What Is an Emotional Affair?

An affair is one of the most painful breaches of trust that can happen to a relationship. But not all affairs are physical ones. Have you heard of emotional cheating? In fact, the affairs that never even involve a kiss can be the most intimate – and damaging – of all.

Relationships can evolve in a myriad of ways. Although the term “affair” can conjure up visions of secret rendezvous, when one partner gets involved in an emotional affair, the harm it causes can go far beyond a physical betrayal. Why do they happen, and what can you do if you or your spouse has fallen prey to one?

What is an emotional affair?

Emotional intimacy is a deep bond that can begin in that gray area between “friends” and “more than friends” with someone outside your primary relationship. At the very least, it complicates a romantic commitment with a primary romantic partner. At its most damaging, it can rival or even surpass an existing romantic relationship and lead to feelings of mistrust and betrayal. 

If it isn’t physical, is it even considered cheating? The answer is – yes! An emotional affair, or “affair of the heart,” can be just as intimate, if not more so, than a physical one. Even if an emotional affair never crosses the physical line, it is often more emotionally intense than one that is merely sexual. 

Key characteristics of an emotional affair

Emotional affair or “good friends?” 

The lines of a close friendship blur when it begins to meet emotional needs that should be exclusive to someone’s primary relationship. While close friends share dreams, fears, and secrets, emotional affairs diverge from friendship in several important ways.

Emotional intimacy

Conversations aren’t the usual chatter about the weather, kids, work, or news. Emotional affairs involve sharing the most intimate details about feelings, dreams, and thoughts – the things you’d only discuss with someone you’re in a romantic relationship with. In this case, the primary relationship begins to become a secondary one.


Interactions between the two people in an emotional affair are kept hidden or downplayed. Meetings are kept discreet, texts are deleted. Moreover, the actual depth of the relationship isn’t shared with the primary partner. 

Emotional dependence

In an emotional affair, there is usually a dependence on this new person for validation, understanding, and emotional support, the very things that would be gotten by a primary partner. 

Romantic feelings

Even in the absence of a physical relationship, there can still be deep or romantic feelings that may be difficult to define. 

Time and attention

This connection keeps demanding more time and mental and emotional energy, usually at the expense of the primary relationship.

Desire for exclusivity

In an emotional affair, there’s often a desire for exclusivity, much like romantic couples want exclusivity in their relationship. 

Why people have emotional affairs

Close friendships are normal and healthy, but some cross the line from platonic friendship into more. And in the age of technology, these can be even easier to blossom – and to hide. 

What happens when a harmless friendship develops into more? And why does this happen? The reasons can be complex and multifaceted.

Unmet needs

When there is emotional distance between romantic partners, one or both might find emotional attachment elsewhere. In most cases, it’s not a conscious decision but a reaction to feeling isolated or misunderstood in their primary relationship. 

A need for validation

When someone feels underappreciated in their romantic relationship, they can find validation in other places. Positive attention from another person can feel intoxicating when it has been missing for a while. 

Excitement and escape from reality

Life can be monotonous or stressful. An emotional affair can serve as an escape from the "everyday" or a way to feel alive again and understood. 

Safe experimentation

A non-physical affair can feel less guilty than a physical one while offering a place to experiment with feelings without officially crossing the line.

Low self-esteem

For someone who struggles with self-worth, an emotional affair offers attention that offsets their overarching insecurities. 

What to do if an emotional affair touches your marriage

An emotional affair can profoundly affect your relationship, even without physical betrayal. The disconnect, the secrets, and the expenditure of emotional time and energy can create a chasm between you and your spouse and leave you struggling with feelings of mistrust, jealousy, and betrayal.  

What can you do if your spouse (or you) has been involved in an emotional affair?

Be honest with yourself

For a marriage to recover from an affair, it will take commitment. If you were involved in an emotional affair, are you dedicated to fixing what is wrong in your marriage?

Be honest with your partner

Honesty is key in any marriage. Even though the truth can hurt, you also don't want to build your future on a lie. Take responsibility for your actions, and don’t place the blame on your spouse. 

Understand the “why”

Unless you understand why it happened, it can happen again. One of the first steps toward healing.will be to understand what emotional needs aren't being met in your marriage and how you can turn that around. 

Open the lines of communication

If you value your relationship, it’s time to break down the walls of secrecy and deceit. Agree with your partner to openly discuss your feelings and needs with empathy and without judgment. 

Allow yourself to grieve

If your spouse was involved in an emotional affair, your feelings of betrayal are normal. You’re disappointed and sad, and rightly so. Let yourself grieve and then decide if you can – or want to – repair the relationship.

Set boundaries and distance yourself

You need to end the relationship if you were involved in an emotional affair. There is no going back to being “just friends.” Distance yourself and set clear boundaries with the other person. 

Work hard on rebuilding trust

After an emotional affair, it will take time and effort for your spouse to learn to trust again. Be understanding while you’re trying to rebuild that trust. 


Emotional upheaval like this can be draining. Take time to care for yourself so you have the energy to rebuild your relationship. 

Get professional help

Most couples have difficulty navigating a betrayal like this. Getting the help of a therapist or couples counselor can offer insight and give you tools to rebuild trust and enhance communication in your marriage. 

Is it possible to forgive?

Forgiving after an emotional affair isn’t easy, and it will take time and effort. The hurt will linger, and things will not immediately go back to normal. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you’ve absolved your partner, only that you aren’t willing to stay stuck in the hurt and blame. Everything else will take time. 

Rebuilding your emotional exclusivity

An emotional affair can be a wake-up call for you and your spouse. If you can rebuild the trust and emotional connection in your marriage, it can lead to a stronger relationship. But it’s also possible the effects of the affair have been so devastating that your marriage won’t survive.

Read: Types of Affairs and Coping with Infidelity

At Hello Divorce, we are here to support you, whether you’re trying to save your marriage after an affair or have decided to move forward with a divorce. Our online divorce plans and other professional flat-rate services offer information and guidance no matter where you are in your journey. Schedule a free phone call to learn how. 

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.