You might be cheating without knowing it.
Sure, if your partner shows up with lipstick on his or her collar, it might seem pretty damn obvious that they’re cheating.
But what about if they just seem a little…distant? That could be a sign of an emotional affair—and TBH, those are almost just as bad as the physical ones.
Emotional affairs are much less defined than physical ones, which is why they’re so challenging to pinpoint, says Jane Greer, Ph.D., author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. But in general, an emotional affair is when your partner turns to somebody other than you for support and looks to that person to feel important, says Greer. “It’s a special bond with another person that feels intense.”
With developments as subtle as lingering glances, it’s not always easy to see when a friendship has blossomed into something more.
If your gut is telling you that something’s off, or you feel like you might be crossing a line yourself, here are some emotional affair signs to look out for.
You’re more excited to see this person than your partner.
Relationships are all about emotional energy—how much you’re giving, how much you’re receiving. “When we start talking about emotional affairs, we’re looking at the energy that’s going outside of your relationship,” says Bill Bercaw, Psy.D., clinical psychologist, and co-author of From the Living Room to the Bedroom: The Modern Couple’s Guide to Sexual Abundance and Lasting Intimacy. Of course, it’s not realistic (or healthy!) to devote alllll your energy to your relationship, but as Bercaw explains, it’s a matter of degree.
Bercaw suggests thinking about these questions: “Am I too excited to see this person?” “Am I preoccupied with my anticipation for the next time we get to see each other?” Those answers will tell you a lot.
You’re having fantasies about this person (but not the kind you think).
Maybe you’re having sex dreams about Channing Tatum, but you might be having emotional fantasies about another person. Things like: “This other person would never do what my partner just did to me.” Or, “this other person would make me so happy in ways that my partner isn’t making me happy.”
This is a warning sign, Bercaw says: “When those types of thoughts start creeping in, and staying in, those would be indicators that you might be moving toward an emotional affair.”
This person has become your go-to.
Quick thought experiment: You just got a raise at work. Who is the first person you tell?
Here’s another: You got into a minor car accident—you’re fine, but you scratched up your car. Who do you call first?
Greer says it’s a potential sign of an emotional affair when you turn to another person for guidance and reactions more than your partner’s.
“Sometimes, the other person complains about their relationship too, so it becomes a way to bond.”
You complain about your partner.
Complaining is an instant friend-maker: It’s how you cozy up to colleagues (“Ugh, the coffee in the employee kitchen is awful — am I right?”) and fellow exercise class-goers (“The instructor promised those were the last eight counts of plank holds!”).
It’s also how people in an emotional affair become closer. “Complaining becomes a source of bonding,” says Bercaw . “Sometimes, the other person complains about their relationship too, so it becomes a way to bond.”
Bercaw points out that people don’t necessarily start griping about their partners because they want to start up an emotional affair—it can be totally innocent in the beginning. Moral of the story: If you’re grumbling about your partner to someone, stop and think about why you’re doing it.
You go out of your way to do things for this person.
Let’s do another experiment: You’re out buying a birthday present for your partner. You see this really handy apple corer and you think, “I must get that for this person! He once told me how much he loves apples but how he hates cutting them up.” Uh-oh.
On one end, you could argue that you’re doing something thoughtful. On another: “That’s a lot of mental energy spent on somebody other than your significant other,” says Greer.
He gets defensive.
If you were to confront your partner about all the time he or she spends with a certain person, how would your partner react? “Defensiveness is often a red flag,” says Bercaw. “People who aren’t defensive usually don’t have anything to hide.”
He’s a freakin’ expert on this person.
If your partner knows way too much about his colleague’s marriage, or if your partner told that same colleague a tad too much about your own relationship, that could be another emotional affair indicator.
“You may learn one way or another that your partner has shared some parts, some details of your personal life or your shared life that you might expect that they would have kept private, and instead now it’s being shared with this other person,” says Bercaw. “And, it might also be the case that you learn that your partner is on the receiving end of some personal information that seems a little out of place to you.”
Your sex life has drastically improved—or dropped off.
When a person is having an emotional affair that hasn’t yet turned physical, the frequency of sex with his or her partner can actually increase. “The passion for the one he desires is played out in the relationship he’s already in,” says psychotherapist Ginnie Love, Ph.D., a psychotherapist practicing Florida.
Of course, every guy is different—for some, when there’s an uptick in emotional intimacy with someone new, the level of sexual interest in his current partner takes a nose dive.
He seems distant or detached.
If your guy is scoring attention and emotional support from someone else, he might stop discussing the intricacies of his life with you. We only have so much emotional energy to go around, says Love, and our attention tends to go where we are most drawn. Over time, this can also lead to detachment. “If your partner is spending the time he previously spent with you on someone else, that is an immediate warning sign that needs to be addressed,” says Love.
“He may be unconsciously sizing you up.”
He has an attitude.
In addition to pulling away, he may start praising his new obsession and criticizing you—say, throwing shade about your cooking skills or taste in movies, even though these aspects of your personality never seemed to bother him before. “This is especially dangerous territory because he may be unconsciously sizing you up,” says Love, comparing you to a fantasy version of the other person and idealizing what it might be like to be with her. Yeah, fun stuff.
His tech habits have changed.
If he doesn’t text very often and is suddenly glued to his phone or spends more time browsing on social media than he used to, this might signify something’s up, says Love. And if he starts dodging details about who he’s keeping in touch with, this could be a subtle admission of guilt. “On some level, he knows what he’s doing isn’t quite right and that you’d understandably feel jealous, so he avoids and evades, thinking that what you don’t know won’t hurt you,” says Gail Saltz, M.D., psychiatrist and author of The Power Of Different.
He drops her name constantly.
“We mention friends from time to time, but a constant name drop is disrespectful and inappropriate,” says Love. It’s basically an invitation for you to call him on it. And when you do, take note of his reaction. If he’s super-defensive about their friendship (see #6), reiterates that there’s nothing going on between them multiple times, or is super-forceful about wanting you to believe him, it might be time to take stock of his loyalty, says Saltz.
He argues with you differently.
If you’re hearing new and surprising comments from him in response to disagreements you’ve been having for a long time, it could be a sign that he’s been spilling on your relationship issues with her, and then absorbing her commentary on them.”Chances are these are her responses when he tells her about fights the two of you have, and he’s taking them in and using them in your arguments,” says Saltz.
You’re starting to feel like the third wheel in your own relationship.
Say you’re at a party with your mate and his friend shows up. If your guy immediately leaves you alone to tend to her needs, that’s the big red flag. “If you start to feel like you’re not number one and that everything significant isn’t being shared with you first, you may not be on solid ground in your relationship,” says Greer.
If several of these signs do apply to your S.O. and you can’t shake the feeling that something’s up, it’s better to be upfront about your concerns sooner rather than later. “Bring it up by saying you feel your partner’s been distant, and that it has something to do with the closeness they’ve developed with another person,” says Saltz. “Be honest about wanting them to stop and reinvest in your relationship, discuss any problems, and rebuild your bond—but the emotional affair has to end first.” Expressing your hurt and concern doesn’t mean you’re pointing fingers—it just means you care about what happens to your relationship and you’re willing to do the work.