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Emotional cheating: A case of dodgy tears?

Affairs, cheating, infidelity. These words evoke strong emotions in us. Betrayal, breach of trust and heartbreak, yes? But, wait. While traditionally monogamous couples define infidelity as primarily sexual betrayal, there has been a perceptible shift in how infidelity is perceived nowadays. Increasingly, there is talk of emotional infidelity. Although not a completely new concept, because of the ease with which we can make online connections today, there are widely varying definitions of what it really means to be emotionally unfaithful. Is it flirting with a stranger online? Regularly going out with a colleague whom you feel attracted to? Having frequent heart-to-hearts on WhatsApp with a school friend? In these days of constant digital communication and with the proliferation of dating apps, should you consider a deep, emotional relationship with someone other than your partner as emotional infidelity?

Rohini Kesavan Rajeev, a behavioural health practitioner and the founder of The Able Mind, a mental health platform, believes that emotional fidelity is a crucial factor in the health of a relationship. “Emotional infidelity refers to developing an emotional connection with someoneother than your spouse. Deep friendships that do not respect boundaries are often at risk of developing into an exclusive, super-dependent, unhealthy relationship that comes in between existing committed relationships/marriage. Romantic partners are kept in the dark, and most message exchanges and rendezvous are planned covertly. The fact that this relationship is ‘secretive’ is a red flag,” she says.“In the context of modern relationships, social media has enabled us to communicate with people outside of our marriage and outside of our regular friendships. It has also created a world for us of connections that our partners or spouses know nothing about,” says Snighda Mishra, social entrepreneur and psychotherapist.

Maybe I am cheating…

“Any form of infidelity comes with a sense of hiding,” adds Snighda. “It comes with a sense of, maybe, I am cheating. It comes with the sense that there is something fishy about this relationship that I am having, and where I am not really completely honest about it with my spouse or my partner.”

While the definition of sexual infidelity has always been clear-cut, emotional fidelity has been ambiguous. While there is this perception that emotional infidelity can often lead to sexual infidelity, a study published in Current Psychology in 2016 showed that the majority of women (88%) and men (79%) believed that emotional infidelity could occur without sexual infidelity. (And that sexual infidelity could also happen without emotional infidelity.)

Although data from India is scarce, global data and research do show that while most people still find sexual infidelity more troubling, emotional cheating is slowly edging its way into conversations, especially in today’s swipe-and-find digital age. In 2015, a YouGov study of 1,660 adults in the UK found that 44% of the respondents believed that forming an emotional bond with someone other than their partner was cheating. Something that Rakesh Sharma* found out the hard way.

Walking on eggshells

A financial analyst in Bengaluru, 36-year-old Rakesh, says that his marriage ran into trouble when his wife, Nisha, objected to his relationship with his best friend. “I used to be really close with my best friend, and she used to be a conduit to rant about marriage and other things. My wife had a problem with that. She said that made her very insecure.”

For Rakesh, the friendship wasn’t entirely platonic. “I did have some kind of physical attraction for my friend. But I never acted on it. She was a friend who was my safe space then. But my wife felt she was being deprioritised. She felt I wasn’t having the kind of in-depth conversations I was having with my best friend with her. My wife then started monitoring my phone and WhatsApp conversations. I ended up hiding things. It made me walk on eggshells. Even though there was no sexual banter, I was always worried that my wife would see our conversations.”

In such a situation, Rakesh says, guilt weighed him down. Eventually, the friendship tapered down, and he cut the friend out of his life. His marriage didn’t survive in the long run, either. But friendships shouldn’t be a problem, avers Shalini Sitaraman Menezes, an IP lawyer and entrepreneur. “I don’t see emotional connections as cheating,” she states. “Every relationship is there for a reason. One person can’t be expected to carry the burden of everything in that relationship. For example, my husband is my closest friend. I share everything with him. But there are certain things that he is incapable of giving. For that emotional fulfilment, I look outside, and he is okay with that.”

Snighda agrees with this sentiment but says that the definition of relationships is changing. “How we define relationships has grown and changed. How partnerships are defined and lived are also very different. Therefore, infidelity of any kind or cheating of any kind is about how the two individuals in a relationship define their relationship. So, how I define emotional infidelity as far as my personal relationship with my spouse is concerned could be very different than those 10 couples who walk into my clinic for therapy.”

However, Mumbai-based integrative psychotherapist Richa Vashista also notes that human beings are inherently polyamorous. “Consider our family dynamics — we don’t just love our mother or father; we love them both, each with their unique place in our hearts. In romantic relationships, it’s crucial to engage in more conversations about ethical non-monogamy, where emotional connections are consensual and mutual, much like the multifaceted love we share within our families.”

The queer angle

And while most of the research around emotional infidelity has centred around heterosexual relationships, Richa, who identifies as queer, notes that queer relationships often have fewer prescribed expectations than heterosexual relationships, allowing “more flexibility in defining boundaries and expectations regarding emotional connections.”

“Queer individuals may be more open to exploring different relationship models, such as open relationships or ethical non-monogamy. This can influence how emotional infidelity is definedand perceived within a relationship. Queer folks frequently rely on strong support networks and chosen families. Emotional connections outside a relationship may be more readily accepted or understood within this context,” she explains.

There’s recent research that supports Richa’s views. In 2016, a survey of almost 9,000 single adults in the US revealed that one in five had previously been in a non-monogamous relationship. Indeed, there has been what the BBC called an ‘explosion of interest’ in open relationships too.

There is greater fluidity in exploring different relationships, even what’s called ‘platonic life partnerships’ where two people live together but without the romance and sex of non-platonic relationships. This is why Shalini goes back to her argument that there must be space for deep, intimate relationships that are outside your primary partnership. “I have one male best friend. We have an unspoken bond — we don’t discuss these things with my husband, mother-in-law, or children. What I tell him remains in my confidence. It’s a place of trust. And obviously, if you are looking at that as cheating, then something is not right in your own relationships.”

Relationship experts agree that there’s a significant difference between a friendship with a person of the opposite gender and a full-blown emotional affair. Not all intimate friendships need to be emotional affairs. Humans thrive on social connections, and repeated studies have shown having satisfying relationships is one of the key barometers of lifelong happiness.

What leads to micro-cheating?

So, if someone is seeking connection outside their partner or spouse, would that also point to deficiencies in the relationship itself? Akshay C M, a DEI and Talent Management Consultant, believes that emotional infidelity often reflects deeper issues in a relationship. “Perhaps it’s the unfulfilled need for validation, understanding, or excitement that pushes one toward such connections outside the primary relationship.” For him, the ‘perfect partner’ myth perpetuated by social media platforms leads to constantly comparing partners and relationships to fictional standards. Akshay also mentions that concepts like ‘micro-cheating’ have emerged in today’s digital age. “Micro-cheating includes seemingly small actions like frequently checking someone’s social media or keeping some conversations hidden from your partner.”

Although there are all these different concepts around emotional infidelity, the fact remains that an emotional affair can hurt. “When the kind of emotional connection that the partners have has changed, there can be a lot of isolation. They can feel completely invalidated. Their self-worth, self-esteem, and self-respect can shatter. You don’t know what hit you; it comes like an ice-cold wave. A wave of isolation coupled with a lot of grief. So some people get anxiety or panic attacks, spend sleepless nights, indulge in emotional eating, and deal with depression as the fallout,” explains Snighda.

And therein lies the rub. Our relationships are the backbone of our lives. Somewhere, once the day is dusted, the bills paid, and the boss is happy, the warmth of our relationships is what we turn to. For sustenance. For fulfilment. For joy and happiness. No matter the label, we will always feel the absence of love.

Perhaps, Roman Payne, the novelist and poet, said it best:

“We were hooked when we woke.We had arms for each other.But I yearned to resumeMy dreams of another.”

*Name changed on request.

(Published 21 October 2023, 23:43 IST)

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