An emotional affair has three features:

  1. Secrecy, either about the existence of a friendship, or the interactions that take place.
  2. Physical chemistry and attraction.
  3. When the friend knows more about your primary relationship than you know about this friendship.

Emotional affairs, like all affairs, are increasing because of the social context in which we live.

We spend a lot of our time at work with colleagues, we travel away from home and we have mobile phones, messenger applications, social media and emails. We have individual friendships.

Blurred boundaries

Emotional affairs usually start with a friendship that has 'crossed the line'. By this it is meant that the boundaries around that friendship, that prevented it from posing a threat to your primary relationship, have become blurred over time. Emotional infidelity occurs when your partner starts exchanging intimacies and secrets with a friend that they would normally share with you.

If your partner wouldn’t have wanted you to hear or see these interactions, a line was crossed. If there was also secrecy involved and physical attraction, there was a high risk that this emotional affair would have evolved into a combined affair, where both physical and emotional infidelity occurred.

Not every emotional affair will lead to physical infidelity. For some individuals, there is a boundary that they won’t breach. If your partner decided to end the friendship and has taken the risk to tell you about what has happened, there is a good chance that the relationship would not have progressed further.

Talk to your partner about your concerns

Although you are bound to feel hurt, listen to what your partner is saying and take comfort from the fact that they stepped back from the brink of a combined affair and showed sufficient investment in your relationship to be honest about it. As with all affairs, try to see this as a joint opportunity to find out why it happened.

If, on the other hand, the emotional affair has ended because of discovery, or because the other party has withdrawn, your partner needs to be as honest as they can about the likely progress of the friendship. Most people in this situation would like to think that they would not have been physically unfaithful, but this can be a comforting self-delusion.

An emotional affair can be as painful for all parties as a physical, or combined affair. It is a mistake to minimise the hurt feelings and loss of trust, but with hard work and a willingness to uncover the reason why it happened and agreeing future boundaries for safe friendships, a couple can build a stronger relationship in its wake.

How we can help

If you're worried about your relationship, there are various ways we can help.