How to save your relationship if your partner has been emotional cheating on you
“It’s not an affair if there’s no sex”
We can’t be the only ones who were rooting for Srivedi’s character Shashi in English Vinglish to run away with Laurent, her ‘friend’ at the conversational English class. Her husband, played perfectly by Adil Hussain, constantly took her for granted, mocked her even. In low moments, he was emotionally unavailable. Though Shashi’s chemistry with her French friend had hints of flirtation and emotional cheating, it was really a story about her journey to confidence and self-respect.
The film struck a chord with Shalini Munarkas* whose husband was emotionally unfaithful to her. “I thought I must have been like her husband, but in couple’s therapy, I realised that I can’t blame myself. It was a decision he made.”
Her husband had been on dating sites, talking to other women, until it became too much to hide from his wife. Though he admitted to his indiscretions, they stayed together and worked on rebuilding their relationship.
With new avenues for connections and conversations, the temptation’s never been this bad, and access this easy, explains psychotherapist Nishita Khanna.
“It’s changing the definition of cheating and infidelity. It’s not just intercourse outside of your relationship. Everyone has their limits and notions of what counts as cheating. It can be going on dating apps without telling your partner, texting and sexting with someone, emotional cheating with nonsexual, verbal intimacy, and so on.”
What counts as emotional cheating, and is it infidelity if there’s no sex?
Emotional affairs are tricky to untangle. The line between having a friend you confide in and being emotionally unfaithful can be crossed very easily. In the beginning, you may not even realise it has happened. “An emotional
affair is one when an individual invests their emotional energy outside their direct relationship and is reciprocated the mutual emotional support from the new relation,” says psychologist Anuja Kapur.
We need our friends and support system. One person cannot satisfy all our needs all the time, says relationship expert Susan Winters. “We need to have other people who form our support group, but it needs to be in the right order.” The friendships, acquaintances and advisers, they (and you) need to agree on rules and boundaries, and that your partner will always be higher in the order.
You fought with your spouse because they’re not able to understand your work pressure. When meeting a friend, you might unload and vent, but you’ll go back to your partner to have that emotional, vulnerable conversation. “An emotional affair is when you disconnect your partner from the equation and seek that emotional intimacy and connection with someone outside,” adds Khanna.
For the sake of conversation, we swap out ‘sex’ for ‘getting intimate’, but that’s also jumbled up our idea of what intimacy entails. Sex is just one physical aspect of the bond we create with our partners. Emotional connection, vulnerability and openness lay the foundation of all relationships. So when our partner creates that connection with another person it cuts just as deeply, if not deeper, than a sexual affair.
When polled, 69% of 1,049 Tweak readers admitted they found coping with emotional cheating more difficult. The pain of this betrayal is real and deep. That’s not to say that physical/sexual infidelity doesn’t hurt, but you can still rationalise it as ‘just sex’. No feelings, no connection.
“Our emotional bond is the first step leading to a physical relation, in most cases. So for a lot of people, emotional cheating hurts just as much because it’s so close to turning into something more,” says psychologist Madhavi Gangopadhyay.
It’s not emotional cheating, we’re just good friends, right?
Because it’s easy to slip into an emotional affair, Gangopadhyay calls out the signs to look out for and questions to ask yourself.
What would separate a normal, supportive friendship from a case of emotional cheating would be:
Hiding the ‘friendship’ from your partner: “A good rule of thumb is, if you’re hiding the interaction from your partner, you are cheating,” says relationship therapist Sanya Bari.
It’s the secretive nature of the relationship that should ring the alarm bell. As it would if there was a physical relationship with this person. You’re hiding text messages, you don’t tell your partner when you’re meeting this person or lying about the nature of your conversations.
“This should be indicative that there’s something else going on here that you feel the need to hide from your spouse,” adds. Gangopadhyay.
You feel guilty about sharing intimate details: You get vulnerable and share things with this person that you would never tell your partner. Guilt can weigh heavy on your heart for doing so, but you also feel good sharing. You feel the connection, the understanding and validation you need. They replace your partner as your go-to person.
You depend on them for validation: You can’t wait to talk to them after a long day and spill everything that has happened, good and bad. When you don’t get a chance to speak to them, you feel unsettled. It doesn’t matter what your partner says to try and pacify and support you, it’s this other person whose opinion and support matters more.
You get jealous when they spend time with someone else: You miss them, wonder where they are, what they’re doing. You get jealous if they choose to spend time with someone else rather than speak to you. Almost like… you’re in a relationship.
Is it possible for couples to recover from emotional cheating?
No one reason makes someone have an emotional affair. It could be that a person isn’t getting the support they need from their partner. They may find it difficult to express themselves fully. But Kapur says that it doesn’t mean someone caused their partner to cheat. There’s a lot that can be done to have your emotional needs and welfare met within your relationship with your partner, before stepping out of it.
The great big question of how to let go and move on is hard to answer succinctly. Both partners need to be on the same page about working through it, and acknowledging the misdeed is the best starting point. Over 60% of 1,298 Tweak readers believe that emotional cheating is something you can work through, if you put in the time and effort.
If you’re the one who emotionally cheated then you can’t brush off or dismiss the betrayal. You may be wondering if it’s even worth telling your partner, especially if you cut things off with this other person and swore you’d never do it again.
The decision is up to you at the end of the day. But Gangopadhyay says that telling them what happened on your own can reinforce the foundation of trust and honesty that your relationship has been built on, even if there are some cracks in it at the moment.
A controlled environment with a mediator, like a therapist’s office, could be the best place to talk about it. “As the cheater, you have to be open to hearing all the harsh words and emotions your partner will be pouring out. Be open with your remorse and let them know you recognise the hurt it has caused. Once the anger is out of the way, that’s when it can be put aside and you start to rebuild.”
The knee jerk reaction is wanting to know all the sordid details, but Khanna adds that it’ll only add to the pain that you’re feeling. Instead of asking who it was, how it happened, what were the feelings involved, it’s better to ask questions that are focused on your relationship with each other.
She gives some examples:
– How did this person make you feel that’s different from how I make you feel?
– What is it that you sought elsewhere: attention, affection, freedom?
– What is different about our relationship now than when we first got together?
– What’s one realistic daily action/activity/behaviour that I can do differently (and vice versa)?
Forgiveness begins when the person who had the affair is completely transparent. It’s their responsibility to nurture the relationship, rebuild channels of communication, take down cryptic posts, locked profiles and give their partner access to whatever part of their lives they ask for.
“Of course, there’s going to be suspicion over the smallest of things at first. So if they need it, take off your phone password, share your log-in details, update them on your schedule and check in with them. There shouldn’t be any mystery about what you are up to. That lack of knowledge will have your partner’s mind jumping to the worst-case scenario,” says Khanna. The need for complete transparency diminishes with time as trust builds up again.
Time, and the help of a trained professional, can facilitate the healing of your wounds. World-renowned author and psychotherapist Esther Perel says that now you may even find yourself more deeply bonded, connecting and communicating on a level you previously hadn’t been able to reach.
The question Perel says we need to ask ourselves and our partner is, “Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?”
A note of caution: This article includes the input and advice of trained professionals and is meant for educational and informative purposes. If you’re struggling in your relationship, please reach out to a trained expert.