If There Is No Sex, Is It Considered Cheating?

Author Amanda Caswell
Updated on June 16, 2021

Infidelity, or cheating, is the act of breaking a promise to stay faithful to a spouse or partner. Whether the promise was made through religious and legal marriage vows or agreed privately between lovers, the consequences of breaking it can be crushing. But what happens when one partner strays and becomes emotionally engaged with a person outside the relationship, even without being sexually active? Is this still considered cheating? If this sounds like your situation, keep reading to learn why this may have happened and how you can save your relationship.

women suspecting husband of texting with another woman

An emotional affair is when a person in a relationship invests more of their emotional energy into a companion outside of their marriage. An individual in an emotional affair feels much closer to their new companion than their spouse or partner and may even feel chemistry or sexual tension between them. Cheaters in an emotional affair often feel guilt-free because there is no sex involved in the relationship. However, their spouses see the affair as just as damaging as a sexual affair and in many cases it is.

Why Emotional Affairs Are Dangerous

The problem with emotional infidelity is that when it starts off, it seems harmless. You feel good when you’re with the person, you have enjoyable conversations, you put a little extra effort into your appearance, and you may even casually flirt. The person gets you. So, what’s the problem? After all, there is no sex and it could just be the start of a lovely friendship.

Unfortunately, statistics are not on your side. It’s more than likely that this new friendship is the beginning of the end of your relationship with your committed partner. With 40% to 50% of marriages in the US ending in divorce, emotional cheating is just one more reason to push a troubled marriage over the edge.

Even if you haven’t had a physical affair yet, there’s a good chance you may. In fact, one study found that on average, people in relationships have a 42% chance of cheating on their partners.[1] According to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, 25% of married men and 15% of married women have had sexual extramarital affairs, and that number is 20% higher when an emotional relationship without intercourse is included.

Research has shown that jealously affects men and women differently. For instance, women feel guiltier when they cheat emotionally, and men feel guiltier when they cheat sexually. One study discovered that women who fall in love with someone would more than likely feel guiltier than if they tried different sexual positions with the same person.[2]

Another study concluded that men would be more upset if their partner was having a sexual relationship with another person without falling in love with them. On the other hand, most women said they’d be more upset if their partner had fallen in love with someone else but hadn’t slept with that person.[3] Although painful, physical affairs don’t require romantic feelings, which can make emotional affairs feel deeply personal. They indicate to your significant other that you find someone more exciting than them.

How Emotional Relationships Differ From Platonic Friendships

A platonic relationship between a man and a woman is possible. Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland, found that 75% of men and 65% of women have had nonsexual friendships with the opposite gender.[4] Unfortunately, when intimate and private information is shared and companionship becomes emotional to the point where it crosses the boundaries set by the couple, a platonic friendship can grow into something more.

It can quickly become an emotional affair. While a platonic friendship is something a spouse might know about, an emotional affair remains a secret. It also feels different than a platonic relationship because both parties typically have a sexual attraction to the other person, regardless of whether it is acknowledged. And as with most things in life, if it feels wrong, it probably isn’t right. An emotional affair opens a door that should otherwise remain shut.

Emotional Affairs Can Be Hard to End

Emotional affairs can be a lot harder to end than sexual ones. Unlike a sexual affair where you stop seeing the person, an emotional affair involves feelings for the person that can be hard to stop. Even after you stop seeing the person directly, the person is still inside your head and fills a space in your heart.

Chances are if you’ve had an emotional affair you’ve spent countless hours thinking about the person. Those feelings don’t simply go away once you decide it’s time to end the affair. In terms of healing your aching heart, you must remember that it’s not always easy to do the right thing but it can make you stronger.

Cheating Might Be in Your DNA

While it certainly doesn’t justify emotional affairs, understanding the underlying feelings that prompted the actions can be helpful. Surprisingly, your genes may influence how likely you are to stray emotionally and even sexually. Research shows that some people are genetically predisposed to being unfaithful based on their biology.[5]

For instance, one study published by researchers at the University of Queensland found that infidelity was more common among people who had specific types of vasopressin receptor genes and oxytocin in their makeup. Vasopressin is a hormone related to social behaviors including love, sexual bonding, empathy, and trust. According to the results of that study, a stunning 62% of instances in men and 40% of instances of infidelity in women had to do with genetics. It’s therefore worthwhile letting your therapist know if you have a family history of cheating.[6] This can help in working through the problems and solutions related to the affair.

Warning Signs of an Emotional Affair

If you are reading this, there’s a chance you already feel like you are having an emotional affair. The problem is that an emotional affair can be hard to define. Here are a few signs that may show you it’s time to re-evaluate that extramarital friendship.

For starters, you have withdrawn from your partner. They don’t excite you like they once did, and you simply don’t feel as though you have much in common with them. Intimacy, either sexually or emotionally, may have stopped and you may find yourself anticipating when you will see or communicate with your friend again. You may become preoccupied with daydreaming about your friend more often and wish you were with them during the times you are with your spouse.

You might be in an emotional affair if you no longer want to spend time with your spouse and find yourself drifting apart from them. You may find reasons to give your friend gifts rather than your partner and overall feel as though they understand you so much better. Most of all, you are keeping your friendship a secret.

Similarly, if you notice that your partner seems withdrawn and uninterested, they are spending more time on their phone texting or emailing, spending more time on their appearance, or seem to be hiding something, they might be having an emotional affair.

Protect Your Marriage

Numerous marriages have been saved after emotional affairs. But there are certain guidelines that the cheater and the spouse need to follow once the infidelity has been discovered. If you have been cheating emotionally, you need to feel remorse and have the desire to change your behavior and life. Your spouse needs to not only be sure that you have stopped cheating but trust you enough to fully heal. Indeed, trust is a must for building a strong emotional connection between you and your partner so that your relationship can be healthy and long lasting.

Regardless of who is cheating, both of you in the relationship need to work together to save it and protect it from future harm. Marriage and relationships are hard work, so if you want to make yours last, you need to put in the effort. Nurture your marriage. Be thoughtful, respectful, and regularly say “I love you.”

Know your spouse’s needs or ask if you’re unsure. Make your life’s work to consistently make your partner happy. You can do that by taking care of yourself and being transparent about your own needs. Being honest and open will encourage your spouse to do the same. Always turn to your spouse first rather than sharing your vulnerability with someone outside of your marriage. Make a point to avoid sharing your deepest feelings and thoughts with anyone who isn’t your first confidant.

Even if you tend to have a fun and flirty personality, don’t touch, tease or flirt with members of the opposite sex. Make time for your spouse, have long conversations, and go out on dates. By doing the above you will continually build and maintain trust with your spouse.

How to Get Help

Beyond filling your free time with engaging activities, new thoughts, and quality time with your spouse, you may need to seek the help of a professional counselor to completely heal after an emotional affair. A licensed therapist can help you address the affair, guide you throughout the healing process, and help you to repair your relationship.

Be patient because it will take you time to heal from your feelings for the person you emotionally cheated with and to improve your troubled marriage. Nevertheless, having the guidance of a trained professional will make the situation easier for both you and your spouse, and may even strengthen your marriage. According to the American Psychological Association, roughly 50% of distressed relationships show improved and more satisfying marriages from couples counseling. An additional 10% to 20% will remain a couple even if the unhappiness persists.[7] 

Licensed counselors typically employ one or more of a handful of therapeutic approaches to relationship counseling that have been proven to help repair relationships. No matter how you choose to address it, it’s important to take the first in recognizing that your emotional affair can ruin your relationship if it does not end, regardless of whether or not you consider it cheating.


References

  1. Watkins, S. J., & Boon, S. D. (2016). Expectations regarding partner fidelity in dating relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 33(2), 237–256. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407515574463
  2. Buss, D., Larsen, R., Westen, D., & Semmelroth, J. (1992). Sex Differences in Jealousy: Evolution, Physiology, and PsychologyPsychological Science, 3(4), 251-255. Retrieved June 15, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40062797
  3. Kruger, D. J., Fisher, M. L., Edelstein, R. S., Chopik, W. J., Fitzgerald, C. J., & Stout, S. L. (2013). Was that cheating? Perceptions vary by sex, attachment anxiety, and behaviorEvolutionary psychology : an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior11(1), 159–171.
  4. Oxford University Press. (2009). Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships. Oxford University Press. https://books.google.co.il/books?id=YGUSDAAAQBAJ
  5. Garcia, J. R., MacKillop, J., Aller, E. L., Merriwether, A. M., Wilson, D. S., & Lum, J. K. (2010). Associations between Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene Variation with Both Infidelity and Sexual Promiscuity. PLoS ONE, 5(11), e14162. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014162
  6. Zietsch, B. P., Westberg, L., Santtila, P., & Jern, P. (2015). Genetic analysis of human extrapair mating: heritability, between-sex correlation, and receptor genes for vasopressin and oxytocin. Evolution and Human Behavior, 36(2), 130–136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2014.10.001
  7. Marín, R. A., Christensen, A., & Atkins, D. C. (2014). Infidelity and behavioral couple therapy: Relationship outcomes over 5 years following therapy. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 3(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1037/cfp0000012
Author Amanda Caswell

Amanda is a wellness writer & enthusiast with over 12 years experience writing in the industry. She has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from NYU. She is certified by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American School of Nutrition & Personal Training. Amanda is also a celebrity publicist.