There’s no getting around it: Cheating on an S.O. when you’re in a committed, monogamous relationship is terrible for most parties involved. And unfortunately, cheating comes in several forms. There’s the obvious, like a sexual encounter, and then there’s the kind of cheating that can fall into a gray zone, like an emotional affair.
Emotional affairs are tricky because people can form an intense bond with someone outside their relationship and not fully realize they’re doing anything wrong since they never cheated physically. But these kinds of affairs can still be incredibly damaging. “In some ways, emotional affairs can take a greater toll than sexual affairs,” says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? “It feels like a betrayal of trust and an outsourcing of the very important connective tissue of a relationship.”
Obviously, you and your partner are going to have friends outside your relationship, as you should. And it’s understandable that you might form deeper connections with some people over others — but it’s crucial to shut things down before they become intimate in a way that can threaten your relationship.
Here are some of the top things that can lead people to fall into emotional affairs so you can get your radar up.
You just had a baby
Kids are wonderful, but they can also be tough on relationships. If one or both of you is always absorbed in your little one, it can leave you both feeling a little neglected, and if it gets bad enough, you may find yourself looking elsewhere for that attention. That’s why you should make it a point to connect with your S.O. on a daily basis, says LA-based psychologist Dr. Brandy Engler, author of The Women on My Couch: Stories of Sex, Love and Psychotherapy.
Maybe you can create a Netflix ritual or make sure that you always have coffee together in the a.m. Whatever it is, be as present as possible during those times to make sure you and your partner know that you value each other outside your role as parents.
One of you got a huge promotion
Career success is exciting and good for both of you, but it’s easy to feel like you’re being left in the dust when your partner suddenly gets a massive career boost and you’re doing the same old thing (or vice versa). That’s especially true if that new job comes with longer hours, more travel and late nights that keep you apart while the other person has to pick up the slack at home. “A relationship is a living thing, and it needs care, feeding and attention,” Durvasula says.
When one of you feels taken for granted, that’s a risk factor for seeking emotional fulfillment with someone else. If you’re the one who’s killing it at work, check in with your partner about your new schedule and how you both can work together to make the new status quo feel fair. If your S.O. got the new gig, congratulate them and let them bask in the success for a few days. Then have a check-in about how you can work together to make sure you’re not taking on too much and how you can find quality time together amid the demands of the new job.
Work is nuts for both of you
Sure, there are probably times when you’re both swamped at work and feel like you’re living that old cliché about ships passing in the night. But failing to communicate when you’re both busy leaves an opening for you to get validation from someone else. That’s why Durvasula says it’s still important to check in with each other and be a presence in each other’s lives, even if you physically have less time together. Try sending a text listing out a few reasons why your S.O. means so much to you or talk about a weekend getaway you’ll take when things calm down. Reinforcing that connection is crucial, even when you can’t be together, and lowers the odds you’ll both seek emotional intimacy elsewhere.
You’re experiencing health problems or vice versa
When someone is sick, their illness can overshadow everything — and that makes sense, especially if it’s a serious illness. But it’s important to foster an environment where you can talk to each other about your concerns and fears and not try to tiptoe around each other. If you’re the one who is sick, talk to your partner about your concerns and let them know how much you appreciate them and their help (Engler recommends letting your S.O. know three things every day that you appreciate). And if your partner is going through a health struggle, make sure they know that you’re there to listen if they want to talk.
There’s a death in the family
It’s understandable to want to step outside your inner circle and get a different perspective when you’re dealing with grief, especially if other members of your family are grieving too, but Durvasula says it’s important to keep your conversations with a new confidante in check. “It’s easy for even the steadfast to slip and get into flirtatious exchanges that can quickly expand to more,” she says.
It can seriously be that simple. Striking up an intense connection with someone outside your partnership is exciting, and if you feel like your day-to-day life is meh lately, it can be appealing. “Sometimes emotional affairs begin as mere escapism,” Durvasula says. “In fact, for the players involved, it may feel like things are under control until the messages or the content of the relationship are seen by another.” That’s why Engler recommends making a point of having fun and laughing together. While it’s always fun to go to “your spot” for dinner, try out someplace new and challenge your S.O. to create a new, different date for you as well. Mixing it up a little can go a long way.
Again, you and your partner can and should have good, healthy, meaningful relationships with other people. But if you find that you’re relying on outsiders more for the support that should be inside your relationship, you’re crossing a line. “Always take a moment to think ‘How would this make my partner feel?’” Durvasula says. “If the answer does not feel good, then don’t do it.”
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A version of this story was published July 2017.
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