What even is emotional cheating? Let's break it down.
Whatever you think about Love Island, it has started necessary conversations on a whole bunch of dating behaviours, from gaslighting to consent. But this year, when Jordan Hames decided to tell India Reynolds that he had feelings for her mere hours after asking Anna Vakili to be his girlfriend (a very big deal in that villa!), he opened up an entirely new can of worms. Granted, the entire point of the show is to get sexy young people flirting and swapping partners, but there was a feeling that Jordan had committed a serious infraction. Was he just having an innocent chat about how he felt, as he claimed he was doing? Or was he guilty of ‘emotionally cheating’ on Anna?
The thing about emotional cheating is that its definition isn’t entirely nailed down; it can differ from person to person, relationship to relationship. Mahuani Ronsom, psychologist consultant at Instant Counselling, describes it as “someone in a committed relationship investing time and energy into someone else, up to the point that their partner feels dismissed and neglected”.
And as we saw in the hours before she confronted Jordan about his chat with India, Anna was feeling quite neglected by her brand new boyfriend. “Last night, we literally did not spend any time with each other. You spent time with everybody else but me,” she told him. “You spent ages chatting to India, having a laugh with her.”
So what’s the difference between ‘emotional cheating’ and a close, platonic friendship? Well, a shit ton of flirting and sexual chemistry, for a start. Other hallmarks of an emotional affair would be increasingly intimate chats, constant communication, and sharing things that you should really only share with your partner – perhaps even complaining to this person about your relationship. Emotional cheaters are secretive with their significant others about their new ‘friends’ and may even lie about how close they are, because deep down, they know they’re not behaving as they should be.
Now on to the bigger question: why would someone do this? We can only speculate, but often it’s a sign that the person feels (either consciously or subconsciously) that something is missing from their relationship – however, instead of talking to their partner about it, they decide to seek it out elsewhere. Sometimes, it’s simply that this person enjoys the ego massage of romantic attention from someone else, whether they plan to act on it or not.
When Chloe*, 26, noticed her boyfriend acting strangely after he returned from a work night out, she knew straight away that something was up. “I took his phone and saw some heart emojis on WhatsApp. I said ‘Who’s that to?’ and he grabbed the phone and threw it out of the bathroom window,” she says.
“Long story short, he’d been messaging a lady from work saying he wished she could have come home with him… even though I was at home. She was being more forward, saying things like ‘Why can’t we be together’ and ‘Do you want me’. He had replied with short answers, but he was still entertaining it.
“He’s said how much he regrets it and how sorry he is, but could it have developed further if he hadn’t been caught?” Chloe wonders. She says they’re trying to work things out, but she can’t stop thinking about what would have happened if she hadn’t seen the texts. “If it was something physical, then we would have broken up. Because it’s a few text messages it feels like it’s not as major, but obviously it’s still wrong. I’m angry he did it, because it made me feel like an idiot.”
A 2015 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behaviour found that while straight men were more bothered by physical infidelity, women and gay men found emotional affairs far more distressing. And indeed, it can be quite difficult for a relationship to recover from an affair of the heart. “Emotional cheating implies that the physical aspect is less relevant than the emotional needs of those involved,” says Ronsom. “Frequently, the partner who was cheated on will struggle with insecurities and needs of emotional reassurance, which can lead to a slower process of rebuilding trust in the relationship when compared to a casual physical affair.”
Martyna*, 31, recently realised that her relationship with her friend Cormac* has edged into emotional cheating. “We would have slept together in the past, and there was crossover between me and his current girlfriend. I felt terrible about it and very much cut him off, but we became friends again in the last two years,” she tells STELLAR.
“He’s a good friend to me and always very supportive. However, he has started Snapchatting me a lot more since my relationship ended, and bringing up our past more and more. We’ve met for coffee and drinks and he told me about the problems in his relationship, and how he isn’t happy.
“I wasn’t aware it was emotional cheating until I told some friends of mine about what was going on with us, how I was starting to like him again and he was constantly saying that I was beautiful, how much he thought about our past sex life and how much he missed it. It was the girls who made me think about how I’d feel if the tables were turned.”
Martyna now feels torn – she wants to preserve her friendship with Cormac, but also respect his relationship with his girlfriend. She’s noticed that the flirtatious behaviour increases when they’ve been drinking, so she’s making an effort to avoid him when they’re out. “I don’t want to do something I regret. He’s made it very clear that he wouldn’t regret it, and has said on more than one occasion that he’s more concerned with hurting my feelings than hers.”
It’s clear that emotional infidelity is a thorny, complicated subject that we’re still trying to get our heads around. What’s considered emotional cheating in one relationship may not be a problem at all in another – but many of us don’t even think about addressing the issue of boundaries in our relationships until something like this slaps us in the face.
If you have any doubts at all about where you both stand, it’s better to express them sooner rather than later. “Establishing boundaries is an essential part of a good relationship. Most conflicts around personal expectations come from not expressing them well, or omitting them entirely,” Ronsom advises.
If you’re the one who has been emotionally cheated on, it’s okay to take time to understand your feelings. Any type of affair is usually a sign of an underlying problem in your relationship, and you’ll both need to figure out what that is and how you want to fix it (or if you want to fix it at all). “The relationship will only get back on track if both partners commit to communicate and empathise with each other’s feelings,” says Ronsom. “If you love each other and want to be together, then there’s always a way to make things work, but it requires mutual respect and compromise to what each other needs to move on.”
*Names have been changed