Which is worse: Physical cheating or emotional cheating?
There are no two ways about it: cheating sucks.
Not only is it incredibly heartbreaking for the person who’s been cheated on, but it can also affect that person’s trust – with that betrayal leading to other issues down the line, such as not being able to accept it when staying in the same relationship or being unable to trust future partners.
There are two forms of cheating – emotional and physical, meaning while some people feel heartbroken over a physical act such as sex, others feel more betrayed by their partner confiding in someone else, leading to actual feelings for someone else, and mimicking the closeness and intimacy of a romantic relationship – even if nothing physical is ever involved.
Yvonne, a therapist, describes emotional cheating as an individual having an intense connection to another person, which usually arises through sharing emotions of which vulnerability is probably the most important.
If two people can feel vulnerable with each other a strong connection can form. When someone cheats emotionally they are emotionally connecting with feelings.
‘This in itself isn’t the infidelity but more how this changes the individual and how they feel about their current partner. It’s very difficult to emotionally connect with more than one person at a time so any emotional connection from one relationship will take it away from another.’
Yvonne adds that physical connection is ‘the body using its senses to feel that connection’, where the most important part of the urge is touch – and usually for sexual gain.
Through her time at The Affair Clinic, which aims to counsel couples who are dealing with betrayal, Yvonne has seen people incredibly distraught from both emotional and physical cheating.
She said: ‘We wouldn’t wish either on anyone. Both involve the long journey to either repair a relationship or start a new chapter.
‘A good way to look at it is in terms of the sex cycle. So a man is like a gas cooker, turned on from the flick of a switch. A woman needs much more warming up time, like an electric hob!
‘A woman generally needs to feel an emotional connection with someone before she feels she wants to engage in sexual/physical activity. It follows then that men feel the pain of physical cheating harder and women find emotional infidelity much harder to deal with.’
Though emotional cheating is very prominent, Yvonne says physical cheating recurs more often – which she says may be revealed because it’s easier to detect and that couples feel there is more chance to heal after physical infidelity.
However, Yvonne adds that woman are actually more fearful of emotional cheating than the act of physical cheating.
‘In terms of individuals we see more women who fear their partners are emotionally attached to another woman. This is backed up by the amount of men we see who are emotionally cheating,’ she said.
‘Generally the men we see confirm it was first a physical attraction and for the affairs that last, it later became emotional. Affairs that start as physical but involve no emotional connection tend to fizzle out quite quickly.’
In terms of which type of cheating is worse, Yvonne says it can depend on gender as to how we deal with each situation.
For instance, men may feel vulnerable when having been cheated on physically due to feeling he is in competition.
Yvonne said: ‘Men find it harder to forgive physical cheating than emotional. They see another man as having something they don’t physically which hits a man harder than a woman.
‘Women find emotional cheating harder mainly due to the factor of time. Time is crucial to an emotional connection and women see how much more has been invested than for a one night stand for example. The time emotional cheating takes is evident two ways.’
She continued: ‘An emotional connection builds slowly. It takes time to feel comfortable enough to share emotions with somebody. This means somebody has invested time that could have been spent on the primary relationship.
‘Any connection involves time. However, a physical connection can be made and moved on from quickly. Emotional connections can be built in a variety of ways and using a variety of methods so somebody is constantly thinking of different ways to connect especially with the rise in social media.
‘They connect at any time of day or night, they just need a phone.’
Though people react differently to each type of betrayal, both leave mental scars and damage trust – which Yvonne says is a ‘crucial element’ that can be shattered by any kind of cheating.
According to her, physical cheating can have very long-lasting effects due to both men and women being left with disturbing images that invade their thoughts both night and day. These thoughts are said to be able to take over a person’s mind daily for as much as two years.
‘Emotional cheating can also affect mentally by leaving victims not knowing where they stand,’ explained Yvonne.
‘An emotional connection is hard to quantify, it’s impossible to know how far someone has fallen because only they know what is in their minds and even they may find this hard to verbalise.’
She added: ‘Most psychologists would agree that men find physical cheating harder to deal with and women, emotional cheating as above but we would say the raw emotion we see every day can’t make one more painful than another.
‘In terms of longer lasting effects, we all agree here that for our clients they find coming back from emotional cheating so much harder because of the investment that has gone into it.
‘Having said that, from a couples counselling perspective, people who have cheated physically tend to be more determined to get their marriages/partnerships back on track than ones that have invested in emotional infidelity, so we see many more couples where physical cheating has occurred.’
In terms of being able to forgive both physical and emotional cheating, despite the pair creating different emotions upon reveal, both can entail a long road to recovery, with average couples taking between two and two and a half years to feel they are properly getting back on track after any kind of infidelity.
‘It’s hard work,’ said Yvonne.
‘From our notes demographics show us a pattern. As we’ve mentioned men can’t forgive physical cheating as much as women and women can’t forgive emotional as much as men.
‘Our younger clients seem to find physical cheating harder to deal with and we’ve seen a large part of that attracted to body image and how it makes them feel about themselves to be cheated on physically.
‘Those from more affluent backgrounds seem to struggle more with cheating generally but more the physical side but are more determined to try and make a relationship work.
‘As therapists working in this area everyday we find emotional cheating much harder to unpick with both individuals an couples. It’s hard but rewarding to help someone understand what they are looking for in an emotional sense when they cheat but we usually get there!’