Are you having an emotional affair?
An emotional affair is a non-sexual relationship where a level of intimacy has built up. It might have a lot in common with a normal friendship, but there is often sexual chemistry and a level of emotional intimacy that may not be present in the person’s committed relationship.
Someone having an emotional affair might engage in secrecy around the relationship, even lying to their partner about spending time with that person.
Signs you are having an emotional affair
Because there’s no physical intimacy, emotional affairs can be tricky to identify. However, there are signs to look out for that might suggest this is something you’re involved in, including:
Spending more time with the other person than with your partner.
Thinking about the other person a lot.
Sharing things you would normally only ever share with your partner.
Having less time to spend with your partner .
If these signs are familiar, you may be involved in an emotional affair.
Why emotional affairs happen
Emotional affairs can happen when there are communication difficulties in a relationship. These difficulties are a normal part of life, and building a stable relationship isn’t easy. It’s not something we are taught to do in school, so it is understandable if you find it difficult. Many people do .
In a stable relationship, couples work together to build meaning. They maintain their connection by talking regularly, being practically minded, and focusing on solutions when problems arise. It’s OK to recognise your partner’s faults, as long as you see them essentially as a good person. Having a network of friends and family around you and anticipating change so you can pull together during uncertain times, can also help to support a stable relationship .
If these things break down, or if they weren’t there in the first place, you might find yourself looking elsewhere for a supportive emotional connection.
Impact of an emotional affair
Emotional affairs can have unpleasant consequences for you and your partner. If unaddressed, it could even lead to a breakup . Research into online affairs gives a good idea of how emotional affairs can affect a relationship. Emotional affairs can lead to the development of physical intimacy down the line  but even without physical contact between the people involved, they can still cause great relational distress.
In the aftermath of an affair the partner often experiences emotional hurt and loss of trust. They can experience a fear of abandonment, low self-esteem, and decreased sexual confidence. For many it can lead to a decision to end the relationship .
For the person having the affair, emotional affairs may also result in something called cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a way of describing the uncomfortable feelings you get when your behaviours don’t match up with your beliefs  – for example, you have made a commitment to be monogamous with someone, but you are sharing intimate moments with someone else. Cognitive dissonance can lead to discomfort, stress, and unhappiness.
Despite this, there is evidence that couples can repair and improve their relationship after an affair if they both actively work on recovering the relationship. If your relationship is repaired in this way, you could enjoy the benefits of a closer relationship, increased assertiveness, and a greater appreciation for each other. It can also result in couples taking better care of themselves, and realising the importance of good communication .
Things you can do to help when you find yourself having an emotional affair
Gain better insight into your thoughts and feelings
If you think you might be having an emotional affair, it can be helpful to try and gain perspective on your own thoughts and feelings. One way to do this is with a pros and cons exercise .
Get a piece of paper and make a list of the pros and cons of staying with your partner. Then make a list of the pros and cons of leaving your partner. When you’ve done this, take some time to notice how you feel about the situation.
Improve communication with your partner
If you decide you want to stay with your partner, look for ways to be more open. Romantic relationships require work to succeed and thriving couples take time out of their day to talk about both big and small things.
Open communication can bring you closer together. If you are not happy about something, tell your partner promptly. When problems come up, think practically and focus on solutions. Once an issue has been resolved, let go of it, and avoid the temptation to bring it up again .
Figure out your values
Figuring out your values can help you think about what you want or need. It can make you more aware of what’s important to you and help you make decisions about how to behave.
Let’s say ‘Loyalty to my partner’ is one of your values. Now imagine that someone you are attracted to at work asks if you want to go for a coffee. You could respond in one of two ways – you could choose to turn away from your values by accepting their offer and indulging in a bit of flirtation over a cup of coffee. Or you could choose to turn towards your values by refusing the offer or inviting others along to reduce the intimacy of the situation.
Often decisions like this are not black and white. However, being aware of your values means you’re more likely to behave in a way that honours them.
Have a think about what your values might be. They could be things like acceptance, honesty, courage, or patience. Make a list and label each value to indicate its importance to you with a ‘V’ for very important, a ‘Q’ for quite important, and an ‘N’ for not important. Repeat this exercise to remind yourself of what is important to you .
If you find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure what to do, you can check in with your values, ask yourself what you really want, and make an honest decision.
These are just some techniques we have found that have proved helpful when you find yourself in this situation. Try them out and let us know how you get on.By Helen Molloy
 Moultrup, 1990 Barlow et al., 2018 © 2002 - 2023 American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Adrian et al., 2005 Festinger 1957 Linehan, 2015 Harris, 2022