Could You Be Emotionally Cheating On Your SO?

When it comes to relationships, there is little that is more devastating than being cheated on. It’s arguably one of the worst feelings in the world and the biggest breach of trust. But what if you’ve been cheated on and that betrayal isn’t physical? It’s easy to know your SO has wronged you if they’ve been physical with someone else, but how do you know if you’ve been cheated on emotionally? Physical cheating and emotional cheating are both incredibly painful, but emotional cheating can be a lot trickier to handle. We talked to Dr. Ramani Durvasula, licensed clinical psychologist, professor of psychology and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist, about how to navigate the tricky landscape of emotional cheating. Here’s the scoop.

What is it?

Emotional cheating isn’t as simply defined as physical cheating is. The boundaries are less clear. Dr. Ramani defines emotional cheating as “the sharing of emotions, feelings or even intimate revelations that jump the boundary of what would be appropriate for someone who is in a committed relationship.” In short, “It is crossing an emotional boundary that if your partner knew about it, it would be experienced as a betrayal or a violation of trust,” she says.

Though physical cheating and emotional cheating can exist simultaneously, the two don’t have to go hand in hand. Sarah, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, was emotionally cheated on her freshman year. Though she was in a committed relationship with her boyfriend at the time, he was texting his ex telling her he loved her. “Honestly, it was hard to understand what was happening,” she says. “I felt cheated, absolutely. But I felt no one would believe me if I told them I’d been cheated on because nothing physical ever occurred.”

If you have experienced something similar to Sarah and have been emotionally cheated on, know your feelings are valid. If you feel the trust in your relationship has been broken, it’s likely it has! Trust your gut.

Is it real?

The most commonly asked question in regards to emotional cheating is whether emotional cheating is a real form of cheating at all. It isn’t publicized the way physical cheating is, and because it so often takes place online where messages can be here one second and gone the next, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve made the entire situation up or blown something out of proportion when it happens to you.

Though both physical and emotional cheating are devastating, Dr. Ramani tells us that many women in fact believe that emotional cheating is worse. “Women I have talked to (and some men) have said that they could almost ‘rationalize’ a drunken one night stand—but the idea that their partner opened up their heart and shared feelings with another person is devastating in a very different way,” Dr. Ramani says. Though sex is often considered the utmost form of intimacy, Dr. Ramani argues that “our emotional and romantic spaces may be even more intimate, and as such, breaches of trust in the emotional space can be experienced as more painful.” Though the cheater will often adamantly insist that “nothing happened,” don’t let them trick you into thinking you’re overreacting or imagining something out of thin air.

In short: yes. Emotional cheating is very real, and the pain you experience if you’ve been emotionally cheated on is valid.

Related: 5 Reasons You May Be Feeling Unsettled in Your Relationship

How to know if you’re emotionally cheating

It’s hard to know if you’re being emotionally cheated on as emotional cheating implies secrecy—but sometimes it’s even harder to know if you’re doing it yourself. Dr. Ramani says, “If you find yourself getting more excited sharing something with someone else than with your partner,” if “you look forward to seeing that other person more than your partner” or if “you actually fantasize about a life or a romance with this person,” you’re emotionally cheating. This may mean you're feeling unfulfilled in your relationship and signify a bigger problem that needs to be addressed. It could also mean you are bored and miss the "honeymoon" phase of your relationship and are seeking validation elsewhere. Whatever the reason--your partner deserves honesty and to know your feelings.

Though it may be hard to distinguish between a great friendship and a friendship that has grown into something much more, it is vital to ask yourself whether your partner would be upset if they saw the conversations you are having with the person you’re exchanging with. Would they be hurt? Would you be hesitant or embarrassed or even downright refuse to show them the conversations? If so, it may be time to reevaluate what you want—or rather, who you want.

How to know if you're being emotionally cheated on

Signs that you may be being emotionally cheated on include secrecy such as your partner hiding or heavily protecting their phone, your partner mentioning or including someone else in conversation too much for comfort or if they’re beginning acting differently. This could mean getting calls and messages at odd hours, them being impatient or short with you or being distracted. Maybe they start spending more time at work or keep darting out to make phone calls that seem a bit off. If you suspect you're being emotionally cheated on, it's best to just approach your partner and ask what's going on. Nothing good comes from secrecy, and getting it all out on the table will begin the process of either rebuilding your relationship, or moving on to much bigger and better things.

You've been emotionally cheated on--now what?

While it’s easy to blame yourself, remember that being cheated on is not your fault. It’s your partner’s responsibility to be faithful, control their urges and communicate with you if they are having thoughts about others and thinking about acting on those thoughts. It is up to you whether you choose to continue your relationship, but before choosing to do so ask yourself whether you believe trust can ever again be fully established in your relationship. If not, it may be time to let go.

Dr. Ramani says, “After being emotionally cheated on, it is easy to lose your sense of trust and feel angry and betrayed,” and that “self-care is key.” Self-care can be anything from taking a hot bath or hanging out with your dog to going for a girls’ night out. Dr. Ramani recommends that you “spend time with friends, sleep in, flirt, and if you can afford it, take a trip. If you can’t, do something fun and local.”

If self-care on its own isn’t helping remove those feelings of anger and betrayal, it may be time to consider working with a therapist or counselor to talk out your feelings. “Don’t let the betrayal be the gift that keeps on giving—grieve the loss in your own time, and then trust your heart again,” Dr. Ramani says.

In a time where everything is about connecting—on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat or even something as simple as email, it’s easier than ever to connect with those we love. However, sometimes a boundary is crossed and a friendship can turn into late night calls and your heart skipping a beat when you see their name on your phone—and they certainly aren’t your partner [confusing sentence structure – can you rephrase?]. Dr. Ramani says, “Cheating is not just about sex or physical intimacy, and in fact emotional betrayal often cuts far deeper.” So while it “may feel good for a minute” as Dr. Ramani says, it can “leave hurts that last far longer.” Dr. Ramani put it simply: “Emotional cheating is careless, sloppy and unkind.” Respect yourself and leave a relationship immediately if you feel you’ve been emotionally cheated on. But really—respect your partners and don’t cheat, physically or emotionally.