Separate or Survive?
In general, research shows that people find sexual infidelity more troubling than emotional infidelity. But a 2015 YouGov study of 1,660 British adults showed that 44% of those surveyed felt that developing an emotional (rather than physical) relationship with someone who wasn’t their partner was cheating. Meanwhile, 15% of respondents said they had engaged in this type of behavior in a relationship.
According to Johnson, it is the fuzzy nature of emotional infidelity that leads to its prevalence. When it comes to physical infidelity, it’s often clear when a line has been crossed. Emotional infidelity can begin much more slowly, with behaviors that a person can justify to themselves at first.
“Most people who commit emotional infidelity don’t do it on purpose,” says Johnson. “If a person feels that their significant other doesn’t value them or doesn’t 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 inadvertently causes feelings to surface.”
But while some emotional issues might be the first step on the road to physical infidelity, for others, building relationships outside of the couple is a way to find support, intimacy, and connection without having to rely on just one person forever . Having friendships and support systems outside of a relationship is a positive thing that can increase our well-being. The problem arises when a friendship develops into something that we suspect our partner would be unhappy with.
Cohen says that in most cases, emotional infidelity stems from distance between partners. If someone is already unhappy in a relationship or has broken up with their significant other, perhaps because they have started wanting other things in life, then they can begin to seek connection with someone who supports them in terms of their goals and values better conforms and beliefs. Initially harmless interactions could then shift over time to something that would constitute an emotional affair.
Janning believes that couples’ ability to get through this type of event depends on being able to talk about and agree on boundaries. “I think it’s also about people’s willingness to keep redefining what attachment can mean, and therefore redefining what infidelity means,” she says. “The problem for couples is that they don’t agree on their definition of attachment.”
There is evidence that some people are becoming more receptive to non-traditional relationship structures and consensual non-monogamy. At the same time, however, there is a broad consensus that however you define it as a couple, crossing the line into cheating is detrimental to relationships. It’s possible that increased scrutiny of what modern monogamy really means, coupled with the need to find answers to new questions raised by the social media age, could open up conversations about emotional infidelity.
“Partners still want clarity and parameters, but they want to determine these themselves more than ever,” says Janning.