I had heard that friendship and emotional cheating are always divided by a blurry line. But that I myself would one day transition from one to the other was something I had never imagined. Now when I talk to friends I see them often debating on the topic of emotional cheating vs friendship. I prefer to withdraw and sip my wine sitting in one corner of the room and hear them talk.
My perspective on emotional cheating vs friendship would be totally different from theirs. They have no clue when friendship could end suddenly and emotional cheating could start. I have. My real-life emotional affair story could actually end up being one of those stories showcased on OTT platforms. It started with emotional intimacy with a guy friend and then things went out of hand.
Emotional infidelity stories like these are not unheard of these days. If you can relate to this tale and have found yourself at the threshold of the emotional affair vs friendship line or even crossed, allow me to take you through my story and also help you understand how to navigate this tricky situation, with insights from counselor Manjari Saboo (Masters in Applied Psychology and Post-Graduate Diploma in Family Therapy and Child Care Counseling), founder of Maitree Counselling, an initiative dedicated to the emotional well-being of families and children.
What Is An Emotional Friendship?
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If you ask me this question, I would say that it is an intense friendship with a person with whom you feel an emotional connection. Usually, women share this kind of friendship among themselves but it does happen between a man and woman also. Sometimes in our life we have someone who has a very special place in our hearts, supports us through the rough patches and is jubilant with our achievements. We share everything with them.
Vinay was such a friend to me. We grew up together and were friends for 30 long years until our friendship took a turn and became an emotional affair. And somewhere in the debate between emotional cheating vs friendship, we are now stuck. “I emotionally cheated, how to fix it?” I often find myself pondering over this question as I struggle to invest as much of myself emotionally in my marriage as I have with this man I’ve called a friend all my life.
But before I take you through the how, why, what and when of this emotional affair vs friendship transition, let me touch upon the intricacies of the psychology of emotional cheating and how does close friendship become emotional infidelity. The many sleepless nights I’ve spent trying to figure out exactly when my friendship turned into an emotional affair have led me to learn a thing or two about the phenomenon.
The Psychology Of Emotional Cheating
The psychology of emotional cheating can be summed as developing a strong emotional connection with someone other than your partner while you’re in a monogamous relationship. This connection begins to take more and more space in your heart and mind, distracting you from your primary relationship.
Manjari says, “Emotional cheating or emotional attachment with a person other than your spouse happens slowly and gradually. Typically, the person who is getting drawn into an emotional affair rationalizes this strong bond as a purely platonic relationship and remains in denial about growing demands and expectations in their friendship. This is a common pattern seen in nearly all emotional affair stories.”
The psychology of emotional cheating is also rooted in unmet expectations, demands, needs and desires in a primary relationship. If you feel unheard, unloved or undesired by your partner and someone else fills in that gap and gives you the emotional fulfillment that is lacking in your relationship, it is only natural that you will begin to lean on them more and more. Before you know it, you are dealing with a classic case of cheating in friendship.
“Seeing the expectations a person may begin to have from their friend, almost anyone can tell that the emotional cheating vs friendship lines are being blurred and crossed. However, the people involved in the equation remain oblivious to this change. In the process, they end up getting too deeply emotionally attached to a third person, leading them to emotionally cheat on their primary partner or spouse.
“Another key emotional affair vs friendship difference is that person who is cheating emotionally knows on some level that they’re crossing a line. Consequently, they begin to hide details of their interaction with this other person from their partner. Their partner remains unaware of their shifting priorities and the fact that they’re turning to someone else to have their emotional needs met. Denials about the reality of the changing nature of a friendship is a common and recurring theme in the psychology of emotional cheating,” she adds.
Related Reading: Does an emotional affair count as ‘cheating’?
When Does Close Friendship Become Emotional Infidelity?
Today, as I look back at the way my close friendship with a guy I grew up with veered into the territory of cheating, I can’t help but wonder when does close friendship become emotional infidelity. Are there any tell-tale signs that tell you that you’re crossing the emotional cheating vs friendship line? If so, is it possible to stop yourself from breaching that line of trust in your primary relationship? Turns out, there are telling signs common to most emotional infidelity stories that you can look out for and safeguard your relationship or marriage.
“One of the first indicators of emotional cheating in friendship is that you begin to feel like you have a right on your friend, you begin to expect things from them, demands and questions come into the equation, and you feel responsible for their happiness and well-being. Another common indicator of emotional affair vs friendship difference being obliterated is a constant reminiscing of the past.
“You and your friend may talk a lot about the old days, romanticize the good times spent together and even try to recreate them. You begin to pay more and more attention to their smallest likes, dislikes, and treat them like they belong to you. The healthy space that is required in any friendship begins to diminish,” explains Manjari.
Another telling factor is the extent to which you’re sharing intimate details about your family and personal life with your friend, who is becoming a bigger and more important part of your life with every passing day. “Every family unit has its privacy. There is a small diameter encompassing communication, children, household activities, physical demands, care and concern, which is sacrosanct and access to which is typically reserved for the couple and/or the family unit, comprising children if there are any.
“When this diameter is breached to allow entry to that “special friend”, you can be sure that the emotional cheating vs friendship lines have been blurred. You encroach their privacy and allow them into your personal space by sharing every small detail of the goings-on in your family or your relationship with your partner,” says Manjari.
Look at any of the numerous emotional infidelity stories and the first crack appears, more often than not, when you begin oversharing with that special friend, including, but not limited to, discussing your relationship problems and sexual escapades with them and vice versa.
Related Reading: Signs when a friendship becomes a ready ground for an affair
Emotional Cheating Vs Friendship
Now that we’ve touched upon the generic nature of emotional cheating in friendship, let me tell you emotional affair vs friendship lines got blurred for me, leaving me deeply attached to a friend and feeling disloyal to my partner. Vinay and I were family friends. Our fathers were very close friends that’s how we met at the age of 5.
His father had moved back from the US and bought a home next to ours and hence we became neighbors too. Our summer holidays were spent in each other’s homes and our family holidays were spent together too as we took the train or the plane to far-off places. We could not imagine life without each other.
Then Vinay went off to college in the US but we stayed in touch and would catch up like old times when he would come down to India. As luck would have it, we both moved to Delhi together after finding jobs in our respective fields. In fact, I was allowed to move to Delhi by my conservative parents because Vinay was there to look after me. Something he did with utmost sincerity.
We remained best of friends and would hole up in each other’s apartments during the weekends to binge-watch movies on TV. But never for once did we feel any kind of physical attraction. At that time it was pure friendship because we had separate friends’ groups, we went out with our crushes and had separate lives.
We were never jealous or edgy about each other. Yes, we did have an emotional attachment in our friendship but that was it. Nothing beyond that. But now I know I am having an emotional affair with a married man because I cannot tolerate his wife. I hate it if he is out with his female colleagues and I have to stay connected with him on WhatsApp 24×7.
If he doesn’t reply to a text of mine for 10 minutes, I get angry. I need him to tell me constantly that he loves me more than anyone else in this world. I am totally dependent on him emotionally and I am honest enough to know what we have now is emotional cheating and not friendship anymore.
Real-life emotional affair stories do not have the drama of love stories where the girl and guy fight to be together but it is still a hard reality you have to keep dealing with. It’s like one fine day you realize you are madly in love but you don’t see a future for this love. Then, the question, “I emotionally cheated, how to fix it?”, begins to loom large.
Levels of emotional affairs
It wasn’t like this always. There are levels of emotional affairs and ours has gone through that too. Our friendship was a given. Neither Vinay’s wife nor my husband had any issues with our closeness. We could be chatting at midnight over the phone and it was perfectly all right because I guess they treated our relationship as that of a brother and a sister.
We were indeed very close. We had shared our life together. So we were privy to secrets that our partners didn’t even know. After having a tiff with the boss it was Vinay I wanted to talk to, seek solace from. I felt he understood me and could guide me better.
Most often, it would be Vinay who was my go-to man and not my husband. I didn’t realize then that this was our first level of an emotional affair. As the days went by, if Vinay kept away any information from me, I would get upset. If I informed him at the last moment about a night out with my girl gang, he would get upset.
We hadn’t even realized that we had reached the next level of our emotional affair. We wanted to be the most important people in each other’s lives. Then came the jealousy. If Vinay went out with a female colleague, I would keep asking him questions about how she looked, what she wore and how she behaved.
Vinay answered patiently, and then one day, I realized I couldn’t even take it if he spent time with his wife. I suffered from extreme jealousy in this relationship. I would keep quizzing him about what they did, where they went, and even probed into their sex life. Vinay, instead of getting angry, told me all the details. I guess we had reached the last level of our emotional affair.
There was nothing private about each other’s sex lives although we never indulged in the act with each other. In that debate between emotional cheating vs friendship in our life, the former had won. We were now having a full-fledged emotional affair.
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Has this left you wondering, “Are there different levels of emotional affairs?” Yes, indeed there are. As I learned from my experience of emotional cheating in friendship, this strong connection isn’t built overnight. In all emotional infidelity stories, there is a gradual progression of dependence on a person other than one’s partner. By and large, this progression can be summed up in the following levels of an emotional affair:
- Level 1 – Realizing something is amiss in your relationship: The first level is closely tied to the reasons for emotional affairs. At this stage, you begin to acknowledge that something is amiss in your relationship and start turning to a close friend, coworker, or reconnect with an ex for emotional comfort and solace. At this stage though the foundation of an emotional affair has been laid, both parties involved remain in denial and continue to label it a platonic friendship
- Level 2 – Growing emotional dependence: The constant communication and sharing the minutest details of your lives with each other leads to increased emotional dependence. Before you know it, you begin to turn to this “friend” for help, counsel, venting, and emotional comfort a lot more than your partner. They are the first person you want to tell whatever transpires in your life – the good, the bad, the ugly. At this stage of emotional cheating in friendship, you also begin to share intimate details about your relationship with your friend and expect to know of theirs
- Level 3 – You begin keeping secrets from your partner: The more you begin to lean on your friend for love, support and caring, the more you try to minimize their presence in your life in front of your partner. You may no longer feel comfortable talking to them in front of your partner. The idea of a double date involving you, your friend and your respective partners can make your skin crawl. And you’d find yourself hiding details of your interactions and meetings with them from your partner. At this stage, the lines of emotional affair vs friendship have been duly breached. You’re now cheating on your partner emotionally
- Level 4 – Guilt of emotional cheating seeps in: No matter how much you tell yourself that this is just pure, innocent friendship, deep down you know that you’re emotionally cheating on your partner. The guilt begins to seep in, and you ask, “I emotionally cheated, how to fix it?” At this stage, you can either choose to reconcile with your partner and end the emotional infidelity or give in and let it escalate into a full-blown affair
Related Reading: What Are The Consequences Of Affairs Between Married Couples?
Intensity of emotional infidelity
When romantic feelings take hold in a solid friendship it becomes intense emotional infidelity. I realized this when Vinay and I couldn’t imagine a day without interacting with each other. Then we started going for coffee and movie dates without telling our respective partners. If there wasn’t any guilt involved, why did we not tell them?
I came from work and usually got busy in the kitchen. The phone would be on the refrigerator and I would spend a really long time tossing up something in the kitchen while I texted Vinay. I hardly had a conversation with my husband when I came home. I would sit with the kids to do their homework and then maybe go for a walk after dinner.
Earlier my husband and I would go for those walks together. But I started coming up with excuses to go alone because I could have a phone conversation with Vinay then.
My emotional intimacy with my guy friend is not a secret
Now my interactions with my husband are limited only to conversations about the children. I have moved away from him emotionally. I struggle with feelings of cheating guilt and he now realizes what has gone awry in our marriage. He knows exactly how my friendship with Vinay has taken a romantic turn.
He has told me a couple of times that he shouldn’t have accepted Vinay as a good friend. It was getting awkward when the four of us met so we have stopped meeting socially. His wife understands too what’s going on and there have been showdowns between Vinay and his wife too. So the open communication that we used to indulge in so comfortably has become a complete hush-hush affair.
We have completely crossed the line of friendship and moved into an emotional affair and things have become complicated. The intensity of our emotional infidelity is such that we might be living in separate homes but mentally we are with each other all day and night. So we are not completely there with our families even if the physical presence is there. It’s kind of complicated and hard to explain but it’s an intense bonding that has led to this emotional infidelity.
We don’t know where we are heading
Our intimate friendship has turned into an emotional attachment. Love was always there. Isn’t it part of friendship? You do love and care for your closest friend. But that love has changed as jealousy and possessiveness have settled in. I can’t pinpoint when exactly this happened when our close friendship became an emotional affair. The signs of an emotional affair were always there but I guess we ignored it.
Maybe it happened because with time we realized that our respective marriages lack that communication and mental bonding that we have always had. Maybe we would have made great life partners if we had fallen in love at the right time. But this transition from friendship to love happened a bit too late.
So far we have refrained from any physical intimacy because that would complicate matters even further. But nowadays when we go out, I see myself noticing Vinay’s lips a lot and thinking how it would feel if we kissed. Not the right thought I know. Or is it?
How would our emotional affair story end?
Emotional cheating or friendship? Now the blurry line does not exist for me anymore because I am aware I am in an intense emotional affair with Vinay and the feeling is so strong that our lives would feel meaningless if we decide to move away from each other.
So this relationship will continue but what will be the consequence of this intimate attachment I really don’t know. But I have this feeling that we are heading nowhere. Both of us are attached to our families and can’t imagine walking out and starting a new life together.
So what happens to our emotional affair then? Will it become a lifelong extramarital affair? I don’t think that would happen. I have a feeling that sooner or later Vinay’s wife will put her foot down. Perhaps you can help me! Help me by letting me know where I am wrong and how can I get out of this?
When an emotional affair reaches a crossroads like this, things can truly get complicated. So, what can you do when a friendship turns into an emotional affair? Manjari advises, “At this stage, you need to decide what you really want. Do you really want to go back to just being friends with this person? Do you want to salvage your relationship? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you have to be willing to put in some real work.
“Reversing the course of a relationship once the emotional cheating vs friendship lines have been blurred isn’t easy but it can be achieved by setting the right boundaries and respecting them. These include giving space to your friend to lead their personal life, not sharing too many details of your own private life with them, prioritizing your relationship, career and work-life, redefining expectations from your friendship, and consciously avoiding behavior that led you on the path of emotional cheating the first time around.”
(As told To Shanaya Agarwal)
Emotional affairs stem from a third person meeting the emotional needs that have gone unaddressed in a primary relationship, resulting in a strong bond. Since the very basis of such an affair is a strong, emotional connection, these can turn into love. Whether or not that love translates into a happily ever after for the affair partners is a separate matter altogether.
Yes, emotional affairs have a strong likelihood of turning physical and becoming a full-blown extramarital affair. In most cases of emotional infidelity, there is a strong attraction, connection and romantic feelings involved, even if the people involved remain in denial about it. It takes immense self-control to not act to these feelings. As the feelings grow stronger, reining in the urge for physical intimacy can become harder too.
An emotional affair typically goes through four stages of finding a connection, growing emotional dependence, secrecy and guilt. Most emotional affairs stories don’t last beyond the guilt stage. They either end or turn into full-blown affairs and in rare cases, lead to a relationship as well. However, the time taken to go from stage 1 to stage 4 varies in every instance, depending on the circumstances of the people involved.