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Are you an emotional cheat? You don’t have to get down and dirty to be unfaithful in love – here’s the truth about your “harmless” friendship.

I recently asked my partner what he thought about the concept of emotional cheating. His response – “What’s that? I’ve never heard the term before” – made me realise that the notion of having an inappropriate emotional connection with someone other than your significant other is very little discussed.

According to Joanna Kleovoulou, clinical psychologist and Director of PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre Bedfordview, an emotional affair can be more detrimental than a physical one. “Emotional cheating can often be one of the most difficult types of infidelity to cope with and recover from, as it may be more challenging to make sense of what it is, and how it’s destructive to a committed relationship.”

The question of whether men and women can have strictly platonic relationships is one that’s often posed. What if the dynamics of your friendship are threatening your relationship? What you may consider an innocent inter-gender friendship can be the subtle beginnings of an emotional affair.

What is emotional cheat?

Emotional cheating can be described as any inappropriate emotional intimacy. According to Port Elizabeth-based love coach Jann Warner, an emotional affair is characterised by “greater intimacy shared with an outsider, often accompanied by sexual tension and secrecy”. And with the prolific use of social media, this behaviour can easily be hidden from your partner. While you may see nothing wrong with your friendship, your partner’s being deprived of an intimate emotional connection and close bond with you. Finding someone else to fill the emotional part of your relationship alienates your partner.

How does it differ from flirting?

According to the Oxford dictionary, flirting can be described as “behaving as though sexually attracted to someone, but playfully rather than with serious intentions”. This behaviour is often indicative of romantic or sexual desire, but – as Warner puts it – the intention of flirting is relative. “The difference between flirting and cheating is still unclear, as everyone has their own definitions. What’s flirting to one person may be considered cheating by another,” she says.

Both emotional cheating and flirting may seem purely innocent, so it’s important to discuss this with your partner and reach an agreement on what you’re both comfortable with. “If your partner feels hurt, betrayed or angry because of your actions, you need to re-evaluate your understanding of flirting and cheating,” advises Warner.

How does an emotional affair start?

“It was a wise person who said that infidelity doesn’t begin in the bedroom,” says Warner. Most successful relationships start with a physical attraction, followed by a strong emotional attraction, ultimately leading to sexual intimacy, she says. Most people don’t plan to be emotionally unfaithful. In fact, Warner points out that it may begin with something as innocent as a casual comment, joke or teasing from a member of the opposite sex, which results in a pleasant and affirming response. “This, in turn, may encourage further attention and commentary from the other person,” says Warner. “As one becomes further acquainted and comfortable with sharing, the communication levels may graduate from casual to personal and intimate,” she adds. While this may not lead to any physical or sexual intimacy, it can erode the emotional foundation on which your relationship’s built.

How to spot it

If your partner’s expressed a problem with it, re-evaluate your priorities and set rules for your friendship that will make your partner more comfortable. Warner advises doing whatever’s necessary to replenish your relationship and commit to emotional intimacy with your partner. “Share your hopes, fears and desires with your partner,” she says.

How to be platonic friends

“Many couples have successfully had open opposite-gender friendships,” says Kleovoulou. Warner adds that a strictly platonic inter-gender friendship is possible, provided that:

  • Your partner’s aware of it and approves.
  • There are clear boundaries in place that keep your friendship appropriate.
  • There are no double standards, ie would you be comfortable with your partner having a friendship on the same basis as yours?
  • You’re always honest with yourself and your partner.
  • You only spend time with your friend once your relationship needs have been satisfied.

7 ways to avoid emotional cheat

  1. Put your relationship first: be prepared to make sacrifices for the one you love.
  2. Make time for love: “I don’t have time” isn’t an excuse to lose passion and intimacy.
  3. Schedule time for everything else: you don’t have to give up things you love.
  4. Don’t let casual interactions become inappropriate.
  5. Be polite, but firm: know how to end a conversation that’s headed in the wrong direction.
  6. Curb your social drinking: beware of losing inhibitions and crossing boundaries after a few drinks.
  7. Confide in your partner: share your deepest and most intimate thoughts with him first.

Social Media Corner

DestinyConnect asks its Facebook fans: What’s your definition of emotional cheating?

You said:

Zanele Ngozo: “It’s about being emotionally attached to someone else; it could be that male friend you trust so much or the ex you’re still friends with. If you’re with him more than with your husband, if he keeps your secrets or if he’s the one you tell when you have problems with your husband, you’re cheating emotionally.”

Zamamiya Zee Ford: “Emotional cheating for me is secretly harbouring feelings of love for someone while you’re in a relationship with someone else, and the failure to confront those feelings, or at least be honest about their existence. It’s worse than physical cheating.”

Hanlie Raath: “When your emotional needs are outsourced to someone other than the primary love relationship, it constitutes an emotional affair.”

PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre – Clinical Psychologists call on 011-450 3576

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