Split or survive?
In general, research shows people find sexual infidelity more troubling than emotional infidelity. But a 2015 YouGov study of 1,660 British adults showed that 44% of respondents believed forming an emotional (rather than physical) relationship with someone who wasn’t their partner constituted cheating. Meanwhile, 15% of respondents said they had engaged in this kind of behavior while in a relationship.
According to Johnson, it is precisely the blurry nature of emotional infidelity that leads to its prevalence. With physical infidelity, it is often clear when a line has been crossed. Emotional infidelity might begin much more gradually, with behavior that an individual can initially justify to themselves.
“Most people who commit emotional infidelity are not intentionally trying to,” says Johnson. “If a person feels that their significant other does not value them, or have time for them, they will seek that feeling elsewhere. They may invest in a friendship that gives them that support or emotional affection, which unintentionally leads to the brewing of feelings.”
Yet while some emotional affairs might be the first step on the path to physical infidelity, for others building relationships outside coupledom is a way to find support, intimacy and connection without relying on just one person forever. Having friendships and support systems outside a relationship is a positive thing that can boost our wellbeing. The issue comes when a friendship develops into something that we suspect our partner would be unhappy with.
Cohen says, in most cases, emotional infidelity comes from a place of distance between partners. If someone is already unhappy in a relationship or has grown apart from their significant other, perhaps because they have started to want different things in life, then they may start to seek connection with someone who more closely matches them in terms of their goals, values and beliefs. Initially innocuous interactions could then shift over time to something which would constitute an emotional affair.
Janning believes that couples’ abilities to weather this kind of event is linked to whether they can talk through, and agree on, boundaries. “I think it’s also about people’s willingness to continually redefine what commitment may mean, and thus redefine what infidelity means,” she says. “The trouble for couples lies when they don’t align in their definition of commitment.”
Evidence suggests that some people are becoming more open-minded when it comes to non-traditional relationship structures and consensual non-monogamy. Yet at the same time there’s broad consensus that, however you define it as a couple, crossing the line into cheating harms relationships. It’s possible that increased scrutiny of what modern monogamy really means, combined with a need to find answers to new questions raised by the social media age, could be opening up conversations around emotional infidelity.