5 Little Ways Emotional Cheating Is More Painful Than Physical Cheating

These affairs are often more devastating than physical ones.

Couple with space between them betrayal, reaching out to heal relationship Getty images | Unsplash, Caroline Veronez | Canva 

If you've ever been on the wrong end of emotional cheating, then you already know that an emotional affair can be as bad as a physical betrayal — sometimes worse, even. A cheating spouse or partner is hard enough. But when the cheating connection is emotional, the betrayal you feel can often be experienced as a more critical threat to the relationship than physical betrayal is. What is an emotional affair, and what is considered cheating if there's no physical involvement?


An emotional affair involves high levels of emotional intimacy and may occur without the participants being bound by other intimate relationships or may occur between people in other relationships. The signs of an emotional affair vary, but in the end, an affair is still an affair and a massive betrayal of your relationship.​

RELATED: Why Emotional Cheating Hurts More For Women Than Physical Cheating

Here are 5 little reasons emotional cheating is more painful than physical cheating:

1. It violates your personal "love language" with your spouse

Every couple has their own private and intimate way of expressing their deepest affection. You and your partner have pet names, favorite songs, maybe a special place, or even food. You've probably got those "you had to be there" experiences. The little things that make your relationship "yours." Some of your language of love was probably developed during the first months of your relationship. During the new-love stage of a relationship.


If you've been emotionally betrayed, it is traumatizing to learn that these private affections have been given away to someone outside the relationship. You feel robbed of those precious, private things closest to your heart. Those things were once reserved for you and your partner and are no longer exclusive to you as a couple. The thought of your partner calling someone else "honey" is sickening. And even if honey becomes sweetie and their favorite song has a different name, the effect is the same.

What once felt special, maybe even sacred, has been spoiled. The mere thought of a new love language between your beloved and someone else is hurtful. Most people believe they hold an irreplaceable space in the heart of their partner. If you feel you have lost first place, panic and despair rapidly take over. Even without any confession of love, you can easily convince yourself that the other person is more loved than you are. This is usually not true.

What you need to understand is that all new relationships are intoxicating. They are addictive. The rush of dopamine they produce turns even those who claim emotion to not be part of their DNA into romantic poets. But know this: New love is not true love.

2. Emotional affairs disrupt your emotional connection with your partner

Your brain is wired for connection. Everyone needs it, longs for it, and craves it, even if you don't quite realize what "it" is. Humans are more wired for emotional connection than they are for sex. Emotional connection is the glue that holds a relationship together. Sex is good, but there has to be more to sustain love for a lifetime. Yet, emotional connection is what is very often missing in a relationship.


Perhaps you've known an emotional connection was missing from your relationship. And now you learn your partner shares their emotions with someone other than you. The very thing you've relentlessly pursued in your relationship is being given freely to someone else. Would it be easier to hear the betrayal was all about sex? They didn't talk. There was no emotion involved. Just lusty sex. Honestly, that's often easier to handle than to learn your partner has given their emotion to another.

RELATED: 7 Tough-But-Honest Reasons Why People Cheat — Emotionally and Physically

3. The fear the emotional affair will be lasting can damage you

Fearing that the emotional affair will become a life-long love relationship is incredibly destabilizing. This is especially true for married couples who have children, homes, and livelihoods in common. The fear of losing first place can feel like a tsunami that comes from nowhere and instantly kills and sweeps away everyone and everything once relied upon for love and life.

Continuing to review the words you heard or read in a message you found will increase your anxiety. It can eventually spiral out of control. You may even develop full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This will cause you to be fearful, easily startled, and prone to panic attack-like symptoms when you're triggered.


This real, but exaggerated fear can make you feel like you are a prisoner of your emotional reactions. You may have to leave social gatherings. You'll be unable to drive to certain places. You may insist that the betrayer stop using his smartphone because of all it triggers. Once PTSD sets in, you will most likely need therapy to heal the trauma triggers. Mindfulness meditation can also help you let go of your disabling recurring thoughts.

leaning in for emotional support at a bar

Photo: BAZA Production via Shutterstock

4. Your pain and anger are different in an emotional affair over a physical one

Sure, everyone expects a person to become enraged by a sexual affair. It is clear to most people that this is a significant relationship violation. The betrayer will probably feel their partner's anger is appropriate. Guilt and repentance on the betrayer's part are likely.


It's so different from an emotional affair. The question of betrayal is usually less black and white with an emotional relationship. Usually, those in an emotional affair will not see it as a betrayal of their partner.

When you're traumatized by an emotional betrayal, your partner will likely stay in denial about how much he has hurt you and violated your trust. The more in denial he is, the angrier you will become, and the longer your arguments will get. There is a possibility the arguments will become a threat to the relationship. These are negative cycle arguments, and over time they destroy a relationship.

If you're the victim of betrayal, you must be able to express to your partner how hurt and frightened you are. And the betrayer needs to be able to hear you and have compassion for you. The betrayer has to understand what they've done to you, your trust, and the foundations of your relationship. This won't be easy for either of you. And you'll likely need experienced professionals to help. Only then can you risk expressing your deepest hurts and fears.

The betrayer will need help expressing their understanding and empathy about how deeply they've hurt you. And how wrong it was to cross the emotional intimacy boundary with another person and will need to do their work to regain inner peace. None of this is quick or easy.




5. You must face your emotional betrayal to heal from it.

The loss of trust in a lifetime relationship can break up a couple. If not, it can cause continual pain for years to come. Emotional betrayal is so personal and, at the same time, easily deniable. You must acknowledge the pain is real and disabling. And that you get the help you need to heal the traumatic injuries.

Facing and expressing the pain of the emotional betrayal cuts through the shame of what happened. It can help the couple to understand each other at a deeper level. This can lead to a deeper understanding of each other's unmet needs for attachment. It can help the couple to become more proactive at protecting the relationship by setting healthy boundaries for all opposite-sex relationships.

If you've been betrayed, it's hard to imagine this. But it is even possible to turn the betrayal into a blessing by digging deep and taking the risk, to be honest about who each of you is and what you need from each other. Facing a betrayal will take courage. And honesty. And a desire and willingness to heal and possibly build a healthier relationship than you ever had.




RELATED: 6 Painfully Honest Reasons Men And Women Have Affairs

Perhaps a friend or loved one seems to have crossed the boundaries of a safe, monogamous relationship via a seemingly innocent internet connection. Or worse. You were emotionally betrayed by your partner? You believed the lie because it was "just" an emotional affair, it wasn't a big deal? That it shouldn't hurt as much? Yet, your pain and trauma are real. What you feel as a result of a breach of trust is as real as if there had been a physical betrayal.


Most people don't realize emotional betrayal is often more traumatizing than a physical or sexual betrayal, and the route to affair recovery can be difficult. This is because emotional betrayers often minimize the significance of the damage by saying, “But nothing physical happened.” For that reason, the person who's been emotionally betrayed may think they're psychologically ill for having such intense emotions.

Though emotional betrayal feels like a threat, often the betrayer does not want to leave the primary relationship. If the betrayer does not intend to leave, but you've been betrayed and don't know how to make sense of your emotions, you can escalate the conflict. Escalating the conflict can put an already vulnerable relationship at risk for failure. Though you're hurt, angry, confused, and traumatized, it's crucial to reduce further damage.

Emotional betrayal can be as bad as physical betrayal or even worse. But you can find the courage and resources to overcome it and get help to make your relationship thrive.

RELATED: Is He Really 'Just A Friend?' 5 Glaring Signs Of An Emotional Affair


Dr. Michael Regier is a clinical psychologist, marriage counselor, and executive coach with over 30 years of experience working to help couples repair unhappy marriages and create forever love. He and his wife Paula are authors of the book 'Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love.'