Unlike physical affairs, it’s harder to pinpoint an emotional affair. And if you’re the suspicious partner, the last thing you want to do is accuse your spouse of something if it really is a “just friends” situation.
How do you differentiate between a platonic, innocent-enough friendship or a more troubling emotional affair? Below, therapists from around the country share seven signs your partner may be on the verge of emotional infidelity ― and how to talk to him or her about it.
Your S.O. may be having an emotional affair if...
1. There’s something off in their physical and online encounters with the other person.
The clearest sign of emotional infidelity is having a sense of discomfort with a particular person in your partner’s life, said Elisabeth J. LaMotte, a psychotherapist and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center.
“Maybe you notice flirtatiousness in the email that was left open on the computer or overly familiar postings on your partner’s Facebook page,” she said. “Maybe you notice the way this person is excessively affectionate with your partner in social situations, or that something about their eye contact with each other seems intimate. Whatever it is, you notice it.”
2. They seem physically distant from you.
An emotional affair sometimes has an effect on how often you and your spouse get physical, said Marcia Naomi Berger, a psychotherapist and author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted.
“Your significant other is probably already emotionally withdrawn from you, but physical detachment can easily follow, too,” she said. “The ‘cheating’ partner may feel like having sex with his or her S.O. is being disloyal to the person with whom the emotional affair is occurring.”
3. They become obsessive with their phone.
Your S.O used to leave their phone all over the house, but now, they take it everywhere with them and get antsy if you pick it up. That could potentially be cause for concern, said Jennifer Chappell Marsh, marriage and family therapist in San Diego.
“People in emotional affairs become obsessive with their phones,” she said. “If your S.O. is constantly checking their phone for new messages, incessant texting and updating their social media, it may indicate that they’re emotionally invested in another person’s life.”
4. They say they’re “just friends.”
“If you’re ‘just friends’ with someone, you talk about them as ‘my friend Jen’ or ‘my co-worker Steve,’ you don’t explain your relationship with them by saying that you’re ‘just friends’,” said Brittle, referencing a theory popularized by the late Shirley Glass, a renowned researcher and the author of NOT Just Friends: Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal.
“As Glass suggested, the semantics of that phrase suggest that you’re defending something that your partner is unaware of or are uncomfortable with,” Brittle said.
5. They start to talk about your relationship in less certain terms.
If you notice that your partner is using less permanent language when discussing your marriage ― or actively avoiding discussions about plans for the future ― it could be a sign of an emotional affair, said David McFadden, a marriage and family therapist in Hanover Park, Illinois.
“If you see a definite pattern to this change in language and your instincts tell you something may be going on, then it’s definitely time to check in with them,” he said.
6. They don’t want to talk about the other person.
It’s a big, glaring red flag if they refuse to talk about the person you’re suspicious of, said Kurt Smith, a therapist who specializes in counseling for men. Smith used an example from his own practice to illustrate his point.
“I was counseling a couple last week where the wife said to her husband, ’When I asked you what did at the gym you said, ‘Worked out.’ No sh―, Sherlock. You used to tell me what you did in your workouts.’ The wife knew something was wrong,” Smith said.
When your partner stops opening up and sharing details with you, that’s a sign that something’s up, Smith said.
“It’s not always an emotional affair, but it’s usually something,” he said.
7. You find out that they’ve told the other person a lot about your relationship.
Healthy couples have clear walls around the relationship, Brittle said. It’s a troubling sign when the dynamic has changed and the affair partner has a window into the marriage or relationship.
“It’s hard to be certain about whether there’s something sketchy going on outside the relationship, but when boundaries like this are crossed, it should be a warning sign,” Brittle said.
Here’s how to approach the conversation if you suspect your partner is having an emotional affair:
1. Try to use a a calm, neutral voice.
Accusatory words won’t get you very far, so refrain from emotional outbursts, begging or yelling, Chappell Marsh said.
“These tactics will only shut down the conversation and push your S.O. further away,” she said. “Be calm and clear about your concerns and let your partner know what you need to help you feel secure and reassured.”
2. Express concern over how things have changed.
The best way to begin a dialogue is by simply reflecting on what you’ve observed and how things have changed, Smith said.
“It doesn’t have to start with anything more than that,” he said. “From there, usually over a series of conversations, concerns can be communicated and possible causes can be explored.”
And of course, it never hurts to seek out help from a professional third party.
“It can be very difficult to talk about such an emotionally triggering subject in a productive manner without the help of a trained neutral party,” he said.
3. Be prepared to tell your partner what you’d like to them to do.
Before approaching them, think through what you’d like your partner to change, said Berger.
“Maybe you want them to discontinue contact with the person or to agree to transparency regarding emails and texting,” she said. “Or perhaps, you ask them to see a therapist. That’s a good idea because you can air your concerns in a safe setting.”
And be open to asking your spouse to share what they feel has been missing in their relationship ― “or what makes them feel they need to be emotionally intimate with someone other than you,” Berger said.
4. Come in strong with emotional support and emotional intimacy.
More than likely, your spouse is seeking outside emotional comfort they actually want to receive from you. To to that end, now is as good time as ever to remind them that you’re still there for them, said Caroline Madden, a marriage therapist and the author of After A Good Man Cheats: How to Rebuild Trust & Intimacy With Your Wife.
“Believe me: the crush is second choice,” she said. “If you provide the support needed, the other person doesn’t stand a chance. Instead of being angry at your spouse for wanting comfort, take a step back and ask yourself if it’s possible you have been taking your mate for granted. Asking yourself that could make a huge difference.”