Marriage & Relationship Coach

Sexual Affair or Emotional Affair? Questions and Answers

Do you know the difference between a sexual affair and an emotional affair?  Is one more ok than the other?  Can someone have a “mental affair,” even if he or she isn’t seeing anyone?


If you are dating someone who also is seeing other people, it’s not necessarily an affair.

An affair (unfaithfulness or “cheating”) can only happen in a committed relationship.  Commitment requires agreement.  Just because you have committed yourself to someone you are dating, doesn’t mean he or she has committed to you. A common mistake is for women to commit to a man before he has committed to her, and then assume that he is committed to her as well.   In relationship coaching, we usually need to work together to get her boyfriend to the point of commitment rather than to deal with her feeling that their boyfriend has “cheated” on her.  Affairs can happen in marriage or in unmarried relationships when there is an agreement of commitment.

Men can also have confusion about commitment and what is an affair.

This is especially when there are cross cultural differences in the relationship. Just as women may believe they are in a committed relationship because of sex, men can also mistakenly have the same assumption.  Even words like “dating,” “girlfriend,” and “boyfriend,” can have very different meanings from person to person. This highlights the need for clear communication in relationships from the very beginning. This is doubly true in cross cultural relationships where there are different expectation about proper conduct.

There Are Two Kinds of Affairs that Can Happen in Marriage and Other Committed Relationships

In marriage and other committed relationships, there are two kinds of affairs, adultery, cheating, or unfaithfulness that can occur.  One is called sexual infidelity and the other is called emotional infidelity.

Sexual Affairs and Infidelity

Sexual infidelity means that your spouse or significant other is: 1) participating in some kind of sexual behavior with someone other than you and, 2) that behavior conflicts with an agreed on or understood expectation that you both have about the relationship.  In order to be considered sexual infidelity, both of these things must be true.

“What about lustful eyes, pornography, or fantasies about others?”

Although everyone draws the line differently on what is unfaithfulness, the above definition is the one used by marriage and family therapists in the United States.  It does not include such things as visiting a topless bar, strip club, viewing pornography, lustful gazes, or fantasies about others, although it could be argued that those behaviors are unfaithful as well.  But, if we start going in that direction, we would have to say that lying, the misspending of money and overeating are also kinds of unfaithfulness, until our definition of what is an affair would have no meaning.

Emotional Infidelity

Emotional infidelity means that your spouse or significant other is:  1) sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with someone other than you and 2) the sharing involves secrecy which conflicts with agreed on or understood expectations that you both have for the relationship.  Perhaps even more so than with sexual infidelity, the expectations regarding emotional faithfulness need to be clearly understood before committing to someone.  It is not prudent to assume that any two people will draw the lines exactly the same on sharing intimate thoughts and feelings.

Sexual and Emotional Infidelity Do Not Depend on the Gender of the Other Person

Notice that this definition, like the sexual one, does not specify the gender of the other person.  What this means is that if you are a woman sharing with another woman or a man sharing with another man, your behavior could still be considered to be emotional infidelity by your partner.  Once again, it is better to clarify the expectations between you and your partner before having this level of involvement with anyone else.  This is also the definition of emotional infidelity used by marriage and family therapists in the United States.

“Does this mean that if I have an intimate conversation with my friend, I may be committing emotional infidelity?”

Only if you’re talking to her secretly and your talking violates what you and your spouse agree is inappropriate or understand as inappropriate.  The best way to find out is to ask your spouse or partner first.  If he or she thinks it’s fine, then you can consider that it is not infidelity.  If you can’t ask because you are afraid of your spouse’s or significant other’s response, then there is a good chance that you are being unfaithful.

A clinical analogy would be if I were to share a client’s personal information without his or her permission.  I would be betraying the trust the client has in me.  In my case, I could lose my psychology license.  For a marriage partner, they could end up losing their marriage license.

“My spouse still fantasizes about a previous woman he actually had a sexual relationship with.  Is this an emotional affair?

If he has no contact with her, or he has contact but is neither sexual with her not sharing intimate information, then he is not having an affair of any kind.  This is a common struggle in relationships, especially when the relationship starts to become stressful.  Better than blaming your husband for the fantasies would be helping him to have a better relationship with you so that what his mind will value most is his relationship with you rather than a past lover.

If he admits to struggling with this and your relationship is already good, then he could benefit in getting some help for letting go of the previous relationship.  Letting go is not as easy as wanting to.  There are many people who struggle with wanting to let go of a past relationship, but who do not know how to do that.

“My spouse is having a sexual or emotional affair.  What should I do?”

Anyone who gives you a standard answer to that is doing you a disservice.  To me, as a marriage and relationship coach, the pertinent issue is not how long your spouse has been having an affair, how many affairs there have been, or how many problems there are in your relationship.  The pertinent questions are, “Do you want to continue your relationship with your spouse if he or she ends the affair and commits to working on your marriage relationship?” and “How much does your spouse care about losing his or her relationship with you?”  With these answers, I can tell you whether it is possible to save your relationship.

“Is there really hope for a relationship when there is an affair?”

Many people end their relationship when they discover an affair.  But, an even greater number of people work on their relationship after they discover an affair.  Many happy couples have had the traumatic experience of an affair earlier in the relationship.  An affair, like addictions, or abuse, don’t mean the relationship has to end, but it does mean that you will have to get to work on it to make it better.

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