Infidelity Does Not Require 2 People to Have Sex

emotional affair

It usually starts out innocently enough. Your spouse has to get an important project done and needs help from a co-worker. It’s only natural that they would talk about their personal lives when they are spending so much time together. Or maybe your spouse is scrolling through social media one day and finds that a former lover sent him/her a “friend” request. So they start to talk “for old time’s sake.” That’s all it is, just talk. But you can’t stop that nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that something’s off. Then one day, it hits you. Is your spouse having an emotional affair?

What is an Emotional Affair?

In the past, most people defined an affair as a sexual relationship between two people, at least one of whom was married to someone other than their affair partner. Most sexual affairs, but not all, have an emotional component to them as well. But just having feelings for someone else was never technically classified as “an affair.”

Now, that’s changed.

In today’s world, we expect that our spouse will not only be sexually exclusive with us, but s/he will be emotionally exclusive as well. We’re no longer okay if our spouse happens to fall in love with someone else, so long as s/he doesn’t have sex with that person.

An emotional affair then is an inappropriate emotional closeness with someone other than your spouse. That emotional connection, in turn, affects the level of intimacy, emotional distance and the overall dynamic of your marriage.

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In short, an emotional affair involves your heart, but not necessarily any other body part. To say that an emotional affair isn’t sexual, however, is not necessarily true.

Is an Emotional Affair Really Cheating?

According to world-renowned couples therapist, Esther Perelinfidelity contains one or more of these three elements:

  • Secrecy;
  • Sexual Tension; and
  • Emotional Involvement

Interestingly, this definition of infidelity does not require two people to actually have sex. Having a secret emotional relationship constitutes infidelity just as much as “hooking up” with someone outside of your marriage.

What’s more, an emotional affair can be just as hurtful, sometimes even more hurtful, than a full-blown sexual affair. More than anything else, the secrecy of the emotional affair is what makes it so devastating. It’s also what makes it a betrayal.

The fact that your spouse may not have had sex with his/her new “friend” isn’t nearly as hurtful as the fact that s/he lied to you about his/her relationship.

What’s more, just because two people aren’t having sex, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their relationship isn’t exploding with sexual tension. As Esther Perel so aptly puts it in her ground-breaking book “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity,”

“Clearly, affairs can be sexual without a penis entering a vagina, and in such cases it is more helpful to call a spade a spade.”

Sometimes, the lack of physical contact is exactly what makes a relationship erotic.

But We’re “Just Friends!”

Some relationships really do lack the sexual tension that characterizes a typical affair. People joke about having a “work wife” — someone they spend a lot of time with but aren’t involved with romantically. Sometimes those relationships are truly platonic.

After all, just because you spend a lot of time working with someone doesn’t mean that you are having “A Relationship” with them.

What makes the difference between a working relationship and an affair is the lack of ANY of the three factors Esther Perel has identified as characterizing infidelity.

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Karen Covy
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Karen Covy is a divorce advisor, attorney, consultant and coach who is committed to helping couples resolve their disputes as amicably and efficiently as possible. She is the author of When Happily Ever After Ends: How to Survive Your Divorce Emotionally, Financially, and Legally. Karen has been featured on the Channel 7 News, WCIU You and Me This Morning, WGN Radio, MarketWatch and on numerous radio shows and podcasts. You can find more of Karen’s articles on relationships and divorce at