Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Emotional Affairs: Part 1 - Which is Worse? Emotional Affair or Physical Affair

Emotional Affairs - A 3 Part Series:  

Part 1: Which is Worse? Emotional Affair or Physical Affair
Part 2: Is an Emotional Affair More Destructive Than a Physical Affair?
Part 3: Will it Ever End?


In your opinion, which is worse an emotional affair or physical affair? In the midst of my affair I believed it to be the physical aspect of the affair, but in retrospect my opinion has changed. Long before the physical began the emotional affair thrived. After the affair ended it wasn’t the sexual component of our relationship that was last to fade, rather the loss of the friendship seemed the greatest loss. If you’re the betrayed which bothers you most? What your mate did with their genitals or what they did with their heart? Which presents the biggest barrier to your recovery.

In our situation one of the first questions we had to answer was what to do with the friendship. My affair partner was my wife’s best friend, her husband my best friend. If the physical affair stopped was it okay to continue our friendship as a couple? It may sound crazy, but in the insanity of discovery we didn’t know the answer. One counselor suggested no contact for five years and then, at the end of that time, if we were still interested in pursing the relationship we could make contact and explore that possibility. (As I write this I can only imagine what some of you are thinking; “Are you out of your mind? How could you possibly consider being in relationship with them again…”) But remember they were the people closest to us during that stage of life. Losing those friendships was huge.

Much to my surprise at the five-year mark my affair partner’s husband called and asked if he could come over and talk. “Absolutely” I told him and we set a time. What happened was nothing I ever expected. When he arrived I invited him into the kitchen and we sat down at the breakfast table. “I’ve got to tell you something” he began. “It’s been eating at me these past five years.’ “While you were having an affair with my wife I was having an affair with my office manager”.

I was shocked. He had displayed righteous indignation when the affair had come to light. I suspect it was his anger and unforgiveness that eventually caused their relationship to fail.

“I hope you can forgive me” he said. “My pride kept me from admitting my own failure” “Please know it wasn’t your fault that my marriage failed. It was my own doing.”

That was the last time I ever saw him. The appeal of resuming the friendship had long since faded and we realized we had moved on, but that conversation remains indelibly burned into my mind.

The web contains a plethora of information regarding an emotional affair, but I’ve never seen a survey trying to identify which is worse. Maybe the answer is obvious, but until you ask you never really know. So we asked our community to take a survey to help us understand the reality and we will disect them and present the results to you.

I’ll share the results through the rest of this series.




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Which Is Worse

What bothers me more - what he did with his heart or what he did with his genitals? Well, frankly, the answer is neither - it is what he did with my heart that is bothersome.

My husband cheated since we

My husband cheated since we were dating. 30 years. I found out 4 months ago. He wanted to be a bad boy and appear to be a good guy too. Cruel and evil. He never connected emotionally. He gave his body. It hurts that he lied. He let me think he was all in when he was not. I feel rejected, lonely, and unloved.

I agree

Yes! Willful and conscious decision to turn his back on my requests that he stay away from her while it was an emotional affair. There is no way to decide one over the other. His declaration of love for her in words or passionate desire to be with her.... They paved their way to the affair by massacring my character... He killed my heart when it was an emotional affair and again with the physical.

I 100% agree with this

I 100% agree with this answer.....its been just over a year and my heart is still broken.  I don't think of the emotional or physical part of my husbands affair daily like I used to, but the void that the affair has left in my heart is a daily presence and I often wonder if it will ever feel whole again.

I 100% Agree

Almost a year into discovery and I finally am able to put my feelings into words, thanks to what you just wrote! That is exactly how I feel, like my heart will never be whole or that I will never be safe again. Ty!

Which was worse?

The emotional abandonment, the thought that there was something about me that he could not love and he loved someone else in ways he cannot and never has loved me.  I wish that I could forget that but when I feel alone and three years after discovery I still do, I stand alone.  I am alone in the emotional upheaval that was what was left of my life.

You summed it up

You summed it up perfectly. 

I don't know if you had any foresight to your spouse's lack of investment, but I had no idea mine was so unhappy that he felt compelled to find solace with another.  Maybe had he confronted me first, we could have both tried to work this out and not be in this current mess. 

This does change your life forever. 

Affair Recovery: Which is Worse? Emotional Affair or Physical

I could not resist commenting. Well written!

By far the EA is the worst

My wife had an EA a little over three and a half years ago and i found out about three years ago. The pain that is left in my heart seems to always be there no matter how much time goes by. It may be less on some days and worse on the others. 4 months prior to me finding out i had a feeling something was going on and questioned her. The answer was no, but the disconnect was definitely there. Then after i founf out i could see the long term deceit, lying and sneeking texts and emails. I found some of her and her AP emails on our computer and was so angry and sick feeling and also so hurt because the content was something that i would have loved to hear from her to ME, i can still see those emails in my head very vividly. I had always sent her romantic emails, cards, flowers, flattery and all the things a good husband should but never really got anything back of the magnitude of "care" in her emails to him. June, i am with you on this, somedays i feel so alone eventhough we feel we have worked things out between us. This has definitely changed our lives forever. It will fade but it will never really go away. I am working hard at this and trying to give it to God and keep praying for his help everyday.

emotional or physical

Both are heart-breaking. Both are a betrayal and a disregard for the hurt spouse. That is hard to answer. Both are so difficult to comprehend and accept.

It's been very difficult

It's been very difficult getting over the fact that my husband had a cute nickname for his AP. He's never had one for me and when I read his text messages, I was so hurt. It still bothers me, even after 10 months.

My husband used the same

My husband used the same nicknames for his affair partner that he has used with me for the thirty plus years we have been married. His affair was ALL online, phone, emails, texts etc. escalating to phone sex and cyber sex. She never met him in person. In spite of only knowing him online, she was so convinced that he was leaving me and going to marry her that she contacted our adult daughters and in doing so exposed the affair to them and me. But the hurt wasn't confined to this affair. I found out that he had been writing poems and letters to numerous women for decades and making hand written copies for me. He is emotionally abusive . It almost seems like he can't tolerate any joy in my life.

Emotional vs. physical affair

That is definately a hard one. But after some time & an extreme amount of consideration, it would have to be the emotional aspect. For my husband, this woman who had been my friend, became an addiction to him. He truly missed "talking" to her 30 times a day. That is what hurts the most. He preferred her company over mine & our childrens'. Even after 3 yrs. since finding out I know he misses, or is still talking to her. How do you get past that? What is this need she has created in him? She isn't more attractive & definately not a likable person, and I know she has been very jealous of me over the years. Sometimes I wonder if this was more about her hurting me than really wanting him.

I just wish I could figure out how both of them can go through life in this small town & appear to have no conscience or remorse....This has not only hurt me deeply but also our teenagers. Our 15 yr. old daughter at the time is the one who found this out at school & had to tell me. I will never be able to understand the hurt either my husband or this woman, has been able to cause a husband, a wife, & 5 kids. She & her husband divorced & I still hang in there. Most of the time I have no idea why. This has destroyed our family as we once knew it & I don't know if our now, 18 yr. old daughter will ever be able to forgive her dad.


EA vs PA

I am so glad you are addressing this.  I've been so conflicted every since finding out my H's EA.  Sometimes I feel like I am being unreasonable when he insists that "it was nothing, we never had a rendevous or touched."  No, it is about giving that time, effort, emotion to someone else when it should have been invested in US. 

Each of the responses is so true.  I feel a part of me in each response. 

"It is not what he did with his heart or genitals, it is what he did to MY heart."  So true.

what bothers me most?

The fact that he pretended to love me. The fact that he didn't give me the consideration of making a choice in the relationship.  If I had the truth, I could make a knowledgeable choice of whether or not to have sex with someone who was having sex with someone else.  I was not given a choice.

He is free to be with her ~ whoever she is. I was not free to make a choice.

Emotional vs physical

Both represent a heinous transgression and, in assessing the ‘damage’, we shift constantly along the continuum between the emotional and physical. While the physical, in my mind, represents the final confirmation so to speak of the affair, not truly knowing what my spouse still feels for her affair partner eats like a cancer. Clearly she entered into the affair willingly and so cannot blame her affair partner or shift her responsibility in that regard. It is hard to conceive that a person can make affirmations of love repeatedly and consummate that position and not retain feelings for the affair partner. Will an unfaithful spouse ever tell the truth re his or her feelings about the affair partner going forward? It is not likely! That being the case, do we now end up with a situation where our spouse has feelings for us and the affair partner? Do we end up in a ‘shared’ emotional place where that door having been opened will not stay so firmly closed in the future? When our spouse after recovery affirms his or her love for us what does that mean? How deep or shallow is that commitment? Shared language but different interpretations, and does our interpretation coincide with that of our spouse. Clearly it didn’t in the past. Maybe on one of your forums you could address that specific aspect – just what does love mean to an unfaithful spouse post recovery? What feelings do they really retain for their affair partner? Clearing that uncertainty would definitely make for a solid base on which to spend the rest of your lives together. My wife says she loves me now. I believe her. But she said the same to another. So what do her words really mean? In the absence of that clarity, that she was so easily able to expose the children and walk away from our relationship leaves that question constantly unanswered – how solid is this ‘new’ relationship?

This comment echoes my exact

This comment echoes my exact thoughts on emotional and physical affairs. The physical affair "represents the final confirmation of the affair". Prior to finding out about the physical part, I somehow convinced myself that the emotional affair was not as deep as it was. It wasn't until I found out about the physical affair that I realized how bad things were and how big of a liar the one person I trusted most was. We're trying to move on, but I too am haunted with questions on how my husband really feels now for me and for his affair partner. I choose to put myself out on a limb by "trusting" him for now, but the truth is that I can not really trust him and his emotions.

Which is worse?

For me both are devastating, but I think the emotional one is the worst because thats the one I  experienced the most and is the one that happens first before the physical one.  I could tell that emotionally he was no longer wiith me and the physical one was just the confirmation. I used to observe how sweet and nice he was with other ladies, how he showered them with praise on their beauty and attires and none was coming my way despite all the attempts I made. After the affair was out in the open he still continued talking and meeting up with the AP for emotional support can you believe it, and when his mother died it was to her than he turned for comfort so I think emotionally it wrecks your guts and wits and its the worst thing that anyone can ever deal with.

My h's sexual addiction was

My h's sexual addiction was prostitutes and strip clubs. Although one would think that is strictly physical, there is total emotional abandonment as well. In my healing process, it has been helpful to realize that there was not an emotional attachment to the person(s) he was with physically.

It all hurts.

I do agree that the emotional aspect of it hurts more. It's 2 years later for me and everything I shared with my husband he shared with his AP. It wasn't just a matter of the affair happening, it was that my privacy was being violated and who I was as a wife and mother where being judged by a young woman who had barely reached adulthood.

Emotional or physical pain

It's emotional hurts that he could not think of me or our family and kept seeing her all these years when I thought he had stopped. Makes one feel unloved, unwanted and not valued. He hurt my heart mostly still does.

Love & lies

Finding out about the physical affair was the most awful moment of my life, but it was finding out that he loved her that made me wish I'd never met him, and wish that one or both of us were dead. Worse than both was realising how much he had deceived me and lied. It was his inability to stop lying that killed our marriage and my love.

reply to Love & Lies

The emotional aspect and his lies are what I've having the most difficulty with. I know everything, but he continues to lie about having his affairs. He refuses to cut off communication with the women (yes, women). He says he will not be manipulated by me, but in reality, aren't I the one who is being manipulated. There is no trust, I'm thinking I can keep trying if he is just pretending.

Both are devestating! The

Both are devestating! The entire situation is devestating! Nothing is ever the same no matter how you try to make it be. I am not as hurt, angry or distraught as I was, but that does not negate the fact that it happened. My husband cheated on his AP. He had two APs. How crazy is that? I forgave him for both and stayed with him. Is that crazy of me? I'm trying desperately to move forward and he is too, but it lingers in the back of my mind and I am trying to be very cautious with my heart and feelings....if that's possible. I don't think it is. God bless all of you on your journey of healing and wholeness.

Which is Worse?

For me the emotional component of my husband's affair is the most difficult to comprehend. After being a faithful wife of 27 years and bearing his three children, how could he respect me so little? Where was the honesty and concern for his family? When did he become so incredibly selfish?

Total Betrayal

My husband's former mistress found him on facebook and they started their relationship up again. It was an emotional affair. She wanted him to move in with her again. (They lived together before we were married.) My husband had abandoned me years ago to go live with her but he returned home and I took him back. He cut off contact with her back then. I will never understand how he could have a "friendship" with her. Not only was she determined to end our marriage, I doubt she even cared for him. I don't think she ever loved him. She had four abortions when they were together. Obviously neither of them were thinking of anything but their fun. I don't understand why he went back to her again after twenty years of our marriage. This has nearly killed me. I am going to the doctor to see about counseling and maybe medication. Even though he broke up with her again, I can't seem to get over this!

Even though my h's affair was

Even though my h's affair was mainly emotional, I still consider it somewhat "physical" because it dealt with some touching each other in a nonchalant manner. It still hurts just as bad as if they would have done a real physical affair, and he thinks he has been faithful to me since we have been married due to that it was not a physical affair. But to me faithful means, there is no one else taking your intimate thoughts away from you & your spouse. It has been hard on me considering that he was talking about marriage to the AP and talking about me to someone who is barely old enough to order an alcoholic drink. I know I don't know what it is like to have a husband commit a physical affair but really I think sometimes the emotional is just as bad or even worse, because if it was with a prostitute at least it would be easier to end the contact and never see the person again but emotional could last for years just like mine did.

The Worst?

The EA I saw and tried to tell my husband why it was not a good thing but I just got told I was jealous and controlling. He really believed he wasn't doing anything wrong. At least when it became physical he knew he was wrong. He wanted to go back to being "just friends" with her but she was set on leaving her husband for mine. Me finding out about their meetings ( she lives in another state) was the only thing that could have stopped it for good. He would have continued the EA out of guilt that he "lead her on" and to keep her from disclosing the PA to me. Thank God he stopped my husband from deleting an email she sent him outling their affair that she was threatening to send to me. I think part of him wanted me to find out. He knew that I checked the email on his phone. Again, thank God!

Same situation!

This article made me cry because I am in the same situation. I had an affair with my best friend's spouse and our families were all very close, and what is even worse, neighbors! Having to let go of the AP is hard enough, but we have the added layer of having to let go of the friendship, and dealing with how my actions affected my own children (who where best friends with their children). The pain is unbearable. So many times I have wished I could take it all back. I would much rather have the friendship back then any of the "secret" memories we created together. I still don't understand why this happened and regret every moment spent on the affair.

Emotional roller coaster

I went through a situation where my husband had an affair with my BF and she passed away in a horrific accident. She was married with two kids. The kids were very close to mine, and I even took her in after her husband was abusive, well she had affair with my husband and I found out after her passing through her husband about the affair.my husband swore up and down about it only being emotional, which I felt very sad and angry of what I wasn’t providing for him... after a year of trying to find out the whole truth about the affair, he finally told me in was also physical. I think I broke down even more at that point.., of knowing how real they had things going behind my back. I’ve felt so stupid!!!

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