other. Important questions to consider are: "What is missing for you in our relationship?" I'd also encourage you to own your contribution. Being completely honest with yourself, in what way have you contributed to the emotional distance, negativity or conflict that may exist in your relationship?

Couples therapy can help you work through these issues because it provides a safe space for you each to talk and listen and allow you to speak to each other in a way that is free of blame and criticism. Couples therapy will support you to have much deeper conversations about the real issues in your relationship that have not been possible at home.

What to do if I think I'm having an emotional affair

First things first, take a deep breath. Reflect on your feelings and be honest with yourself about what's happening.

Now, it's time for a real talk – with yourself and your partner. Open up the lines of communication. Share your thoughts and feelings, but remember, it's not a blame game; it's about understanding. Honesty is your compass here.

Set boundaries – figure out what's okay and what's not in your relationship. This often requires defining what commitment and monogamy mean to you. Be clear and respectful.

If you need help, I recommend couples therapy as a supportive space to help you both work through the emotions and pain that frequently come along with an emotional affair.

What about micro-cheating?

Micro cheating is all about those small actions that might not seem like a big deal on their own, but when you add them up, they could make your partner question where the boundaries are in your relationship. It's like walking the fine line between innocent and romantic.

Think of it as doing things that could make your partner raise an eyebrow – like sending secretive texts, keeping connections with exes on social media, or sharing inside jokes with someone who's not your significant other.

The key here is the subtlety. These actions might not scream: "I'm cheating!" But considered together they could make your partner wonder about your commitment.

So, it's about being aware of those little things you do. Are they harmless, or are they gradually crossing into a territory that might make your partner uncomfortable? It's not about banning all interactions outside your relationship; it's about understanding where that line is and making sure you both feel secure.

Remember, open communication is key. Talk about your boundaries, what's okay, and what's not. It's not about restricting your freedom; it's about making sure you both are on the same page and maintaining that trust in your relationship.

Micro-cheating tends to be more subtle and often lacks the depth of emotional connection found in an emotional affair. Emotional Affairs, on the other hand, involve a deeper, more significant emotional connection with someone outside the relationship. It goes beyond the realm of casual flirtations or innocuous interactions and typically includes a level of emotional intimacy that can threaten the emotional bond within the primary partnership.

If you need help

If an emotional affair has rocked your relationship or marriage, I can help. Book a free 15-minute clarity call with me now here.

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!

Shan Merchant Brainz Magazine

Shan Merchant, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Shan is a relationship coach and couples therapist who takes professional couples from the brink of divorce to peaceful, reconnected, and unafraid of conflict in 90 days or less. Shan teaches couples a simple communication skill that takes them from the ‘Power Struggle’ to the ‘Peaceful’ stage of their relationship. Testimonials from her clients across the globe range from, “We put our wedding rings back on,” to “Things are a million times better between us.”



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