What Are The Stages Of An Emotional Affair? You May Be Inching Toward One…

stages of an emotional affair
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Some affairs start innocently like a harmless friendship. Probably with a person you see every day – like at work. Or someone you knew from college who has just moved into the city. At that point, you really don’t have a clue of the stages of an emotional affair and that you could be moving toward one.

The thing is that an emotional affair doesn’t always have to be a full-blown sex scandal. They can be discreet and quiet, which is where the lines get blurred. And from here rises the emotional cheating vs friendship conflict. One goes through stages of emotional affairs to finally arrive at a full-fledged extramarital affair that you always thought would never happen.

Emotional Cheating Vs Friendship

The ‘harmless’ friendship quickly transgresses into something more but you may still refer to the person as a friend. While some may not consider an emotional affair as bad as a sexual one, the effect it has on a relationship often becomes harder to get past. Sometimes, it can even be more detrimental than sexual transgressions because emotional infidelity is not based on just lust, it is more of an emotional dependency on anyone other than a partner.

An emotional affair is rooted in emotional intimacy outside of a committed relationship, which is where the emotional cheating vs friendship confusion comes in. We depend on our friends and love them too but does that mean we are emotionally cheating on our partners? That’s why one needs to be mindful of when that line is crossed.

The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy warns against emotional affairs: “A new crisis of infidelity is emerging in which people who never intended to be unfaithful are unwittingly crossing the line from platonic friendships into romantic relationships.”

Emotional Infidelity

National surveys indicate that 15% of married women and 25% of married men have had extramarital affairs at some point in their lives. But when it comes to emotional infidelity, the numbers skyrocket. About 35% of women and 45% of men have reported having emotional affairs at least once in their marriage.

So one can say that going through the different stages of emotional affairs is not a new phenomenon. But before jumping to reasons behind these connections, stages of an emotional affair, and approaches to mend; let’s understand how emotional affairs start. 

It begins without even realization when friendships morph into emotional and at times, sexual affairs. Once you set your emotions on this slippery slope, you can’t escape. And how do emotional affairs start? Are there levels of emotional affairs? Well, they begin where people get to interact a lot and continue with high frequency. 

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As Schaefer mentions in The Like Switch that likeness for someone harbors an acquaintance and emotional affairs, which start in places of interaction. It is noteworthy that the statistics given above might not be impartial as everyone, of course, won’t admit to having an emotional connection with someone other than their partner. 

Related Reading: Therapist’s Tips On How To Deal With Emotional Infidelity

Reasons For An Emotional Affair – How Do Emotional Affairs Start?

People don’t get into an emotional affair just like that. There are underlying reasons at play, owing to which innocuous conversations between two people lead to emotional interdependence. It comes to a point when they get distressed if they cannot share their lives and this happens despite being in a committed relationship. The reasons for an emotional affair are mainly the following:

1. Dissatisfaction with the primary relationship

How do emotional affairs start? Most emotional affairs have undertones of a dissatisfied primary relationship or marriage. Anger or dissatisfaction with your partner that is not addressed directly to your partner might result in you talking about the relationship to someone else.

And that’s how you get closer to that person. This is the very first milestone in the stages of an emotional affair. People in a loveless marriage also resort to emotional needs fulfillment and develop an emotional bond with someone out of the marriage. 

levels of emotional affairs
Being dissatisfied in your marriage might make you inch towards an emotional affair

2. Seeking emotional validation elsewhere

Dissatisfaction in the relationship often makes people seek validation somewhere else, from anyone who is understanding, doesn’t judge, and lends a patient ear to them. They then further become the crutch they want to lean on. In fact, your ‘friend’ gives you far more attention than your partner does.

You get more compliments, empathy, and validation from this person than your spouse. No matter how much you keep telling yourself that it is nothing more than a friendship, deep down you know it is much more than that. Everything you knew about the emotional affair vs platonic friendship difference goes out of the window as you begin to develop feelings for your friend.

Related Reading: 12 Ways To Build Intellectual Intimacy In A Relationship

3. Invalidating each other

Couples might often invalidate each other’s feelings, especially if there is a communication gap between them. Couples in a long-term relationship might not feel the need to communicate that often or make the effort to talk about their feelings. That might result in a partner venting out to someone else apart from the partner.

Perhaps he or she pays more attention to you than your spouse does or gives you more validation, compliments, or empathy. You tell yourself it is just a good friendship, but it is probably just to reduce your feelings of guilt. By now, you have crossed some of the initial stages of an emotional affair.

4. Better connectivity

Social media opens up avenues to talk to other people without actually having to meet the person. Also, it’s much easier to talk about sensitive topics over messaging. Maybe you had a long day and your husband didn’t care to ask you how you’re doing. But over text, your old friend from college just reached out to you. And somehow it’s much easier to tell him all that went wrong in your day. This is how casual chats turn into talking about things that are missing in your marriage. 

People find a window that brings them a blow of refreshing breeze as a respite from their dissatisfactory marriage. Those who don’t feel loved also tend to find someone to lean on, a healer, a listener, and a confidante in the other person. You won’t know when your “just talking” becomes an emotional support system for you. From here start emotional affairs and texting the other person secretly that becomes an everyday routine.  

5. Seeking pleasure

People in an emotional affair believe that they deserve the pleasure of emotional connection. They don’t find it hurtful as they believe that all of us have desires to be satisfied. This feeling takes away all the cheating guilt and they are at peace, cooking up stories about their need for this friend. As they find their act harmless and have convinced themselves how much they deserve it, they go the extra mile to justify it. 

Related Reading: I Am Cheating On My Wife Not Physically But Emotionally 

The 7 Stages Of An Emotional Affair

Now that we have talked about how do emotional affairs start, it’s time to move on to what comes after. The stages of an emotional affair or the different levels of emotional affairs are subtle so it’s hard to separate one from the other. So if you’re wondering how to tell if it’s an emotional affair, we can show you.

It starts innocently and creeps into your life without you really understanding it. Then it ends up creating turmoil in your committed relationship. Here are the 7 complete stages of an emotional affair for you to understand better.

1. The emotional cheating vs friendship difference starts to get lost

The initial stages of an emotional affair are harmless and are seen so by both parties. Probably a coworker or a dear old friend is your confidante. Soon the flirty texts get more frequent and you have to share a lot of personal information about each other’s lives. The phrase “just friends” gets thrown around a lot and you like the energy “this friend” brings to your life.

emotional cheating vs friendship
The friendship stage is the first stage of an emotional affair

This marks the foundation of the 7 stages of emotional affairs. The budding platonic relationship seems quite natural and you think it’s harmless because your primary relationship with your partner is secure and you love your partner.

Pretty darn harmless, right? Wrong. 

With time, the boundaries break, and even before you can realize, your friendship has become too intimate. You want to give all your time to this person and the connection between you and the person becomes stronger. You feel important as this person understands your thoughts and feelings. 

2.The more-than-just-friends stage (emotional affair vs platonic friendship)

It’s hard to be specific about when your budding friendship started looking more and more like a page out of a John Green novel. The connection between you two is much stronger now and you feel you have known each other for a long time. You would not admit that something is going on between you two but deep inside you do know there is something.

This stage is where your primary relationship takes a backseat. You share more with this person than with your partner. You are not sleeping together or anything but the friendship starts to have an underlying sexual tension. There is some daydreaming involved (though you constantly think it’s nothing serious) where you think about this person a lot, playing out your sexual fantasies.

This person is on your mind, sometimes even when you are with your partner. This is the beginning of the honeymoon phase in affairs that people enjoy, much like the beginning of a romantic relationship. Most importantly, you do not tell your partner about this friend and feel the need to hide messages and selfies you receive from this friend. All clear-cut signs of a budding emotional affair.

Slowly, you start enjoying the faint flirtation and develop an attraction towards this person. The emotional affair vs platonic friendship differences are starting to blur in this equation. To have a better idea if you are going beyond friendship, think:

  • Do you often think of your friend?
  • Do you wait to talk or spend time together?
  • Do you try to keep your ‘friendship’ a secret?
infographic - stages of an emotional affair

3. How to tell if it’s an emotional affair? See if you have crossed the cribbing stage

Specifically, cribbing about your relationship with this person becomes the norm. You have grown close enough to share what you are feeling about your primary relationship, complaining about the inadequacies your partner has to this person and you don’t mind telling the person what you want your life to be like.

There are things that are just between you and this other person. You pour your heart out to your ‘friend’, sharing secrets and other stuff that strengthens your bond. This is one of the major emotional cheating signs that is not realized by the people involved. By doing so, you have stepped right into the danger zone.   

By telling your friend the things that are meant to be between you and your partner, you add a third wheel into your relationship. The energy that can be well placed to nurture your primary relationship is spent on finding the faults in the relationship. The conversations that you should be having with your committed partner are being had with this person. At this stage, the emotional dependency has started building up.

Importantly, you keep secrets from your partner. The texts are kept more secret. A simple “Who are you texting so much?” from your partner makes you feel jumpy. The detachment from your partner becomes very evident. You might still be playing cool because your emotional affair has not led to sexual indulgence. But you feel a sexual craving for this person, definitely much stronger than you feel for your partner.

4. The sexual stage

With you feeling dissatisfied in your relationship and having a friend to fall back on for emotional support, this emotional affair can shift to a sexual one very soon. This is a big game-changer level out of all the levels of emotional affairs. Because you have such a strong bond, the sex that comes with it feels good. The longer it takes for you to arrive at the sex stage, the stronger the emotional bond becomes for the two of you.

When you want to feel sexually attractive to this person, you focus on your looks. While having sex with your significant other, you fantasize about doing the same with your emotional partner. He/she flirts more and lures with sexual insinuations. You start wearing fragrances and getting gifts for your emotional interest. You become more smitten with each other and enjoy being in control of your desires.  

It is noteworthy that the rage of an emotional affair is unresolved as the control requisite is manipulative, played in an enthralling sexualized manner. Now, not all emotional affairs might come down to sex. Since a sexual affair is often considered worse than an emotional affair, keeping the sex out of it might make you feel less guilty, less shady.

Related Reading: 10 Signs Your Husband Is Having An Emotional Affair

5. The deciding-for-each-other stage

This is the most crucial of all the stages of an emotional affair. At this point, you start making important decisions in consultation with consulting your “emotional” partner, not your primary partner. It’s they who decide what dress suits you, whether you should change your job, and if both of you are watching your diet, it’s usually that kind of food that gets cooked at home.

A sudden decision to party with friends might be turned down by you because you miss your “emotional partner” and they might be upset that you partied without them. This stage does become exasperating for your committed partner because they fail to understand why you are behaving so weirdly and taking all decisions excluding them.

How to tell if it’s an emotional affair? Ponder upon some questions to realize if you are deciding to be with your emotional partner forever:

  • Do you share things with each other that no one else knows about?
  • Are you keen to share your life events?

Introspect and know if your bond with this person is blocking that you have with your spouse. 

6. Being indifferent to your home life

do emotional affairs turn into olove
One of the stages of an emotional affair is when your home life is not important to you anymore

You are so much into your emotional partner that you hate your own home. Your family disgusts you even and you feel you would be better off with your emotional partner. This is the stage when you go through the worst turmoil because you are finally unable to do the precarious balancing act between your commitment towards home and your affinity towards your emotional partner.

You tend to find a home in your emotional partner and the extramarital affair. This person is comforting and soothing for your emotional needs and fulfills those just the way you want. It is most likely that your disgust with your home life has increased and you find his/her company calming. 

7. The final decision – do emotional affairs turn into love?

An emotional affair can turn so serious that it could lead to a breakdown of a marriage. A classic example of that is what was shown in the Bollywood film Lunch Box. The two characters had not even seen each other but they connected so strongly through letters hidden in a lunchbox that the woman wanted to leave home and start a new life with this man who was way older than her. So, do emotional affairs turn into love? Yes, they can.

Sometimes emotional affairs can also fizzle out. There is no guarantee that your emotional affair is going to be the love of your life. But unlike sexual relationships, emotional affairs are stronger and hence last much longer and have more serious consequences.

Related Reading: I Can’t Forget My Husband’s Affair And I Feel Tormented

Saving The Relationship After An Emotional Affair

An emotional affair is turbulent. It can have a catastrophic impact on a relationship. There’s deep connection sometimes sexual chemistry, with someone who is not your partner. When this emotional affair sees the light, your partner has two ways: either leave you or work on the relationship.

Saving a relationship after an emotional affair will take active participation from both the partners. If you are the one who has been in an emotional affair with a third person, you know what it’s like to be guilt-ridden. If and when your partner finds out, it might not even be up to you to decide the fate of the relationship.

If your partner is one of those people who are willing to work for it and work on the relationship, you are lucky. But if you are the one who feels you need some time to decide which road to take – whether to work for it or quit it – it’s time to reassess your relationship status. Saving your relationship after an emotional affair will need time, dedication and a few golden rules to follow.

1. Cut off connection and contact

You will have to cut off any connection with the person you were having an emotional connection with, no questions asked. It might hurt to say goodbye to this person, but to work on your relationship, you must follow the no-contact rule with the affair partner.

2. Preparing your mindset

You have your partner to fall back on for emotional dependency. Prepare your mindset. If any aspect of the relationship is troubling you, your partner is the one who needs to know that. Vent all you want but to your partner.

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3. Your partner needs to understand

Now is a great time to talk about why you did what you did. If you were dissatisfied with your partner, felt inadequate or unhappy in the relationship, now is the time to talk to your partner about these issues. But your partner needs to know that unnecessary show of anger or resentment toward you won’t help the healing. Talking to a couples therapist might be a good way to start.

4. Talk about the person

You should talk about the person you were having an emotional affair with. As guilty as that would make you feel and as angry as it might make your partner feel, this is crucial. What are the things that drew you to this person for an emotional affair – was it his empathetic nature, was it their good looks, or the fact that they were a good listener?

Sort them out. Spell them out for your partner. These were the inadequacies or the gaps in your relationship. As painful as it might be to bring them up, it is essential to talk about it and understand where your relationship was lacking.

Related Reading: 8 Conflict Resolution Strategies In Relationships That Almost Always Work

5. Don’t give up so quickly

Initially, you might feel that the relationship is doomed but all relationships go through roadblocks. You must not lose heart along the way. It’s possible to forge an even stronger relationship after an affair. Do keep in mind an episode of emotional infidelity can happen anytime but how you deal with it is up to you.

This is one of the reasons why a strong friendship and intimate connection in the relationship is one of the best antidotes to an affair. Keep working on the marriage. So, what can you do to make your marriage emotional affair proof? As the first step, you can come together as friends and have a relationship based on trust.

As a woman in a strong relationship said: “How could I have an affair? My husband is the first person I share all significant events with. I’d immediately have to run and tell him!” Now, that is a bond which is emotional infidelity proof. But wait. That’s the woman’s perspective. We still have to address men and emotional affairs as in the statistics above we have seen that men tend to slip more toward emotional connection than women. 

Thus, love, respect, and support each other. Communicate openly and frequently. Share your feelings, plans, and any issues that you have with each other. Have fun and genuinely get over hurts at the earliest. These are wise ways to deal with infidelity and have a strong marriage where you have emotional connection with your spouse and none else. Have a blissful relationship! 


1. How long do emotional affairs last?

Emotional affairs are said to last 6 months to three years usually, as per Denise Bartell, PhD, psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. However, it is noteworthy that emotional affairs are not defined well. They have cloudy boundaries and unclear expectations and are thus difficult to end. These are more difficult to end than physical affairs. Also, it is quite convenient to develop an intimate connection between people who don’t take their relationship to sexual level. 

2. Do emotional affairs turn into love?

Yes, with a strong emotional connection between two individuals, emotional affairs many of the times turn into love. These affairs are getaways that lead the people involved into a sexual relationship. Almost half of the times, sex happens in an emotional affair. Emotional energy is largely invested in such bonds and people spend more time with each other. So, the intimacy that should be among the people in a marriage is hurt and compromised leading to an unhappy marriage. People believe emotional affairs to be harmless but in all earnestness, most of the marriage experts count it as cheating, even though boundaries of sex are maintained. 

3. How often do emotional affairs turn physical?

Pretty often an emotional affair morphs into a physical affair. Over time, things change and you find yourself in physical intimacy. The chances of emotional affairs turning into a physical affair increase, if you don’t maintain decent boundaries. For a marriage, it is much more dangerous if your spouse finds an emotional connection with someone else. Any partner who is emotionally drawn to the third person in an emotional way is at the risk of getting physical outside the wedlock. 

4. Why do emotional affairs hurt so much?

Emotional affairs are hurtful because the betrayed partner is left with loneliness, lies, deception, and ignorance of the spouse. In fact, emotional affairs are much more damaging than the physical ones. In an emotional affair, a person feels closer to the other person. A chemistry or sexual tension might also develop in it. Physical affairs can easily be called off but emotional affairs are far more damaging as an emotional bond is more enduring and a greater form of betrayal

5. How do most emotional affairs end?

It ends with a lot of heartache, just like that of breaking up with a lover. Most of the emotional affairs end with much difficulty. However, people who want to put an end to such affairs have resorted to approaches like completely cutting the ties with their emotional partners. It feels like losing a significant part of themselves that they have treasured. At times, the decision is not mutual. Once people decide to end it, moving on becomes easier. They are determined to call off the bond and bring their loyalty back for their respective spouses. 

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