Emotional infidelity: The flirtation that undermines couples
By Katie Bishop
7th October 2022
The original article can be found HERE
Most people have strong ideas about what constitutes ‘cheating’ in a relationship. Couples who follow conventional monogamy generally think any sexual contact with a third party is a betrayal, while many couples with more open relationships often have clear rules about what does and doesn’t count as physical infidelity.
But while physical infidelity might be easy to define, emotional infidelity can be something of a minefield. Although the phrase is well known, people tend to have different ideas of what it means to be emotionally unfaithful. Is it a drink with a colleague whom you might be attracted to? How about exchanging frequent messages with someone your partner perceives to be a threat? Or what about leaving mildly flirty comments on a stranger’s social-media post?
Grappling with different definitions of emotional infidelity can be a challenge for couples, and a mismatch in expectations could threaten a relationship. But it hasn’t always been this way. The concept of emotional fidelity is relatively new – the product of social changes that have shaped what people expect from relationships, beyond basic needs. Today, people generally expect partnership to mean a shared emotional intimacy exclusive to the relationship. And as the digital age creates more ways for us to communicate, understanding which interactions outside the relationship cross the line into dangerous territory has become more difficult than ever.
A modern concept
Broadly, emotional infidelity describes a situation in which an individual in a relationship develops an important emotional connection with someone other than their partner, in a way that crosses a line without necessarily becoming physical. This is based on the idea that certain types of intimacy should only be shared with a significant other, and that by investing emotionally in a third party, a person can undermine their relationship and the exclusive emotional connection within it.
Each partner has their own specific view of what constitutes cheating – Marisa Cohen
Just like physical cheating, emotional infidelity can tear couples apart.
But the idea that emotional infidelity might be the death knell for some relationships is fairly new. According to Michelle Janning, a professor of sociology at Whitman College, Washington, US, who specialises in social roles, family and relationships, the belief that one can be emotionally unfaithful is a relatively modern concept.
Janning believes that today’s framing of long-term partnership – as “a lifetime of monogamous companionship between two people with emotional connectedness as the superglue that holds them together” – is the product of recent shifts. Historically, she points out, a spouse wasn’t expected to meet their partner’s emotional needs. Marriage was often based around economic security, geography, family ties and reproductive goals; in marriages that were not founded in love, it was understood that people might find emotional fulfilment elsewhere.
But throughout the past 200 years, our understanding of relationships has changed. In developed nations, love matches have become the norm, and within the last century the rise of individualism has meant that people have started to prioritise self-care and self-fulfilment.
Today, people want their partner to meet their emotional needs – meaning that fulfilling a third party’s emotional needs could, for the first time, be seen as a betrayal. Being physically faithful may no longer be enough; now, many couples believe that turning to a third party for some aspects of happiness and emotional wellbeing can be a kind of betrayal.
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