Emotional Cheating: Infidelity in the Modern Marriage

Emotional Cheating: Infidelity in the Modern Marriage

That divorce has become common is not news, and neither is the issue of infidelity being a leading cause of it. What is more noteworthy is that the way people define marriage is shifting, and along with that, how we define extramarital affairs has expanded from the physical to include the more nebulous realm of emotional cheating. 

That nebulousness is part of what makes the topic challenging. Defining emotional cheating may be as difficult for the individual as it is for the collective because what feels questionable or line-crossing to one person may not for another – even if that other is an intimate partner. Is it chatting frequently with an Ex on Facebook? Dropping flirtatious comments on stranger’s posts? Long and frequent phone calls after business hours with a co-worker? Emotional cheating might be a partner consistently turning to someone outside the marriage for that soul connection, heart-to-heart communication, and sharing of common ground that many have come to idealize in their concept of marriage over the last couple centuries.

Navigating the Gray Area: Defining Emotional Cheating in Modern Marriages

A girlfriend of mine who has been married for 22 years simplified it for me:

“It’s the ‘Red Face Test.’ Emotional or physical, if it’s something you wouldn’t want your spouse to find out about, it’s cheating.”

Physical infidelity is certainly a lot easier to define. You either had intercourse or oral sex or you didn’t. You either made out with someone besides your spouse or you didn’t. Whether you think it’s kissing or kink, physical acts are quantifiable. If you didn’t agree to an open marriage ahead of time, it’s cheating. Emotional cheating, though, is only qualifiable and therefore much more subjective. People may not even know where their emotional deal-breaker lines are until someone crosses them — and while that’s part of the learning curve of modern marriage, it’s hard not to break a rule that you don’t know is there. Likewise, it is equally difficult to not feel the sting of that in one’s memory. As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart put it when he was trying to define obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for establishing preemptive boundaries.

What is Emotional Cheating?

Emotional cheating is one of the terms that has developed along with the modern notion that marriage is built from emotional connections: love, trust, respect, communication, passion, devotion. As late as 1920 when women finally won the vote, to the 1950s when they were still Betty Crockering in the kitchen as their main role in life, marriage was based mostly on economic survival – for men as well as women. With few exceptions, women had to marry in order to know where their next meal was coming from, to be sure of a roof over their heads, gain protection from aggressors and to provide for their children. The passage of property was tied to the breeding of heirs and a man’s certainty that they were of his blood; a successful harvest was tied to having enough children to work on the family farm.

Are you wondering and wondering what to do?
Read  “Overthinking When to Leave Your Husband.”

Expanding Notions of Infidelity in Modern Marriages

These are all physical concerns, and the traditional concept of infidelity centered around the physical act of extramarital sex. Now, people build marriage as much on emotional bonds as they do on practical, day-to-day partnering. They commonly discuss emotional fulfillment as a priority. Same-sex marriages are legal in all 50 states and in 34 out of 195 countries world-wide. Couples are “living apart together” (read “How About a  ‘LAT Relationship?’”), whether it’s because the partners are each pursuing a career in different geographical areas, want to maintain ownership of their own homes, or just don’t want to clean up after each other. More, and more, people are expressing interest in open marriages or polyamory.

These are all departures from the one-man-one-woman, til-death-do-us-part paradigm; the merger-and-acquisitions, wealth-passing marriage model; and the breed-your-own-work-force prototype. The idea that infidelity would take a departure from the illicit affair to include something that on the surface looks platonic and is totally non-physical makes sense.

Check out “The Cheating Wife Phenomenon.”

Platonic Relationship vs. Emotional Cheating

After all, don’t we have deep emotional connections, love, long talks, common ground, and highly confidential sharing with our friends? Most women would say yes. Men do, too, even if that dynamic isn’t as recognized. So, then, is it simply the possibility of it becoming physical that makes emotional cheating “a thing?” Why is it ok for us to have deep friendships with those we are not sexually attracted to, and yet it becomes a threat if that person happens to be a potential attraction-to-be?

Perhaps that’s it, then. A physical affair might be perceived as merely scratching an itch. But a platonic friendship with someone who could become attractive to our spouse – that has profound potential for replacing that bond that is ideally supposed to exist in a marriage. Perhaps that is also why some may perceive emotional cheating as worse than physical – because it is not only harder to define, but harder to fight if given a toehold.

With that understanding, though, this issue begs another question: Can any of us reasonably expect all of our needs – emotional, social, recreational, sexual, economic, domestic – to be met by one person for years on end?

Reimagining Marriage: Embracing Collective Emotional and Sexual Fulfillment

We are organic, complex beings. We often talk about it taking a village to raise a child, accomplish a task, complete a project, build a company or create a life. Why, then, would it not take a village to create a complete emotional and sexual habitat for ourselves?

If we decide that that is unrealistic, then ideally, we do some honest evaluation with ourselves and each other about what we think we can work with, and agree that periodic, policy review conversations on neutral ground at a pre-determined date be part of the new marriage contract.

Read “36 Things to Do If You are Thinking About Divorce.”

Redefining Marriage: Embracing Flexibility and Symbiosis in Long-Term Partnerships

We need to ask ourselves if we can realistically expect this of ourselves. Not everyone can be this flexible about partnership, and that’s ok. It might be good to keep in mind, though, that as a marriage spans decades with one partner and our other half perhaps finds their libido dropping off, or we find that happening to ours — but we still love and adore them and don’t want the marriage to end — it is also ok to renegotiate some openness. After all, sex and intimacy are foundational to the human experience and to wellness, and many people need that expression as much as a fish needs water.

The drop in the numbers of new marriages, the increase in 50-plus age-group divorces, the polyamorous approach to monogamy (a small village of long-term partners) or the free pass, once a year, don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach to “open marriage” are all newer branches on the tree of marriage and long-term partnership. There are many ways to do this. It’s almost as if we need another evolution for the archetype of marriage. Maybe “symbiosis,” given that word’s connotations of ebb and flow, organic evolution and inclusiveness, might be a better term for today’s marriages.


Jennifer Bent is a freelance writer and print journalist living in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Connect with Jennifer at verbosej@hotmail.com


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*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”

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