It can be incredibly challenging to define what cheating is because it has a professional definition as well as a personal definition. What cheating is for one person may not be cheating for another.
Does cheating have to involve physical contact?
Is emotional cheating different than physical cheating?
Once a cheater always a cheater?
These debates don’t actually soothe anyone: the partner who feels there is an inappropriate relationship stays upset and the other partner feels judged and defensive.
So let me walk you through the professional definition.
First, let’s define an emotional affair.
There are a few parts of it here.
The first is obvious. It's a 1:1 personal relationship with somebody who could become a romantic partner. Even if you would never “do” anything, it is in the realm of possibility for you, or that person, to develop strong feelings.
Secondly, there is, if you're honest with yourself, some sexual charge to the relationship. Even though it's not a primarily sexual relationship, you’re attracted and enjoy that attraction. There's some sort of sexual charge, and if you let yourself dwell on it, that charge could grow.
The third part is the clincher: you don't tell your spouse about what’s going on in the other relationship. You don’t go home and tell your spouse what you and the other person shared, or you edit it carefully. If you’re the one being accused, now is the time to come clean. Share everything, including the reason you didn’t tell your spouse about this person.
If you’re in such a relationship and you’re reading this going “Uh oh,” coming to realize that a friendship is probably going down a bad path, now is the time to cool down the friendship. You don’t have to be dramatic about it. There are plenty of adult friendships where “life” gets in the way and things peter out. This should be such a relationship.
If you are the accuser and your spouse is defensive and continues to argue they are in the right and you are simply being paranoid, it may be worthwhile to seek some marriage counseling together. There is something bigger going on beyond the possible emotional affair. You and your spouse have trust issues. You are feeling really vulnerable and unsafe, and your spouse is feeling defensive and treated like an untrustworthy teenager. If your conflict about the other person endures, there are issues that a professional therapist can help you sort out.
If you are the one suspected of an emotional affair and you are convinced it’s not so (maybe your spouse has been jealous of every one of the opposite sex you’ve worked with), it’s in your best interest to help your spouse feel more confident, and this may require a therapist’s help. Your spouse may be feeling vulnerable for reasons that need to be sorted out, and you may be doing other things that contribute to trust issues in your marriage.
Either way, couples therapy can help prevent more damage in the future. It’s not enough to just say “trust me—there’s no issue,” when your spouse is torn up about another relationship.
And if one of you is uncertain about staying in the marriage Discernment Counseling may be the next step to consider.