It’s a scenario that happens all the time: You’ve met a new friend or co-worker and you instantly feel a connection. The two of you just click and soon, the text messages are flowing freely. You’re cracking inside jokes, you’re very subtly flirting and you’re thinking about him or her all the time.
It sounds like the start of a very promising new romantic relationship. The only problem? You’re already in a relationship — and it may instead be the start of an emotional affair.
What’s that, you ask? Below, relationship experts offer an explainer on emotional infidelity: what it is, what it isn’t and what to do if you have a sneaking suspension you’re having an emotional affair.
In a nutshell, what is an emotional affair? How is it any different than a close, platonic friendship?
An emotional affair is essentially an affair of the heart, said Sheri Meyers, a marriage therapist and the author of Chatting or Cheating: How to Detect Infidelity, Rebuild Love and Affair-Proof Your Relationship.
Unlike a platonic friendship, there’s sexual chemistry between the two of you — and there’s definitely some fantasies playing out in your head, she said. You may even share unflattering details about your relationship with this new person — and naturally, you don’t say a word about any of this to your S.O.
“All of this drains energy from your primary relationship,” Meyers said. “If you’re fantasizing, having intimate talks and sharing things you should only be sharing with your primary partner or sending late night ‘just thinking of you’ flirty texts, you’re not just having an innocent friendship.”
Eventually you may become more deeply invested in imagining what could be with this person, said David Wygant, a dating and relationship coach.
“Even though you’re not sleeping with him or her, there’s flirting and definitely something going on,” he said. “You’re reaching out to this person because you really need to feel connected.”
At some point, your actual partner can’t possibly compare with the other man or woman in your life, said Gal Szekely, the founder of the Couples Center for therapy in Northern California.
“In many cases you begin to have a bias and start seeing this other person in a good light your partner in a negative light, even becoming annoyed or frustrated with them,” he explained.
So by that definition, I’m not having an emotional affair if we’re just friends, right?
Of course it’s OK to maintain some privacy and forge new friendships while in a relationship. You just want to establish boundaries and maintain transparency with your partner, Szekely said.
“Your partner should be aware that these conversations are happening and you both need to be clear about what the boundaries and limits are of that new relationship,” he said.
Meyers agreed. “Just be sure you’re not taking attention away from the closeness you should be nurturing at home.”
And ultimately, you should be able to tell if your behavior is veering on the shady side, Wygant said.
“The bottom line is, we all know the difference between a friend and somebody we crave,” he said. “There is no borderline.”
OK, got it. But now I think I might be having an emotional affair. Help!
If you recognize yourself in the descriptions above, the good news is you haven’t taken the relationship to a physical level yet. You can press pause on your budding quasi-relationship, disengage and work on your actual relationship, said Meyers.
“Having any sort of affair is usually a symptom of an underlying problem in your life and in your relationship,” she said. “Something is missing that makes you vulnerable to temptation.”
Only after you address the weaknesses in your relationship “can you bring stable footing to your relationship and start infusing it with the love, attention, appreciation, and affection you and your partner both deserve,” Meyers said.
And if you’re not willing to fix what’s wrong in your existing problems, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your relationship status, said Wygant.
“Be honest with yourself,” he said. “Are you satisfied in the relationship and if not, are you able to communicate with your partner about why you aren’t? Ask yourself: Am I willing to work on the relationship — or am I just going to have a series of emotional affairs until I finally end the relationship?”
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