When two people are “heart over hands” in love, to coin a phrase, feelings are similar to being “head over heels,” with one major difference: The attraction never becomes physical.
This kind of love, at its core, is a case of so-called “emotional cheating,” a state of hearts without hands literally touching. It is a strong to subtle play on the old notion of loving from afar.
So, if there’s no sex, it’s not cheating (as George said to Jerry in a “Seinfeld” episode).
Right? Wrong, say experts on the subject.
“It is cheating, because when a person who is married or with someone else in some other personal relationship becomes involved in this way,” he or she is looking for support outside the main relationship, explains Dimitri Markov, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and instructor of psychiatry and human behavior at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University.
“And when that happens, the marriage is deprived of that chance for mutual respect, trust and love to grow, and a spouse or significant other also is robbed of these very important things.”
Actually, emotional cheating is very common, he says — much more common than sexual cheating, but no less wrong or potentially damaging to any committed relationship. It happens all over the world, with men more often than women the initiators and perpetrators, he notes.
A danger, adds the doctor, is that emotional cheating can lead to physical or sexual cheating.
“People can engage in emotional cheating without even realizing it, but once they’re involved, it can become problematic quickly, and can be the cause for a marriage to break up and other relationships to end,” says Markov.
According to the psychiatrist, the question someone caught up in an emotional-cheating situation should ask is: Am I willing and able to discuss this relationship with my spouse, with in-laws and with others close to me?
Opportunities for emotional cheating are numerous, he says of office-type situations.
But there’s also a new temptation these days — the Internet, which can be an intensely secretive and powerfully seductive force that may arouse an individual’s sense of daring and appeal — with harsh results.
If an emotionally cheating person is either caught or feels guilty and wants to tell all, Markov says, then that’s the time to admit the affair, and to be an adult and not childish about it. It’s also the time to seek forgiveness and, if needed, professional counseling.
A reason for someone to look for emotional cheating outside the marriage may be the structure of the marriage itself: “It could be that two people marry solely for financial reasons or for protection alone, so without a basis of love from the beginning, it’s natural for one or both of the partners to seek the emotional support they need outside the marriage, something on which they may agree and which works for them. But in the usual circumstances of marriage, each partner should seek emotional support from the other.”
Others relent a bit on the issue. “I suppose someone can be in love with two people at the same time,” says Jeanne Meisler, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist on staff at Lankenau Hospital and also in private practice, somewhat facetiously.
“However, if someone is in what appears to be the deep, committed relationship of a marriage or other meaningful one-to-one relationship but is going outside these for emotional reasons, then that would seem to indicate there is some sort of unmet need or other serious problem.”
Being friends with someone — say, at the office — is normal, as is having lunch with that person from time to time. But when the lunches become more frequent or when there are phone calls on the sly, well, that could mean an emotional attachment beyond the range of acceptable behavior, according to Meisler.
Men, she agrees, seem to do this more than women, as men and women live out their roles f man as hunter vs. woman as nurturer. A contributing factor is close proximity, such as the workplace, she acknowledges.
Emotional needs must be satisfied in one way or another — no matter the kind of relationship and the people involved: “It could be a case of chronic illness that will drive one of the parties to seek companionship on an emotional level that could, in time, lead to feelings of love and the creation of a state of emotional cheating. Or it could be that someone is not mature enough to commit to someone else in a loving relationship.”
The damage done can be extreme enough to include the dissolution of a marriage, made just a bit easier, she states, when no children are involved. When there are children, well, they’re the principal reason to avoid getting emotionally involved with another in the first place.
If one wants out of emotional cheating, he or she should seek consolation first in the arms of the spouse or significant other, and, if necessary, also get counseling, advises Meisler.
“There is a vast spectrum of things — of circumstances and conditions that influence human behavior — that cause people to do what they do,” she says, “and only they, of course, know the true reasons for their actions.”