When you hear the word “cheating,” you think of the the Hollywoodized version. Two people meet. Two people build a wonderful life. One person starts staying late at the office with their assistant in order to “finish up work.” One person confronts the other. The accuser is gaslit or made to feel crazy even though they’re right. That’s sexual cheating for you, and it without a doubt fucking sucks. But emotional cheating, while hardly as vilified in the cultural zeitgeist, is also awful. It may even be worse. I know, because I’ve been on the receiving end of both kinds of cheating.
My senior year of college, my then boyfriend, SR*, came back from his spring break trip having made a new “friend.” Her name was Georgia*. As soon as I met her, I disliked her, not because she was all of a sudden buddies with my boyfriend and all of his friends, but because she was loud, obnoxious, and full of herself. It also seemed off to me that she and my boyfriend were acting like they’d been friends for years when really they had known each other but a week.
I found myself feeling insecure, unsettled, and uncomfortable for the first time in my six-month relationship. SR was starting to become distant. I ended up asking a friend who was on the same trip if he had cheated on me. My friend told me that he hadn’t, but SR and Georgia became very close and had intense, hours-long talks on the beach, just the two of them.
“It’s what, in couples therapy, we call ‘exits’ — when you try to get your needs met outside of your relationship,” says sex and relationships expert Megan Fleming, Ph.D. She chalks it up to “foreclosure of the imagination,” a situation where people come up with narratives about their partner — who they are, who they aren’t, and what they can and cannot do. Someone may make up that their partner can’t fulfill a certain need and, in turn, jump to conclusions or try to mind-read, versus checking things out in real life. Then, they go to another person to fill that void.
That’s exactly what Rachel*, 28, did. Rachel had been with her partner for three years when she started emotionally cheating on him with her work friend, Brian*. They became close just as her relationship was starting to fall apart. “I was emotionally cheating, leading [Brian] on, and making him think we had a romantic connection when really, I just wanted a friend or someone who would listen when my boyfriend at the time was emotionally shutting down,” she says.
Rachel essentially did to her partner what SR did to me. And I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear that soon after spring break, he ended things. Two weeks later, he and Georgia were full-on dating. Finding out that even before our relationship officially ended, he shared with Georgia really personal things about his family and feelings that I felt he should have been sharing with me was a gut punch. We rarely fought and had few problems. I considered (and still consider) myself to be pretty easy to talk to and understanding (and have been told so by multiple partners), so why wouldn’t he confide in me?
“The thing with these emotional affairs, and any affair, is that you’re showing up with the best [version] of yourself,” says Fleming. “So it’s not even real life when you think about it. It’s idealized.” Instead of SR continuing in our real relationship, (which, even if it were perfect, would’ve still taken work as relationship tends to require), he jumped ship and chose the easier option, one where a fairytale-esque effect was presenting itself.
Rose*, 27, was the Georgia in her situation. Rose’s work friend, Kyle*, also chose the easier option: her. “I was the girl that could talk football, do tough workouts, and wasn’t afraid to talk about sex — all things he didn’t necessarily have in his relationship,” she says. The whole time, she felt like maybe it was all a misunderstanding and any wrongdoing was only in her head. “Now, after being in my own long-term relationship, it’s fairly clear that the way he treated me was not acceptable for just friends. There’s a line and it may be thin, but it’s also pretty clear when you cross it.”
Like Kyle, SR crossed that line. And looking back, I would have rather he just had sex with Georgia. Not that I would have forgiven him. We still would have broken up, and I wouldn’t have been particularly happy. But to me, sex is sex. It’s physical. You don’t always have to have a mental or emotional connection to engage in it. But instead, I was left wondering what emotional and mental support she could give him that I couldn’t.
“Emotional affairs are equally as hard to heal from as physical affairs and for some people, even harder,” says Fleming, “It’s the intimacy and the connection — both of them have to do with betrayal and trust. Your reality is called into question.” And while I prefer neither type of cheating happen to me or anyone else in the future, at least for me, emotional is definitely the more satanic of the two evils.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.