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Is it An Emotional Affair or a Friendship? (Video) How To Know and How To Heal

An emotional affair is a non sexual relationship that has a lot of the emotional elements of a romantic relationship. Emotional relationships often start off platonic. So it might be with a coworker, a neighbor, maybe another parent from a sports team that your kid is on. You’re not going into a situation thinking, “I really want to have an emotional affair.” But oftentimes it kind of creeps into that direction as the friendship grows.

Here are the signs of an emotional affair versus a friendship.

Intimate Sharing:

With emotional affairs, you’re going to have more intimate sharing. Here’s an analogy: for physical intimacy, there are things that you would only do with your partner. There are ways that you would bare yourself with an intimate partner that you would not bare yourself with a neighbor, or a coworker. With emotional affair partners, you would bare yourself emotionally in a way that you wouldn’t bare yourself with a neighbor or coworker. The relationship is more personal, more deep. It requires a level of safety and intimacy that you don’t quite have with somebody that’s just a friend.

Always Thinking About the Person:

The second mark of an emotional affair is if you’re always thinking about the emotional affair partner. They’re just always on your mind. You’re always wondering what they’re doing. You’re constantly thinking about them a lot. They’re just present in your life that a normal friend wouldn’t be present, emotionally and even physically. In terms of your thoughts, in terms of the way you do things–maybe you would go to work earlier so that you could see them or talk to them. You are very intentional about spending time with them because they are on your mind and there is an attachment that is present that would not be present with a platonic friend.

Spending Inordinate Amounts of Time Together:

A third mark is you are spending greater amounts of time with this person than you normally would with a friend. So, again, you’re going out of your way to spend time with this person. A lot of times when I see clients whose spouses or partners have been in an emotional affair, they come to me with proof consisting of text messages. And you can see loads and loads and loads of text messages, constantly throughout the day–and night. Thousands of text messages. This is not just a friendship, this is something that goes beyond the boundaries of a friendship because they are constantly texting, talking on the phone, neglecting family time and time with their own children to talk to this affair partner. You may be on vacation with your family but you are constantly texting your emotional affair partner. You may be in bed with your spouse lying next to you but texting your emotional affair partner. The time spent with the affair partner is often greater than the time you would spend with a friend and even greater than the time that you would spend with your significant other.

Special Treatment:

The next Hallmark sign is special treatment of the emotional affair partner. So maybe you might buy them gifts. You might be extra thoughtful. Or when it’s their birthday, you might do things that you would only do for someone that you really feel close to. So it’s not like a friend where you and your whole department chip in for a Starbucks gift card. You’re thoughtfully choosing a personal gift. You’re buying the special crystal that your affair partner really likes and getting it engraved. Or Taylor Swift concert tickets– you’re going together. So it’s these special, intimate gestures maybe you only know about. Or the gifts and gestures are very extravagant-things that you would buy for maybe a loved one or somebody that is very special to you.

Intimate Language:

By intimate language, I mean things that you would only say with somebody that you’re very close to. For example, nicknames, little inside jokes, sexual innuendos that you might be using when you’re talking to that person. So there’s this kind of language that when you see it, you’re like, “Ooh, that just doesn’t sound like a friend.” And a lot of times that’s how these emotional affairs are discovered– one spouse will see the texts and the text will say, “I can’t wait to see you tonight,” or “you look so cute.” Or, “hope that maybe one day I can go there with you.” A lot of those types of language can often show a boundary that’s being crossed into an emotional affair.

What to do with an emotional affair?

Be sure about your current relationship and be ready to work
Emotional affairs are different than a one night stand, or somebody that you hooked up with when you’re drunk. I think an emotional affair involves your heart and it involves your emotions. And so oftentimes it can be very hard to separate from an emotional affair or partner.

But in order to make it work with your spouse or your real partner, you have to make sure that this is something that you really want. And this is something that you’re willing to do, because it is going to be hard moving forward as you’re building trust, as you are maybe even grieving the loss of the emotional affair partner. There’s a lot that you’re going to have to give up. So you have to be very clear that you want to work on this relationship.

You have to be very, very certain, because if you’re not, you’re going to halfheartedly do what you need to do or say what you need to say, and you’re going to feel resentful because you will have to work hard to rebuild trust. It’s just not going to be a pretty situation. And this is very important. Be very sure that this is what you want and you’re willing to work hard for it.

Take the Emotional Affair Seriously:

You have to take it seriously. A lot of people say, “well, it wasn’t really a real affair. It wasn’t a physical affair.” But you have to understand that to the other person, it really does feel like an affair. I mean, obviously, if you went the step further into a physical affair, that would be worse. But an emotional affair can feel just as painful as a physical affair. It involves your heart, which can feel more anxiety provoking for your spouse because again, it’s not like a one night stand or somebody that you don’t care about.

This affair partner is somebody that you’ve built trust with, you’ve shared things; there is an attachment. There can be a lot of deep emotions involved in emotional affairs. And you have to acknowledge that and take it seriously as if it was a real even a physical affair. Understand that the pain can be just as bad when it’s a emotional affair. And don’t just write it off like, “it was nothing. We were just friends.” Be honest with yourself about how you feel and take it seriously with your spouse or your partner.

Get Open and Honest:

So this article isn’t about a physical affairs, but if there was a physical affair involved, please be honest about that because you cannot move forward. If you really did have feelings for this person, don’t say, “they were just a friend.” And don’t delete all the evidence. Again, I say, don’t delete the evidence. Because if your spouse or your partner catches that you’ve deleted your evidence, their mind is already going to the worst place. Could be worse than what really happened. You really want to be open and honest about what really happened.

When you hide things, it’s more stressful for your spouse because they have no idea what’s going on. They don’t know if you’re telling the truth. And this makes it really, really hard to build trust. So if you can show them that you’re being open and honest with everything, telling them everything, even the things that are hard, it’s going to build trust a lot quicker. It may be more pain and tears at first, but it will be better in the long run. If you sugarcoat everything and you say, “we didn’t really hang out that much,” but you really did, you cannot move forward.

Because I’ll tell you this. Your spouse or partner is not dumb. They can sense things. They might not catch every time that you’re lying, but they might catch one or two times that you’re lying. And that one time will move you back to square one or even to the negative. So you’re better off just be honest about everything. You deserve that and your spouse deserves it.

Cut Ties With Emotional Affair Partner

You need to cut ties with your affair partner. Even though it’s just an emotional affair, you need to, again, treat this very seriously as if this is a real physical affair. A lot of times, it’s like a coworker or it’s somebody you see on a regular basis. You need to make sure that you are setting really good boundaries with them. If it’s a coworker, let them know that there’s a strict line that you cannot cross. There are times they cannot text you, there are things they cannot say.

Or if you can, move departments. That can relieve a lot of the stress. And if your relationship is worth it, do what you can to rebuild your relationship so you’re not around this person anymore. You’re not tempted. Because it might start with a “hello” at the water cooler, and then it might go on to something else and then something else and you’re back to square one. So you really want to make sure that you’re cutting off this relationship, that you are setting clear, clear boundaries with this person.

Take Time To Grieve

The person that was cheated on obviously needs to grieve. They need to grieve what they thought the relationship was, who they thought their partner was. They need to grieve the trust that they no longer have, that they have to rebuild. They have to grieve their sense of self. There’s so much they have to grieve. There’s so much to be angry about. You have all of those emotions that are a normal part of this process.

The person that has cheated, even they have to grieve, too, because they have to grieve that their relationship is no longer the same; that there’s going to be distance. They might need to grieve the person they thought they were. They messed up. They might even have to grieve the affair partner that they had to give up or cut off ties with. (Don’t grieve that in front of your partner. Get a therapist, talk to a close friend.) You can have those feelings. It’s a natural part having an attachment and then cutting it off. So it’s okay to have those feelings.

Build Safeguards and Boundaries:

As mentioned earlier, if you still need to communicate with the affair partner, make sure you’re not communicating certain things. You’re not texting at a certain time. You’re not calling that person and having long conversations. Or if you can, change jobs, or make a move to a different department to make sure you’re not around that person anymore. If you travel, make sure that you’re not traveling anymore, at least for the season, while you’re trying to build trust.

If you absolutely must travel, make sure there’s a lot of communication and safeguards in place with your spouse. For example, no turning off of your phone, no drinking, no time spent alone with your coworker, etc. If you don’t have those boundaries, this can cause anxiety for your partner. And this will be a lose-lose for both of you.

So we just really want this time to be a time of healing. Set those boundaries. If you need to, let your spouse or your partner have access to your phone. If there’s nothing to hide, there’s no reason they can’t see it. And this is, again, just for a season. They don’t want to be looking at your phone–they have better things that they need to be doing. Just show it to them as an offering of transparency.

Communicate Your Needs:

For both sides, there might be things that each of you need, maybe the person that has been cheated on needs extra hugs, extra affirmation. Or they might need space. They may say, “I’m not ready to be close to you. I feel betrayed. Or I need you to not be on your phone at all.” They may say, “ I don’t want you on your phone when we’re together. It’s just you and me.”

Maybe the reason why you had the emotional affair was you felt disconnected from your partner, right? This is not an excuse. It’s an explanation. So what you need to do is communicate what you need. “Hey, I need more closeness with you. I need more time with you. I need to talk with you.” So communicate those needs so that you’re not coping with your loneliness by going to somebody else.

Create New Habits of Relating.

This is a step further after communicating needs. If in the past, maybe you both were just very busy with your own lives, now, create new ways, new habits. Go on dates together. Spend quality time. If there’s something with your physical intimacy going on, work on that. If you are not doing your fair share around the house, and your spouse has all the mental load, and this is why she is distant from you, help pick up some of the slack. Work on the things that you need to work on to create new habits and ways of being as a relationship.


Emotional affairs can be very damaging to a relationship. Partners need to take it seriously and work hard to rebuild trust and intimacy. However, sometimes the discovery of the affair can be a catalyst to changes that need to be made in the relationship. Seeking out marriage counseling or couples therapy can often help couples navigate this difficult time. However, the first step is to be open and honest and be willing to face the journey ahead. If both parties are willing to grow and work to rebuild trust, they can come out of the other side stronger than ever.

About the author: Lia Huynh is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She specializes in couples counseling, marriage therapy, and serves the San Jose and Milpitas areas as well as online. If you are interested in marriage counseling or couples therapy and you are in San Jose, Milpitas or in California for online therapy and want to learn more, find out more here.

Lia Huynh San Jose and Milpitas


My life’s work is helping individuals and couples get better. I help couples restore their sense of togetherness by rediscovering their strengths as individuals, and their collective strength as a duo. And I help my individual clients to negotiate the sources of depression and anxiety, while moving them gently toward feeling a deeper sense of connection with their world. This is all done through our counseling and therapy together. 


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