Cheating can be a violation of another partner's physical and mental health when it occurs and is often a dealbreaker in a relationship. While cheating of any sort is often traumatic and upsetting for a partner, there exist a variety of ways in which their partner might cheat. Of the many ways in which infidelity can occur, the way a person cheats falls under the categories of physical or emotional cheating.
While overlap can occur between the two within a relationship, there exist a few differences between physical and emotional cheating that often differentiate the two.
1. Physical cheating requires a physical relationship, whereas emotional cheating doesn't
This is the most self-explanatory difference between physical and emotional cheating. When someone physically cheats on their partner, that means they've decided to engage in sexual acts without the knowledge or consent of their partner. Emotional intimacy involves emotional contact without the partner's consent, such as intimate conversations, extensive flirting and doting behaviors practiced outside the context of the couple's relationship.
2. Physical cheating may not involve feelings or emotional intimacy, whereas emotional cheating does
Physical cheating can involve long-term sexual relations with one person or involve sporadic incidences with multiple people. The archetype of physical cheating is cheating without feelings attached, where people have sex without attachment. While attachment can occur within physical relationships, the assumption is that physical cheating is sex-based.
Emotional cheating, however, is based on forming a strong bond and romantic attachment to someone in a way that's meant to be reserved for their partner. For emotional cheating, the cheater is deliberately seeking validation and affection through non-sexual contact and communication with someone else.
3. Physical cheating involves in person contact, whereas emotional cheating can exist in person or digitally
Physical cheating involves a formed sexual relationship, which can only occur in person. Emotional cheating, however, can include both in-person contact or extensive online communication with a non-partner. For example, a partner could be emotionally cheating through the extensive use of a dating app, wherein said partner channels their affection and emotions into the digital person instead of their partner.
4. Physical cheating is secretive, whereas emotional cheating might not be
In monogamous, non-open relationships, it is expected that each person in the relationship is only sexually active with their partner. For a partner that chooses to cheat, it is imperative they keep their new, sexual partner (or partners) under wraps to prevent sabotaging their relationship. Emotional cheating, however, can manifest gradually without being under wraps.
For example, it's possible one's partner could become romantically and emotionally involved with a friend over time, where time spent with a said friend or acquaintance grows. The investment and growth of the new relationship could occur within social circles that allow one partner to witness the new relationship grow over time. This gradual growth could be masked as a new colleague, friend or contact.
If a partner who's cheating exploits their current partner's trust, they could disguise their new relationship until they decide to leave or break up with the current partner.
5. Physical cheating can cause bodily harm to your partner, while emotional cheating doesn't
While both physical and emotional cheating can result in plenty of hurt, there exist potential health complications from physical cheating beyond impacting one's mental health. If one partner is having sex with one or more people outside their relationship, they risk transmitting STI's to their partner.
Certain STI's manifest in men's and women's bodies differently. Gonorrhea, for instance, doesn't always present with symptoms in women, similarly to chlamydia in men. Untreated STI's can lead to severe infections or infertility, or even cancer or chronic illness if a partner contracts HPV, HIV, syphilis or herpes. So if you and your partner were monogamous and you break that pact, you can put yourself and them at serious risk for health complications.
So if you didn't think cheating on your partner was bad enough, passing on a preventable STI makes you even more of an inconsiderate asshole.
Collectively, physical and emotional cheating are two broad categories of cheating that describe hurtful envelope behaviors within relationships. While both types of cheating often have behaviors that intersect, it's important to recognize what they are to protect yourself in the event they happen.