Infidelity refers to the one-off action or regular state of being unfaithful to a spouse or another sexual or romantic partner in some variation of a committed relationship. But infidelity isn't limited to physical cheating.
Rather, emotional cheating can take a serious toll on a relationship. And research suggests that emotional affairs are actually far more common than physical, sexual affairs — which may be because the person who is engaging in the infidelity does not perceive their behavior as such. That said, emotional cheating can wreck relationships, and some even deem it worse than physical cheating.
Here's everything you need to know about emotional infidelity.
Emotional infidelity refers to cheating on someone emotionally, without sexual contact. This means that, though the person did not physically cheat on their partner, they are or have been receiving an emotional fix from someone else.
There are just two main forms of infidelity: physical and emotional. That said, these types of infidelity can manifest in different ways. For example, someone may emotionally cheat on their partner via regular phone calls to another person, or perhaps in an online chat. They may physically cheat on their partner by having sexual intercourse with another person, or they may be physically involved with another person, even if they didn't have sex with them.
Emotional cheating is still cheating — but whether or not it's a big deal depends on who you ask.
A wealth of research suggests that women are more hurt by emotional infidelity, while men are more hurt when the infidelity is sexual. Women tend to worry more about their partner falling in love with someone else more than they worry about them having sex with someone else, while most men would rather their partner fall in love for someone else than have sex with another person, according to several studies.
In fact, 72 percent of men said sexual affairs were worse than emotional affairs, according to a survey by Victoria Milan, a dating site for people seeking affairs. Meanwhile, 69 percent of women said emotional affairs were worse than sexual affairs.
Perhaps that is because the most common reason that women cheat is for emotional satisfaction, while men cite sexual satisfaction as the driving factor behind why they cheat. And perhaps that's why 76 percent of women would forgive their partner for a strictly sexual affair, while only 35 percent of men could say the same. On the contrary, 80 percent of men said they would forgive an emotional affair, while only 30 percent of women could say the same.
That's largely because women feel guiltier after emotional transgression, while men feel guiltier following sexual infidelity, according to a study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. The researchers found that "men might believe their relationships to be more sexual than they are, thus giving more weight to sexual involvement in general [and] women, meanwhile, could feel levels of emotional investment that simply aren't there."
Of course, where you draw the line on emotional cheating is entirely up to you. That said, a healthy relationship requires trust and respect, and the following five times display neither trust nor respect.
If your partner is keeping secrets from you, it's a major red flag. You cannot have a relationship of any kind, even an open relationship, in which you don't have trust for one another.
If your partner is exhibiting deceptive behavior, it's also a major red flag. Deception leads to distrust and, again, you need trust to have a healthy relationship.
Manipulation is a power tool. If your partner is manipulating you into thinking you're at fault for why they've cheated (as opposed to their own personal issues or issues in the relationship that you both need to work on together), they're not respecting you.
If you're experiencing symptoms of stress from the emotional infidelity, such as sleep loss, weight gain, hair loss, heart complications, loss of appetite, skin issues, etc., it may be time to remove yourself from the situation. You need to look out for yourself first.
If you've had a conversation about the situation with your partner, and you feel that you are now on the same page, but their behavior becomes a pattern, that is betrayal. They are disrespecting you and your relationship, and a relationship devoid of respect is no relationship at all.
Responding to emotional cheating isn't easy. In fact, confrontation and having tough conversations, in general, can be uncomfortable and even painful. But how you respond to emotional cheating relies entirely upon your relationship — what it's been, what it currently is and what you want it to be.
There are, therefore, important questions you need to ask yourself first.
If you're in a committed, monogamous relationship, what boundaries did your partner cross? How does that make you feel? Do you think you'll ever trust this person again to be monogamous?
If you're in an open relationship, what boundaries did your partner cross? Perhaps you allow yourselves to explore freely with others, so long as you're open and honest with one another — and perhaps your partner failed to be honest with you. How does that make you feel?
Why do you think this happened? Is there an underlying problem in your relationship?
You have to ask yourself these questions, and then make a decision as to whether or not there's any turning back. Maybe you can salvage the relationship by talking through what happened. For example, perhaps there are underlying issues that have caused the infidelity in the first place (of course, infidelity should never be justified, but when you dig deep enough, you may be able to empathize). If you can get to the root of your problem, there's a chance you can fix it.
According to a study published in the Journal of Sex Research, people cheat for all kinds of reasons — from not feeling sexually satisfied to feeling stuck in the relationship. You have to truly understand the root of why your partner cheated before you can appropriately respond.
Or maybe you are too hurt by the cheating regardless, and you don't see how you could possibly trust your partner again. Because relationships are built on trust, it may be time that you move forward separately.
Emotional cheating does not necessarily denote the end of a marriage, unless the couple suspects that a divorce is necessary. This, of course, is entirely up to the couple, who may be able to work through the affair and resolve their issues, or who may decide that they're not emotionally fulfilling each other anymore and they think it's best to file for a divorce.
That said, according to the aforementioned study published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, while both men and women believe that it would be harder for their significant other to forgive sexual infidelity or emotional cheating, women say they'd be more likely to leave than men if they found out that their partner was sleeping with someone else.
So, depending on the couple and their values, cheating or any kind may or may not break a marriage.
It's also important to remember that cheating can take a toll on your physical and mental health. So, even if you don't break up right away, this harm can be lasting, and it can break up the marriage later down the line.
Researchers from the University of Nevada, Reno surveyed 232 college students who’d been cheated on in the last three months in order to find out how the infidelity affect their behavior and mental health.
“Being cheated on seems to not only have mental health consequences but also increases risky behaviors,” the researchers said.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.