~ November 2021 ~ Chloe had encouraged her husband to accept the new job. “I told him: ‘Life is too short to be unhappy.’”
The effect on him was transformative – but not in the way she had imagined. “One minute, he was a family guy, the next, he was always working late and going in early.” She found out why when she visited him one day at work.
“My heart dropped when I saw them talking to each other – they had this closeness,” says Chloe, 49. “I realised then that it was her that had come between us. He went to her with problems, shared secrets and aspirations – all those things that we used to do together.”
Chloe is confident the relationship was never physical – but 15 years later it is still enormously hurtful. At the time, they had been married for 12 years and had a three-year-old son. “Before, I thought that pain could only come from a physical betrayal – there wasn’t a rulebook to follow for this type.”
An emotional affair is characterised by nonsexual intimacy with someone other than your partner, in such a way that violates their trust and expectations. With technology enabling round-the-clock and covert communication, it has never been easier to fall into that grey area between “just friends” and “more than friends” – often with plausible deniability.
According to a 2015 YouGov study of 1,660 British adults, 20% of people have been unfaithful to their partner. Of those, 15% said their infidelity had no physical component.
When the Guardian ran a reader callout asking for experiences of emotional affairs, the responses showed that the fallout of this kind of affair is no less devastating for the lack of sex.
Chloe says she could feel her husband’s relationship with his colleague “eroding” her own, but “it was so easy to duck out of discussing it because nothing had physically happened”. Then she looked at her husband’s phone: “His messages to her had their own kind of language and intimacy – I knew then that we wouldn’t work.”
Not every relationship would be threatened by such a bond: only 44% of respondents to the YouGov survey said they considered a non-physical connection to be cheating. Some people actively make room for others through consensual non-monogamy. Albert, a retiree who identifies as queer, says an “emotional affair” strikes him as a non-sequitur: “It equates the attachment with something that is duplicitous – this need not be the case.”
Jealousy over friends or colleagues might also denote a relationship that is controlling or even abusive. But in instances where those suspicions are well founded, the truth may emerge only after many painful arguments, denial and even gaslighting.
Confirmation of her ex-partner’s emotional affair made Anneka, 31, feel strangely relieved: “I felt vindicated that I had been right. I’d spent a long time questioning whether I was just being crazy and controlling.”
Anneka’s paranoia had been piqued by her then boyfriend being “glued to his phone”, while keeping it out of her sight. “I’m pretty confident he wasn’t cheating on me physically – but, in my mind, emotional cheating is almost as bad.”
What constitutes infidelity is specific to each relationship, says Sarah Calvert, a sex and relationships therapist based in London, but secrecy can be proof enough. “That is one of the factors – telling secrets and deep, intimate feelings that you wouldn’t want your partner to know you were sharing. It comes down to that basic question: would you be happy for your partner to be overhearing these conversations, or to know how much time you spend thinking about them?”
Georgina, 40, says her three-year emotional affair with a colleague was “as intense as a physical affair – perhaps more so. We never even kissed on the mouth. I had never felt closer to anyone.”
Dr Gayle Brewer, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Liverpool, says that if our partner is confiding in someone else instead of us, perhaps with intimate details about our relationship, “we tend to view that as a betrayal”.
Conversely, “if we feel as if our partner is not listening to us or supporting us, we’re more likely to engage in emotional infidelity,” she says (although a strong support network outside the relationship could mitigate this).
The impact is felt more by women, says Brewer, with studies showing “time and time again” that they are more distressed by an emotional affair than by a sexual one, while the opposite is true for men.
“Men tend to question their partners: ‘Have you had sex with that person?’ Women tend to ask: ‘Do you love that person?’ And the unfaithful partner will deny the aspect that’s more hurtful.”
Daphne, 25, broke up with her boyfriend over his messages to a former colleague: “They were chatting like boyfriend and girlfriend. It hurt more than if he had drunkenly snogged someone on a night out.” When they got back together a year later, her boyfriend struggled with Daphne’s sexual encounters during the break. “He didn’t really have the right to say anything about it,” she says.
The common conception is that an emotional affair is a precursor to a physical one. “A little bit of chemistry or sexual tension” is typical of emotional affairs, says Calvert, but their underlying cause – the behaviours driving the betrayal – may not be obvious. “In my experience, it comes from deeper issues within the relationship or the person – unresolved issues from past traumas, for example, or a need that’s not being met.”
Walter, a middle-aged father of three, paraphrases When Harry Met Sally: “Affairs are a symptom, not a cause.” His wife’s emotional affair, with a female friend, had roots in her sexual confusion and childhood abuse, he says. “I can’t judge her from an intellectual perspective. But I can say that when your lover gives her heart to someone else, it’s simply painful.”