These affairs are often more devastating than physical ones.
If you’ve ever been on the wrong end of emotional cheating, then you already know that an emotional affair can be as bad as a physical betrayal — sometimes worse, even.
A cheating spouse or partner is hard enough to deal with, but when the cheating connection is emotional, the betrayal you feel can often be experienced as a bigger threat to the relationship than physical betrayal is.
What is an emotional affair, and what is considered cheating if there’s no physical involvement?
An emotional affair is defined as, “…High levels of non-sexual emotional intimacy in adults may occur without the participants being bound by other intimate relationships or may occur between people in other relationships.”
Emotional affair signs vary from the typical signs of cheating, but in the end, is still an affair — and a massive betrayal of your relationship.
Maybe you’ve known or suspected them in your workplace or at the gym. Perhaps a friend or loved one seems to have crossed the boundaries of a safe, monogamous relationship via a seemingly innocent internet connection.
Or worse. Have you been emotionally betrayed by your partner?
Have you believed the lie that because it was “just” an emotional affair it wasn’t a big deal? That it shouldn’t hurt as much? Wrong!
Your pain and trauma are real. What you’re feeling as a result of a major breach of trust is as real as if there had been a physical betrayal.
Most people just don’t realize that emotional betrayal is often more traumatizing than a physical or sexual betrayal, and the route to affair recovery can be difficult.
This is because emotional betrayers often minimize the significance of the damage by saying, “But nothing physical happened.”
For that reason, the person who’s been emotionally betrayed may think they’re crazy for having such intense emotions.
Even though emotional betrayal feels like a major threat, most of the time the betrayer does not want to leave the primary relationship.
Even if the betrayer has no intention of leaving, when you’ve been betrayed and don’t know how to make sense out of your emotions, you can easily escalate the conflict. Escalating the conflict can put an already vulnerable relationship more at risk for failure.
Though you’re hurt, angry, confused, and yes, traumatized, it’s important to reduce further damage.
Here are 5 ways you can understand what emotional cheating is and how to recover from the pain of experiencing one:
1. It violates your personal “love language” with your spouse
Every couple has their own private and intimate way of expressing their deepest affections.
You and your partner have pet names, favorite songs, maybe a special place or even food. You’ve probably got those “you had to be there” experiences. The little things that make your relationship “yours.”
Some of your language of love was probably developed during the first months of your relationship. During the new-love stage of relationship.
If you’ve been emotionally betrayed, it is traumatizing to learn that these private affections have been given away to someone outside the relationship. You feel robbed of those precious, private things that are closest to your heart.
Those things were once reserved for you and your partner and are no longer exclusive to you as a couple.
The thought of your partner calling someone else “honey” is sickening. And even if honey becomes sweetie and their favorite song has a different name, the effect is the same.
What once felt special, maybe even sacred, has been spoiled.
The mere thought of a new-love language between your beloved and someone else is hurtful.
Like most people, you probably believe that you hold a special irreplaceable space in the heart of your partner. If you feel you have lost first place, panic and despair rapidly take over.
Even without any confession of love, you can easily convince yourself that the other person is more loved than you are. This is usually not true.
What you need to understand is that all new relationships are extremely intoxicating. They are addictive. The rush of dopamine that they produce turns even those who claim emotion to not be part of their DNA into romantic poets. But know this: New love is not true love.
2. Emotional affairs disrupt your emotional connection with your partner
Your brain is wired for connection. Everyone needs it, longs for it, craves it, even if you don’t quite realize what “it” is.
In fact, humans are more wired for emotional connection than they are for sex. Emotional connection is the glue that holds a relationship together. Sex is good, but there has to be more in order to sustain love for a lifetime.
Yet, emotional connection is what is very often missing in a relationship.
Perhaps you’ve known that emotional connection was missing from your relationship. And now you learn that your partner is sharing his/her emotion with someone other than you. The very thing you’ve relentlessly pursued in your relationship is being given freely to someone else.
Would it be easier to hear the betrayal was all about sex? They didn’t talk. There was no emotion involved. Just lusty sex.
Honestly, that’s often easier to handle then to learn that your partner has given their emotion to another.
3. The fear that the emotional affair will be lasting can damage you
Fearing that the emotional affair will turn into a life-long love relationship is incredibly destabilizing.
This is especially true for married couples who have children, homes, and livelihoods in common. The fear of having lost first place can feel like a tsunami that comes from out of nowhere and instantly kills and sweeps away everyone and everything once relied upon for love and life.
Continuing to review the words you heard or read in a message you found will increase your anxiety. It can eventually spiral out of control. You may even develop full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This will cause you to be fearful, easily startled, and prone to panic attack-like symptoms when you’re triggered.
This real, but exaggerated fear can make you feel like you are a prisoner of your own emotional reactions. You may have to leave social gatherings. You’ll be unable to drive certain places. You may insist that the betrayer stop using his smart phone because of all that it triggers.
Once PTSD sets in you will most likely need therapy to heal the trauma triggers. Mindfulness meditation can also help you let go of your disabling recurring thoughts.
4. Your pain and anger are different in an emotional affair over a physical one
Sure, everyone expects a person to become enraged by a sexual affair. It is pretty clear to most people that this is a major relationship violation. The betrayer will probably feel their partner’s anger is appropriate. Guilt and repentance on the betrayer’s part is likely.
It’s so different with an emotional affair. The question of betrayal is usually less black and white with an emotional relationship. Usually, those in an emotional affair will not see it as a betrayal to their partner.
When you’re traumatized by an emotional betrayal, your partner will likely stay in denial about how much he has hurt you and violated your trust.
The more in denial he is, the angrier you will become, and the longer your arguments will get. There is a real possibility here that the arguments themselves will become a threat to the relationship.
These are “negative cycle” arguments, and over time they can destroy a relationship.
If you’re the victim of betrayal, it’s important that you’re able to express to your partner how hurt and frightened you are. And the betrayer needs to be able to hear you and have compassion for you. The betrayer really has to understand what they’ve done to you, your trust, and the foundations of your relationship.
This won’t be easy for either of you. And it’s likely you’ll need experienced professionals to help. Only then will you be able to take the risk to express your deepest hurts and fears.
The betrayer will need help expressing their understanding and empathy about how deeply they’ve hurt you. And how wrong it was to cross the emotional intimacy boundary with another person, and will need to do their own work to regain inner peace. None of this is quick or easy.
5. You must face your emotional betrayal to heal from it
The loss of trust in a lifetime relationship can certainly break a couple up. If not, it can cause continual pain for years to come.
Emotional betrayal is so personal, and at the same time, easily deniable. It’s important that you acknowledge the pain is real and disabling. And that you get the help you need to heal the traumatic injuries.
Facing into and expressing the pain of the emotional betrayal cuts through the shame of what happened. It can even help the couple to understand each other at a deeper level.
This can lead to a deeper understanding of each other’s unmet needs for attachment. It can help the couple to become more proactive at protecting the relationship by setting healthy boundaries for all opposite-sex relationships.
If you’ve been betrayed, it’s hard to imagine this. But it is even possible to turn the betrayal into a blessing by digging deep and taking the risk to be real about who each of you are and what you need from each other.
Facing into a betrayal will take courage. And honesty. And a desire and willingness to heal and possibly build a richer relationship than you ever had.
So yes. Emotional betrayal can be as bad as physical betrayal, or even worse. But you can find the courage and resources to overcome it and get the help you need to make your relationship thrive.