Your S.O. Says They Are Just Friends—Is It an Affair?

a man and a woman sitting eating and drinking

Javier Pardina/Stocksy 

Whether you're newly dating or have been partnered up for a while, it's normal, in fact healthy, for both parties to have and maintain friendships outside of the relationship. However, if you are feeling jealous of a third party (especially toward someone you consider a potential romantic rival) or noticing something off with your partner (My husband says "she is just a friend," yet you're not entirely convinced, sound familiar?) we tapped relationship experts to explain this dynamic, such as whether your partner is having an emotional affair. Without jumping to conclusions, read on below to learn more about what an emotional affair is, how it typically starts, and what to do if you (or your partner) is having one.

What is an Emotional Affair

According to the experts interviewed for this piece, in a monogamous relationship, an emotional affair is when the relationship you or your partner has with a third party breaches the trust and intimacy between you two. Although what that is exactly looks different in each relationship, whether that's a texting streak or flirting, for example. "Flirting can feel like a violation to one person but can be completely acceptable to the next," says Heather Z. Lyons, individual and couples therapist with Baltimore Therapy Group. The point is that this connection draws you away from your partner, even though there's no physical contact, says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of Dr. Romance's Guide to Finding Love Today.

In an article for Oprah magazine, Rhonda Richards-Smith, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and relationship expert, says that you and your partner should be each other's main source of support. Furthermore, if you feel you have to compete for their affection, this could be a sign your partner's emotions are being directed elsewhere.

"Emotional cheating usually means you're unhappy or unfulfilled in your current relationship, and looking for comfort elsewhere. These emotional connections often develop between people who spend a lot of time together at work, or in a social setting, like choir practice, golfing, or taking tennis lessons," adds Tessina.

Signs of an Emotional Affair

They've become more secretive: "If your partner was always private, secrecy might not signal an affair," says Lyons. "However, if this privacy is a marked change for them, it might be time to get curious."

Little details vanish: "The day to day sharing is vital for keeping up connection with your partner as it includes them in all aspects of your life that you share together," says Melanie Gonzalez, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Irvine, California.

Apathy has set in: "If you have been fighting more often and failing to repair or reconnect after a fight and your partner does not seem distressed about not repairing or reconnecting," adds Gonzalez, it might suggest they've been investing efforts elsewhere, instead of spending energy to bridge past hurts.

On the other hand, signs that you may be crossing a line with a friend include:

  • When you discuss your relationship problems with your friend
  • When you turn to your friend with a problem instead of your partner
  • When you exclude your partner from your relationship with your friend
  • When you would rather spend time with your friend than your partner
  • When you think your friend understands you better than your partner

My Partner is Having an Emotional Affair, Now What?

If you think your partner (or perhaps you) are having an emotional affair, experts recommend reflecting on what you think is missing in your romantic relationship and discussing those things with your partner. When you do, experts say to lead with "I" statements, like "I've been feeling disconnected from you lately," suggest Gonzalez. Your approach should be more curious than beginning from a place of blame, adds Lyons.

Moving forward, make time for each other. "It’s really important to have that quality one-on-one time to just check in with each other and make sure that you’re OK," says Richards-Smith, in Oprah magazine. For example, have regular relationship "check-ins" every quarter, recommends Gonzalez.

All relationships should have clear boundaries, and while friends are typically privy to many intimate moments in our lives, experts say there are some things that should remain between you and your partner. For example, anything your partner shares with you in confidence, or anything your partner doesn't know, says relationships experts in a Reader's Digest article. Above all, says Lyons, "Couples who survive affairs, emotional and physical, often work to make known to each other what they expect in a relationship and what behaviors violate their assumptions."

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