Most things about cheating are clear-cut: It’s wrong, it’s painful, and it’s definitely grounds for a breakup or divorce. Paradoxically, the actual definition of cheating is a lot murkier, especially with the advent of social media. The physical kind is fairly easy to identify (just ask Khloe and Tristan), but the emotional variety, though equally as damaging, can be way more challenging to not only define but also detect.

emotional cheating couple

Lucy Jones, a relationship counselor, helps make emotional cheating more straightforward by separating this cardinal relationship sin into three easy-to-understand categories: restriction, unbalanced emotional connection, and intimacy preparation. She emphasizes the fact that these categories can overlap or develop into unmentioned offshoot categories.

1. Restriction: This category of cheating is pretty self-explanatory — and the most common. Essentially, this occurs when a person is being secretive toward their partner about a secondary relationship. Jones describes it as “sharing some form of connection with someone who is not your partner without your actual partner knowing, either partly or fully.”

The reasons for the secretiveness can vary. Perhaps you’re complaining about your S.O. to the other person or divulging intimate info about your S.O. that should stay private. No matter the flawed logic, Jones makes clear that restricting your partner from knowing about this other person, or the extent of your relationship with this other person, is a form of emotional cheating.

2. Unbalanced Emotional Connection: Everyone’s heard the stance that your S.O. should be your best friend. Whether you agree or not, they should at least be the first person you come to with your biggest news, deepest feelings, and toughest issues. This form of emotional cheating occurs when this person for you becomes someone other than your partner.

Jones underscores the fact that friendships outside of romantic relationships are normal and encouraged, but they can morph into cheating when the dynamic of the emotional relationships becomes skewed. “If your strongest, most intimate relationship is with someone who is not your partner, for many this can be considered emotional cheating,” Jones states. “Your actual relationship becomes devoid of its essential sentimentality.”

3. Intimacy Preparation: Creeping toward emotional cheating’s more touchy-feely counterpart, this category occurs when you fail to reject the idea of a physical affair with the other person. “If there’s a suggestion that if you weren’t already in a relationship then you and this other person would likely explore one together, then it’s expected that you keep some form of distance from that person,” Jones states. “If instead you work to be closer to that person, escalate flirting or intimacy between you two, then that can be considered a form of emotional cheating.” Think of it as “preparing” to be in a romantic relationship with the other person while in your current one.

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