The word “affair” makes us think of fiery, passionate, physical flings, but not every affair is an in-person tryst. Some are emotional affairs and, unlike their physical counterparts, they can be trickier to identify. Are you getting way too personal with a colleague? Are you making up excuses to see your kid’s cute teacher? Is the other person also getting close to you, even though one or both of you is in an existing relationship?
If you were hooking up, it’d be easy to know that you’re having an affair, but an emotional one has gray areas—it’s certainly not a crime to have a close friend outside of your romantic relationship, after all. Here’s how to identify if you’re in one and what you can do about it.
Assess your existing relationship with your partner
Before you try to weed through the complexities of your potential emotional affair and all it entails, look a little closer to home. How have things been for you and your primary partner lately? Are you feeling content and happy in your relationship?
Just because you aren’t all-out brawling or on the brink of divorce doesn’t mean you’re happy, but it can be hard to admit or acknowledge that something isn’t right, especially if your current partner is generally pretty good and not a total monster. You might feel like you don’t want to throw the whole partnership away because of one thing—like a lack of sex or constant disagreements over parenting—and maybe that stops you from pursuing a more full-bodied affair and guides you toward an emotional fling.
“Now that I’m on the other side of it, I can recognize more of the signs leading up to it,” said DJ, a 30-something woman in the Great Plains who was involved in an emotional affair her husband still doesn’t know about—and declined to share her name, for obvious reasons. “My mother-in-law had moved in and she and my husband have drinking problems. I began feeling like a third wheel in my own home. All of my decisions were constantly under scrutiny. I was uncomfortable, insecure, and lonely. I didn’t talk to my husband about any of it. I thought he’d realize how miserable I was. He didn’t.”
Figure out how you feel about the person you might be emotionally cheating with
Once you’ve taken a critical look at what’s going on in your primary relationship, it’s time to analyze the one that is making you wonder if you’re in an emotional affair. Think about how you feel when this person’s name pops up on your phone or when you see them. If you feel telltale crush symptoms, like butterflies in your stomach, be honest with yourself. It’s a crush. There are romantic undertones. Own up to it.
Crushes are normal and not that big of a deal. The affair part comes in when you start turning to the other person for the emotional support or validation you should probably be seeking from your real partner.
A pretty big red flag is if you’re discussing extremely personal or sexual topics with this other person. That was the first sign DJ had that she was embarking on an emotional affair.
“We’d been talking for a few weeks and I was out of town for a wedding and I drunkenly asked him if he thought I was pretty. Things heated up from there and got a little racy for a bit,” she admitted.
An emotional affair, like any affair, isn’t all about sexual gratification, though. When you’re turning to someone else for support, conversation, or an ego boost, it’s clear you’re yearning for that and likely not getting it from the main partner in your life.
“We also had amazing conversations,” said DJ. They talked about the things she didn’t feel she could speak to her husband about at the time, like the other man’s job, her dream of going back to school, politics, and their favorite movies. “We knew we were both married and not looking to leave our spouses, but needed something outside our marriages.”
Here’s what to do if you’re in an emotional affair
If you figure out you’re in an emotional affair, what you do is up to you—and there are a few options. You can keep sneaking around, texting or talking to someone you may or may not end up actually hooking up with, and hide it all, but be warned you could feel progressively guiltier. An emotional affair can feel even more intimate than a physical one. Anyone can slip up and get touchy-feely with a hottie, but an ongoing conversation in which you divulge your secrets and receive emotional support is premeditated and uniquely deep. The longer it goes on, the worse you could feel, and the more hurtful it could be.
To that end, you could be honest with your partner and suggest an open relationship or tell them what, exactly, is missing in your current arrangement and what you need them to do for you that they’re not doing. You could also cut off the other person and try to go it alone with your main squeeze. Whether you tell your primary partner what you did after ending things with the other person is, again, up to you.
DJ ended her emotional affair and never told her husband what had gone on for a few months behind his back, but admitted that was hard: “It’s been a few years now since we haven’t talked. To be honest, I still miss those conversations.”
The best thing you can do is cut yourself a little slack and get to the bottom of why you sought out the emotional support of this other person. Don’t beat yourself up for it; you obviously needed something you weren’t getting.
“If you’d feel bad about finding your conversations on your spouse’s device, then you know you should be having a conversation with your spouse. My husband and I really had to learn how to communicate and make our needs heard. And sometimes your relationship won’t work and that’s okay, too. I don’t think one person is supposed to meet all your needs,” DJ said.