Skip to content

9 Red Flags That Signal Emotional Cheating, According to Therapists

The gray area between friend and more-than-friend is confusing.

Many people would argue that emotional cheating is worse than physical cheating. Both forms of infidelity shatter trust and usually signal larger relationship issues, but it's difficult to justify your partner "connecting with another human being in a super intimate way that should be reserved for [your] monogamous relationship," notes Rich Heller, MSW, CPC, founder of Rich in Relationship. Plus, he adds, "Emotional infidelity often lays the foundation for physical infidelity."

Unfortunately, the signs of an emotional affair can be difficult to spot and tough to interpret. Your partner can have friends, right? Doesn't everyone go through stressful periods when they become detached? To help you decode the signs, we've consulted Heller and other therapists to learn more about this type of unfaithfulness. Keep reading to see what they say are the biggest red flags that signal emotional cheating.

READ THIS NEXT: 5 Questions Your Partner May Ask If They're Cheating, Therapists Say.

They're going through a "flat" period.


In any instance of cheating, it's important to understand the underlying reason for the infidelity. With emotional cheating, a common cause is that your partner is going through a personal low point, according to Heller. "Studies of infidelity show that when people step out in a relationship, it doesn't always have to do with the relationship itself," he says. "The individual is usually [having] a 'flat' period in their life, meaning that there aren't special highs or special lows in their day-to-day experience."

Whether it's due to work, family matters, or just reaching an age where things seem to have slowed down, there are many reasons why your partner may be dealing with low-level depression. Heller says to take note if your partner has prolonged melancholy. If addressed early on, they can find a means of fulfillment that isn't the excitement of someone new.

They're struggling with a major life shock.

older man with his head in his hands

Similar to feeling depressed, your partner may be dealing with a sudden, traumatic experience when they're being unfaithful. According to David Tzall, PsyD, a licensed psychologist, in instances such as losing a parent or being fired from a job, someone may turn to a person they feel "gets" them better than you. "These can be those times [they] seek connection from someone who has gone through this ordeal," he explains.

The hopeful news is that in many cases, these emotional affairs are "false," says Tzall. "[They] bond over one issue but do not have much in common or interact outside of that one issue."

There's a communication breakdown.

Men having a tense discussion in the kitchen

Unlike a physical affair, emotional infidelity is based on communication and understanding. Therefore, if you notice that you and your partner are having strained conversations and difficulty discussing important topics that were previously simple, it may be cause for concern.

"If you were once the one that your partner shared things with and that has changed significantly, then it could mean that their emotional needs are being met elsewhere," says Jennifer Kelman, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health expert on JustAnswer.

READ THIS NEXT: 5 Relationship Red Flags Everyone Misses, Experts Warn.

They're hiding their technology.

husband surfs ashley madison to cheat on wife.

This one might seem obvious, but that doesn't make it any less true. Many of the therapists we spoke to agreed that a lot of emotional affairs start online. "I believe easy accessibility is one reason why we are seeing and talking about this more and more," says Kelman. "Device use, social media use, text messaging, cheating apps—and are all right at our fingertips at any time, day or night."

Therefore, do be wary if you notice your partner hiding their phone, changing their email password, or spending more time late at night on the computer. "Any signal that something is being hidden is a red flag," states Nancy Landrum, MA, author, relationship coach, and founder of The Millionaire Marriage Club. She advises those who observe this behavior to ask about it and bring it out into the open. This will give your partner the chance to be honest with you or at least realize that you're aware of their actions.

They're suddenly away from home more.

mature woman sitting on the floor at home, sad middle-aged woman alone experiencing health problems and personal troubles

Rather than taking calls with the shower running or waiting for you to be out of town, your partner may start making excuses for their whereabouts so they can spend time with another person. "If they are in contact with someone else and getting an emotional fill from them, they may try and be with them more at work if it is a colleague or hang around the gym more in the hope of connecting," says Kelman.

If it's more of a virtual relationship, spending more time at the office gives them the freedom to chat and video call as they please.

For more relationship advice delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

They're extra giddy.

Asian woman annoyed and arguing with her husband

Notice that your partner comes out of the home office after a "work call" and is extra upbeat? Or maybe they're typing away on their phone with a huge smile plastered on their face? This shift in attitude can definitely be a red flag.

"This might sound silly, but if you know your partner and they aren't the most gregarious type or one that lets their guard down and acts silly and giddy, but now you hear this type of communication, it can signal a newfound connection to someone new," says Kelman.

They pull away in the bedroom.

Older couple in bed, woman awake looking annoyed at man

Just because the affair isn't physical, doesn't mean it won't affect your physical relationship. "This could be because they feel they are 'cheating' on their new person, or simply because they don't feel an attraction to you as they develop intimate and emotional feelings for someone else," explains Kelman. After all, a healthy sex life is built on a strong emotional connection.

They use the line "we're just friends."

older couple sitting on couch

"The four most unsettling words for a relationship," according to Sameera Sullivan, a relationship expert and matchmaker, are "we are just friends." If you receive this "concise and ambiguous" response when questioning your partner about a potential indiscretion, Sullivan says it's a major red flag that the relationship is more than just platonic.

One reason for this is that someone who is emotionally cheating very often doesn't realize they're being unfaithful, explains Heller. "They may even identify them as a special friend," he says. "They think as long as they're not having a physical affair, that everything's hunky-dory." Meanwhile, coming off as someone who doesn't want their partner to have "friends" makes it easy for you to feel you're just overreacting.

READ THIS NEXT: 7 Body Language Signs That Mean Your Partner Is Cheating, According to Therapists.

They tell you you're paranoid.

couple judgmental
jeffbergen / iStock

Sadly, some unfaithful people are also manipulative, and a textbook shrewd move is to turn the tables on you. "Sometimes it may be easier for them to flip things around rather than look at their own behavior," explains Kelman. "They may also be doing this as a way to gaslight the situation, trying to make you seem crazy for worrying or accuse you of things that they are actually doing. They project their behavior and begin to defend against their behavior by accusing you of the same." This is when it's essential to trust your instincts.

Hard as it may be, if you suspect your partner is engaged in an emotional affair, it's best not to respond with anger, says Landrum. "Vent anger in a journal or by screaming into a pillow. When calm, ask caring questions and suggestions like, 'I've noticed that we haven't been as attentive to our relationship for the last several months. I'd like to hear what is going on inside you … Let's find out what needs are being met in that emotional relationship that we or I have been neglecting.'" And, of course, seeking out a couples counselor is always a good idea.

Dana Schulz
Dana Schulz is the Deputy Lifestyle Editor at Best Life. She was previously the managing editor of 6sqft, where she oversaw all content related to real estate, apartment living, and the best local things to do. Read more
Filed Under