Article By Katie Bishop
~ OCTOBER 2022 ~
Most people have strong ideas about what constitutes ‘cheating’ in a relationship.
Couples who follow conventional monogamy generally think any sexual contact with a third party is a betrayal, while many couples with more open relationships often have clear rules about what does and doesn’t count as physical infidelity.
But while physical infidelity might be easy to define, emotional infidelity can be something of a minefield. Although the phrase is well known, people tend to have different ideas of what it means to be emotionally unfaithful. Is it a drink with a colleague whom you might be attracted to? How about exchanging frequent messages with someone your partner perceives to be a threat? Or what about leaving mildly flirty comments on a stranger’s social-media post?
Grappling with different definitions of emotional infidelity can be a challenge for couples, and a mismatch in expectations could threaten a relationship. But it hasn’t always been this way. The concept of emotional fidelity is relatively new – the product of social changes that have shaped what people expect from relationships, beyond basic needs. Today, people generally expect partnership to mean a shared emotional intimacy exclusive to the relationship. And as the digital age creates more ways for us to communicate, understanding which interactions outside the relationship cross the line into dangerous territory has become more difficult than ever.
A modern concept
Broadly, emotional infidelity describes a situation in which an individual in a relationship develops an important emotional connection with someone other than their partner, in a way that crosses a line without necessarily becoming physical.
This is based on the idea that certain types of intimacy should only be shared with a significant other, and that by investing emotionally in a third party, a person can undermine their relationship and the exclusive emotional connection within it.
Each partner has their own specific view of what constitutes cheating – Marisa Cohen
Just like physical cheating, emotional infidelity can tear couples apart.
But the idea that emotional infidelity might be the death knell for some relationships is fairly new. According to Michelle Janning, a professor of sociology at Whitman College, Washington, US, who specializes in social roles, family and relationships, the belief that one can be emotionally unfaithful is a relatively modern concept.
Janning believes that today’s framing of long-term partnership – as “a lifetime of monogamous companionship between two people with emotional connectedness as the superglue that holds them together” – is the product of recent shifts. Historically, she points out, a spouse wasn’t expected to meet their partner’s emotional needs. Marriage was often based around economic security, geography, family ties and reproductive goals; in marriages that were not founded in love, it was understood that people might find emotional fulfilment elsewhere.
But throughout the past 200 years, our understanding of relationships has changed. In developed nations, love matches have become the norm, and within the last century the rise of individualism has meant that people have started to prioritise self-care and self-fulfilment.
Today, people want their partner to meet their emotional needs – meaning that fulfilling a third party’s emotional needs could, for the first time, be seen as a betrayal. Being physically faithful may no longer be enough; now, many couples believe that turning to a third party for some aspects of happiness and emotional wellbeing can be a kind of betrayal.
Some people might see their partner forming emotionally vulnerable friendships with third parties as a betrayal, while others are fine with it (Credit: Getty)
Defining emotional infidelity in a digital age
Before technology became embedded in our lives, emotional infidelity might have meant striking up an inappropriately close friendship with a colleague, sharing feelings or thoughts that a partner might assume only they were privy to. It might also have meant meeting up with an ex behind a partner’s back, hiding aspects of life from a partner who expected their loved one to be an open book.
But the digital revolution has offered up many more ways for people to connect, blurring the lines between what is and isn’t a meeting or interaction, as well as offering a more anonymized way of communicating via screens that can enable people to feel that no rules are being broken.
“Social media in general has changed the way we meet and interact with others,” says Amira Johnson, a mental- and behavioral-health expert at Berman Psychotherapy, Atlanta, US. With smartphones and social media platforms, she says, it’s easy to engage in behavior that might lead to emotional infidelity – such as liking or commenting on another person’s picture, contacting old friends or engaging strangers in debate.
Of course, people will have different views on what is and isn’t allowed. While some might consider liking a particular person’s social media post to be infidelity, others might think this is nothing to worry about. In some relationships, there is a general understanding that deeply personal conversations should stay between partners, while for others, emotionally vulnerable friendships are something that everyone should enjoy. Flirting with someone over text message could be harmless to some couples, while for others it would be relationship-ending.
“Each partner has their own specific view of what constitutes cheating, which can range from creating connections with others, to spending time with another individual that the partner may perceive to be a threat, even if that relationship is completely platonic,” says Marisa Cohen, a relationship scientist at dating app Hily.
Problems arise when partners have different red lines – which is why communication is key (Credit: Getty)
Split or survive?
In general, research shows people find sexual infidelity more troubling than emotional infidelity. But a 2015 YouGov study of 1,660 British adults showed that 44% of respondents believed forming an emotional (rather than physical) relationship with someone who wasn’t their partner constituted cheating. Meanwhile, 15% of respondents said they had engaged in this kind of behavior while in a relationship.
According to Johnson, it is precisely the blurry nature of emotional infidelity that leads to its prevalence. With physical infidelity, it is often clear when a line has been crossed. Emotional infidelity might begin much more gradually, with behavior that an individual can initially justify to themselves.
“Most people who commit emotional infidelity are not intentionally trying to,” says Johnson. “If a person feels that their significant other does not value them, or have time for them, they will seek that feeling elsewhere. They may invest in a friendship that gives them that support or emotional affection, which unintentionally leads to the brewing of feelings.”
Yet while some emotional affairs might be the first step on the path to physical infidelity, for others building relationships outside coupledom is a way to find support, intimacy and connection without relying on just one person forever. Having friendships and support systems outside a relationship is a positive thing that can boost our wellbeing. The issue comes when a friendship develops into something that we suspect our partner would be unhappy with.
Cohen says, in most cases, emotional infidelity comes from a place of distance between partners. If someone is already unhappy in a relationship or has grown apart from their significant other, perhaps because they have started to want different things in life, then they may start to seek connection with someone who more closely matches them in terms of their goals, values and beliefs. Initially innocuous interactions could then shift over time to something which would constitute an emotional affair.
Janning believes that couples’ abilities to weather this kind of event is linked to whether they can talk through, and agree on, boundaries. “I think it’s also about people’s willingness to continually redefine what commitment may mean, and thus redefine what infidelity means,” she says. “The trouble for couples lies when they don’t align in their definition of commitment.”
Evidence suggests that some people are becoming more open-minded when it comes to non-traditional relationship structures and consensual non-monogamy. Yet at the same time there’s broad consensus that, however you define it as a couple, crossing the line into cheating harms relationships. It’s possible that increased scrutiny of what modern monogamy really means, combined with a need to find answers to new questions raised by the social media age, could be opening up conversations around emotional infidelity.
“Partners still want clarity and parameters, but they want to decide these for themselves, more than ever before,” says Janning.
A Version of this article originally appeared here on bbc.com