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

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

Which is Worse Emotional or Physical Affair
Emotional Affairs: A 3 Part Series
  1. Part 1: Which is Worse? Emotional Affair or Physical Affair
  2. Part 2: Is an Emotional Affair More Destructive Than a Physical Affair?
  3. 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? If you’re the unfaithful, what do you find hardest to grieve and work through emotionally, right now?

What about the situation bothers you most: what your mate did with their genitals or what they did with their heart?

Which do you think 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 pursuing 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, and, it was 36 plus years ago. The information and help available was primitive at best.

Nevertheless, 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 growing amount of information regarding affairs, but I’ve not seen many genuine surveys trying to identify which is worse, an emotional or physical affair.  Maybe to some of you, the answer is obvious, but until you ask you never really know. Although, I’m quite positive that to many who are in crisis, you really don’t know which is worse, and that’s OK.

Just a couple years ago, we asked our own community to take a survey to help us understand this reality. I’ll be dissecting the results and sharing them with you throughout the rest of this series. If you’re in crisis and feel stuck, or you’re just trying to get your life back, I’d like to encourage you to consider enrolling in our free First Steps Bootcamp which you can find here. Please don’t underestimate the power of our boot camp as it will generate authentic momentum in both your own situation and if given the chance, in your spouse’s too.



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My partner used sex traded Korean prostitutes, rationalizing to himself that it was OK because there could never be an emotional attachment with any of them. My heart is broken that he was low enough to use disadvantaged females. I always thought of any man worth having as protectors of women. not depraved users.. It is almost impossible for me to get over that he was able to use a woman's body when she wanted no part of his. He is 59 he preferred women in their 20's and didn't care whether or not they even spoke english. Its nine months post DDay and my gut remains wrenched that someone I respected and loved was that heartless and selfish, with a character that flawed and empathy completely lacking. I am suffering through coming to acceptance that any of this really happened. Its a hellish process. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

I would only wish it on the

I would only wish it on the woman who threw herself at my husband. I hate to say it, but I wish she could endure as much pain as I have. The pain is like no other.

Sorry to say but I feel the

Sorry to say but I feel the same as you also. I'm still healing from the so called, ''sex only, no feeling, just physical'' affairs my husband had with women who told him to leave me and stay with them. Good for them that I never knew what was happening at those times. The endings would have been very different for all included.

Physical is worse for me

My wife had two separate affairs about two years apart. The first one was an emotional and a cyber affair, and I got over that one rather easily. Her most recent affair was physical and it is much, much harder. The idea that she was having intercourse and oral sex with another man and then coming home to me is a nearly unbearable thought. It will take me much longer to get over that. An emotional affair left no “mind movies” to deal with.

emotional>> physical

IN my own pain i have to say the emotional, she gave away to the AP. I got past the physical aspect and she got past that quickly too. It is that affair fog that takes so long for the justification, empathy, love and compassion to come back for the BS and responsibility, guilt and action to work on the marriage to arrive for them: more entangled = more time.
Reading studies that have used dating websites to interview US, its clear that the majority of the reasons these people are there is for the sex and there own selfishness. A very small % describe being in love with the person they are cheating with and the majority of the interview responses were from women. It's the thought of your spouse giving away the love that was supposed to be for you and your family to be given away so easily and then not come back so easily. That knowledge that they gave away all that is crushing to the spirit and hard to overcome. i still feel like there will always be that wedge in between. Its going to take a lot to bring back her love for me, especially when she doesn't work on her own stuff.


I think physical is much worse because you cannot catch an STD from Facebook fantasy affairs. Facebook has given narcissist people the perfect platform for their secret affairs.

STD's are a possibility

Well the physical aspect can result in your partner bringing home a DISEASE. This will lead to the body getting sick, an embarrassing trip to a doctor, test/blood test, an examination of your private area. Then the wait for the results which I can imagine would be an utter nightmare. And then the possibility of you having a positive for ANY number of diseases. 1 out of 4 people have STD's that's insane 25% of any group of people have a DISEASE that is sexually transmitted from person to person. And partners who engage in risky sexual activity are even MORE likely to get or have STD's. When I found out about an emotional affair that was just likely caught before it could get physical this was one of the most horrible possibilities to me. I take care of MY body and I let him into my person space and intimacy. I work in healthcare I know HIV Hep C Herpes... all can be hidden very well by those who have it. When I searched the woman my husband had an emotional affair with public record she had pot charges and her ex was a hard core drug abuser. This woman was brazen enough to meet a man from the internet... the likelihood that she has something is VERY high. I would of never forgiven him for tainting my health and my body. The emotional aspect hurt so badly but the though of the betrayal and being physically punished in my own body would have been a nightmare.


I will never understand how my husband could purposely hurt me so much. How does one ever move forward with someone who was willing to cause that much pain and how does any woman of moral substance hurt another woman that way. Just having a hard time moving forward even though sincere apologizes have been made. The emotional immaturity of an affair is so hard to understand. Do I really want to share my life with someone that immature?

I worked with affair recovery

I worked with affair recovery for atleast 2 years and full disclosures and polygraphs. I spent 40k in therapy. I ate the affair recovery a non refundable deposit of 1k and another 1.5k on plane tickets. Therapist after therapist. Sex and love addiction therapist, h4h, HH, and then I started to really understand what the problem was that no one was suggesting. Not until I started to really understand the behavior that no one suggested. Abuse. Narcissistic abuse.
Multiple affairs, gaslighting, triangulation, stonewalling, blame shifting, smear campaign, silent treatment, cognitive dissonance, trauma bond, narcissistic supply, primary source, secondary supply, reidolization of old supply sources, idealization, devaluation, discard. I am in therapy for narcissistic abuse and ptsd that started from tripping up on her affair that lead to another one to another one. These people don't change and will not change and to say that they will is ignorant. There is no cure and not one case shows that a cluster b can change. They can lesson the abuse but they will not change. I spent so much time sinking deeper and deeper into emotional thinking and codependency from having hope and thinking it was limerence or shame or ambivalence that it did extreme damage to me and my children. Finally I was able to meet with a well known psychologist and author that explained "human magnet syndrome" and showed me why it doesn't really matter what type affair it was because I needed to get out and stay out. I see a lot of people on the community wall that have no idea what they are intagled with and keep the cycle of abuse going because they are not getting good logic advice but are incouraged to continue to withstand the abuse.


I’ve been dealing with the same thing! A year ago my husband disclosed dozens of sexual partners, most paid sex, during my recovery from a tumor at age 36. It was devastating. We began working with an therapist immediately, and had no success at all recovering and healing. Finally my personal therapist saw the big picture, diagnosed my husband with a personality disorder, and uncovered the real problem. Narcissistic abuse. Our recovery sessions ada couple were causing much more harm than good because they were perpetuating abuse. It wasn’t until I tried to take my life that someone dig deeper and saw what was really going on.

Every therapist needs to really scrutinize the level of abuse before trying to save the marriage.

It doesn’t matter

Both are devastating and it is really hard to convince me one happened with out the other on some level. If physical did not happen it is only a matter of dates.

Narcissistic abuse. Emotional

Narcissistic abuse. Emotional abuse.
Hey, I understand; went through the process for thirty nine years. Nothing will change a person with this perspective on life. My wife used guys, then gave them the boot, and went on to the next affair; thirty plus times.
Good luck, and may you heal.

Mental or Physical

Busterlee, you hit the nail squarely on the head! Lest anyone live through the horrific abuse from a Narssisist and have it identified by a professional trained to treat those harmed, will it be recognised that it is neither the physical nor mental aspect of the affair that causes the most pain. It is only after we have invested more time, money, energy on recommended resources, continue days, weeks, years of more abuse, blame, shame, change our thoughts, ourselves in attempt to save our marriage, do we come to the realization that the discovery of the affair was only beginning to awaken us to a facade of a person we've vowed to invest our lives with. Resources offering help to save your marriage after an affair never address the fact that there are circumstances outside of the affair that need direct attention before you can even begin the work. Unfortunately, there is a limit to their education and as to their faith, with their guidance, that a marriage can be saved after an affair. As I struggle through the knowledge that I can't save my marriage, I've done all I could and simply it could not be fixed in the first place, I hope the team at AffairRecovery takes some time to educate themselves on Narcissism and finds a way to incorporate this important information. It is a form of abuse rarely recognised and goes much deeper than the mental or physical trauma related to an affair.

5 years down the road

Not so much emotional as physical for me. A lot depends on the circumstances of the affair. When discovery came 5 years ago, it took a very long year for the drip drip truth to finally come out. When it eventually did I discovered my husband's first cheating experience had happened 9 years into our 36 yr marriage at that point. Fast fwd to 2005 and my husband actually came to me one morning and confessed an emotional affair he had with a coworker. The next day confessing to porn watching.

6 years down the road

Not so much emotional as physical for me. A lot depends on the circumstances of the affair. When discovery came 6 years ago, it took a very long year for the drip drip truth to finally come out. When it eventually did I discovered my husband's first cheating experience had happened 9 years into our 36 yr marriage at that point. Fast fwd to 2005 and my husband actually came to me one morning and confessed an emotional affair he had with a coworker. The next day confessing to porn watching. I went through all the emotions....screamed and yelled. Kept it quiet. Then it was never spoken of again. Fast fwd to 2012. I got what i thought was a stray fb message from a man i did not know, telling me my husband was trying to hustle his wife. I confronted husband, he of course denied it. Then this man sent me their conversations. As it turned out, my husband had had three physical affairs, one that had just ended, so he was looking for another sex partner. And he had many dozens of sex chats with other women, which led to other physical sex meetings, one night stands.. His reasoning was that since I was very sick at the time, he didn't want to bother me and he just felt like he needed sex. I even would ask him.....are you ok, because you're not going to hurt me...we can have sex. He assured me it was ok. Then, he started being really hard to get along with.... there were plenty of signs, I just did not recognize them, because I thought he would have never in a million years done something like he did. It all came to a head when I actually caught him in a van with a woman getting ready to have sex.... all hell broke loose. We lived apart for 5 months, went to very good counseling and finally he manned up and has done the right thing. However, we do not have sex anymore. Partly because I can't stomach it, and partly because he is so ashamed that he did it he can't bring himself to approach me. Of course, there is a lot more to our story, but we have both come to the place where we just accept where we are. He is 71 btw and we are both now retired and there is no more opportunity for him to go elsewhere. So, that was a long story to say that the physical side is what was hard for me.

I feel the physical was more painful

My wife had both types of affairs, over thirty nine years.With thirty affairs and counting, I no longer have the energy or the heart to try and resolve the mess. She was/ is addicted to the process of bringing down another man. When I finally realized she never was interested in making amends, I was able to let her go, and sign the divorce papers, last year (year forty six). Believe me, I tried my whole life, to salvage my marriage, and give it another chance. The hole she left in my heart, will never be repaired. David

Different but the Same

My wife had an emotional affair with our children's teacher. When I discovered it, she was more annoyed that the friendship with the teacher was over than the discovery. She got very animated when I indicated I would be sharing his XXXrated SMS with the Principal of the school. He was sexting her during school hours!
Her second affair is the one which ended our marriage. Started as an emotional affair - her running partner - shared interest. Soon they were spending weekends away together, overseas trekking holidays. She introduced him to our children and they would all run together. Even though I'd had the snip, she started taking the pill. No transparency, no honesty, no admission of guilt. Always got the "just friends" mantra. She became expert at gaslighting. It was turned back on me. I was the crazy one checking up on her. It became apparent that her mother had coached her in lies and deceit.
God has shown me that there is something better in store for me. My future is bright. I have the love of our kids, my family and most of our mutual friends.

Which is worse?

My wife had three affairs that I'm aware of. The first two were only emotional - allegedly. The last was emotional and physical.

(I say allegedly because the only reason she even confessed this last affair to me and acknowledge that it was also physical is because she was pregnant - so she couldn't exactly say otherwise. With the first affairs, she said there was no real physical element other than kissing, hugging, or snuggling, but no sex - as she states that she got scared when they wanted to advance to sex and "cut things off". Now however, with this last affair involving so much sex, I am finding it hard to believe that the others didn't as well, but that she feels like she doesn't have to admit it because there is no "proof" e.g... no baby.)

So, back to the point. When she disclosed her first affair to me, it was hard to hear, but because there was allegedly no sex, though hurt, I felt like we could recover and move on. We spoke with our ecclesiastical leaders and worked through things, but never sought counseling or looked into anything like the Affair Recovery programs. I felt like we had moved beyond it and that things had improves some, though there were still some unresolved concerns, mostly with our communication.

When she confessed the last affair to me, including the fact that she was pregnant, initially, I didn't feel too much different than I had with the others (denial stage of loss), but as I stewed over things more, it started to really become bothersome to me (anger stage of loss). Then as I learned more about how much physical interaction there had been, it became devastating and excruciating. Even with the counseling and working through the Bootcamp and such, I feel completely broken.

Granted, there are a number of variables that also add to the situation: the fact that there is a child; the fact that she has remained in contact with him even after insisting the affair was "cut off" only to tell me later that it was a lie, and having that pattern repeat itself several times during the two years since the initial confession; the fact that she has been "nickel-n-diming" me with the disclosure information, telling me bits and pieces over time, rather than getting it all out on the table for me to deal with and work through; etc.

However, despite these factors, the physical element of the affair has been devastating to me. I believe that this is significantly affected my personal believe that sex is the pinnacle expression of affection you can share with another person. The fact that she shared that so much with another man, when she never seemed interested in sharing it with me, has been more painful than I can describe.

Her therapist has explained to me that it was because 1) she can't handle true intimacy: sex with me requires that we deal with the mundane elements and responsibilities of life, it requires that we have good communication, and resolve our differences when they arrive (all things that she avoids); sex with her AP on the other hand, involves no responsibility, no need to resolve differences that exist in a marriage but not a fantasy affair, etc.; and 2) because of the taboo of it; the fact that having sex with your husband is socially acceptable and thus boring, while extramarital sex is "taboo" which adds an element of excitement and stimulates additional chemicals that make the sexual experience more satisfying.

I have found, however, that her explanations for why my wife was so intensely sexual with another man, while avoid physical intimacy with me for our seventeen years of marriage, I have found that these explanations feel very empty.

I asked my wife if she agreed with me that sex is the pinnacle means of expressing affection for another person and she said, yes: validating to me that he felt so much for this other man that she pursue sharing herself with him sexually more times in just one of the six and a half years of their affair than she had with me in seventeen.

This has left me feeling as though she has never really cared about me at all. She insists otherwise, but how can believe her?

So, which is worse? Emotional or Physical?

Can the two really even be separated?

Doesn't one just lead to the other or isn't the one merely an expression of the other?

emotional is worst

My husband had an emotional and physical affair.
It all started at work for a month they went to lunches and stuff like expensive presents to convince her and after that they had sex. They work together and there is nothing I can do about that.
Since I've found out we had 3-4 DDays and I each time I will ask him the same question "What is she to you now?" and his reply was most of the time "a good friend/co worker". Last discovery was yesterday when he admitted he had sex after the first DDay when he promised me she is nothing else but a colleague and he is done with her.
Since I still see that in her emails she is not giving up and he refuses to put her into her place in writing in a reply ....i assume he is not free from the emotional stuff.
He is still saying that from his point of view they are only business involved and there are nothing else but his actions with her don't prove this. Still doesn't let her go emotionally. This is the hardest thing I think. We are stuck in this in our recovery. Also until now there has been no full discovery and stuff are coming in front of me from time to time.....
Do you have an advice for me as a betrayed how I can handle this: she is still there with him 8 hours a day, working together and not giving up on him.

Physical or emotional

I think on line affairs are fantasy because they are not real. They usually burn out as soon as the two characters meet. They do indicate a needy emotional immaturity that is scary.
Who wants to be with someone that needy?

Insulted to the core

Thank you for starting the conversation of which is worst.... I am sure that some affairs can be slotted into one or the other but I doubt they all can.

It took my husband eight months to fully disclose what and why his affair took place. At first he claimed it was "just sex." That he and his AP could stop it and walk away at any point. The deception my husband subjected himself to is disturbing and sad. How can an affair be "just sex" when they talk almost every day? It can't be. Yet when he had to face what he had done and been doing and see it from my eyes he was horrified to see how many times he had betrayed me and our marriage and disgusted at how she supported and encouraged that behaviour. They were out of their minds. For someone that appeared as all sunshine and rainbows in his life is now viewed as acid rain and shadows.

For me, believing that his heart is mine is the only thing that keeps me in this relationship. BUT. During those eight months and through the hundreds of lies he told me, he also spouted some truth. I was becoming increasingly frustrated because of his lack of cooperation. My questions became more and more detailed and specific just trying to piece this together. At some point his brain must have figured answering any question was better than actually telling me what happened. So he answered.....

My husband and I have been together since high school and I have born four huge beautiful babies. My insecurities lead me to ask if she "felt" better than me. Instead of continuing to lie he decided to answer, by not answering. What he said was, I am better at oral.... as though that was a satisfactory consolation prize.

I am having the most incredibly difficult time allowing that to slide. Even though I know his heart is mine. I am so beyond offended and insulted. I should never have been put in a position to be compared in that way

So with that, NO. I don't know which is harder to deal with. This woman who announced that " monogamy is stupid" and and encouraged this behaviour, who has never had children, not a stretch mark insight or more than 10 extra pounds gets to forever "feel better."



I had no idea my husband was having an emotional affair until he told me. It was a massive shock as we were happy and worked well together well so I thought we did. He cried and said he was feeling like a burden and that I deserved better (he is disabled) so was speaking to someone pretending it was me to avoid the reality. He said he thought I did not want him and was more his carer and if he spoke to me it would become real and i might leave him which he didn't want. We was not intimate my choice not his as I was exausted and he always tried initiating it but never told me how he was truly feeling. He said he just wanted "porn to think about him and me being intimate" and that he was happy with our life. We have restricted internet for child protection so he spoke to someone on a game who sent personal videos but when the AP started talking about being together he said it made him realise she was a person to and it was not what he wanted. He gave me access to everything messages videos photos etc and everything he said seemed true. I messaged the AP pretending to be him to confirm whether he had covered his back and all came back that they had spoke for three weeks nearly he never tried to meet in person, videos were non personal (private area only no face) they never video called etc. He said it was never about being with another person and that he loved me only but I still found it difficult to comprehend and made him do a lie detector and he did it with no questions asked and passed. When I think about it I still feel so hurt that he didn't come to me. I do not know if I will get through this because I can not feel the same ever again and I feel bad because he has done everthing I have asked of him and more. I know if it was physical I would not even try I could not be with him as I am the only person he has even been with and what was special would be gone forever. I think emotional is bad but maybe pysical personally would be worse.

Emotional tolls

My husband had several affairs with both physical and emotional factors. The physical things hurt, angered and frightened me. He put me in a position to potentially be exposed to disease. We have children together and the idea of becoming ill or having a permanent health issue (AIDS, HIV, herpes, etc.) is indescribably enraging. The emotional aspect hurt me to my core and beyond. It’s the part I struggle with in recovery most. I saw so many texts between him and his APs. That was how he was caught. He told someone he was in love with them, that he couldn’t imagine his life without them. He told another that he wished they had met sooner in life so he could have known what happiness was. Sure, I think a lot of things he wrote was just words and bluster to make himself look and sound good and that he was just saying things he didn’t mean. Or maybe he meant it in the moment but it was all part of the fantasy and world ir delusion and make believe he was so desperately trying to live in so how could they be taken as genuine and real? What hurts is the private things he shared about me, about my past, about traumas I have had to endure. The responses of disconcern they gave and judgements they passed, without knowing me. Things I haven’t told people close to me, he told to APs and proceeded to tear me apart over, that he allowed them to tear me apart over and never came to my defense or championed my honor. Also, the times he was soft and tender to them about their complaints and issues. Times where, when I have faced similar issues, he has been put off or inconvenienced by my sorrow or upset, before and since his affairs. He says he is paralyzed to know how to communicate with me or to be comforting. He claims this sources from our relationship mattering where those didn’t. I don’t have any ability to process or accept that. Having seen him be open, communicative, responsive and tender with a total stranger and then be paralyzed with me after 20 years of caring for him, being a good friend, supporting all of his endeavors and helping him pick himself up in any failure, laughing and crying with him, sharing more of myself with him than anyone else, how could that type of betrayal not ruin you down to your soul?

Emotional or physical

I truly believe physical is worse because of STDs and the high risk of transferring to ones spouse. After all we are not talking about extreme levels of integrity so we all have to assume that we have been exposed to hpv if not worse.

Friend Only Affair?

I recently found out my wife had an emotional affair with another man. She did not have sex with him, but didn't meet with him three times without telling me. And the 3rd time she met with him they did kiss. I have talked to my wife intensely about everything in the past six weeks since this has happened and I found out. I don't believe she wants to have a physical relationship but she greatly misses the friend she had emotionally with him. Everything I've read and everything my gut tells me is there is no way she should continue contact with him even if she showed me all of the text messages. She told me about him originally when she met him and she tried to get our families together. Both of them really wanted us to be friends as families. My question for this group is would there ever be a reason or possibility of being friends with this family? The only reason I ask is because my wife is in great depression and sadness now but fighting hard to not contact him and to be honest with me about how she feels. Her heart and feelings have changed toward me, but I'm praying it's just the affair fog that she is still in. She's very confused and distraught right now. And I believe she is still in withdrawal from the cocaine like feeling she had by talking with him. There were a few follow-up texts and phone calls my wife made to him after I found out, but I believe he's trying to do the right thing and has now stopped responding to her. My wife is of course devastated, and I believe knows that friendship and relationship is over, but it's killing her. What should I do to help her through losing what she believes is a best friend?

My boyfriend of two four yrs

My boyfriend of two four yrs who is an addict started an emotional affair with another addict 2 yrs ago. It's all online and there has been slow disclosure, but it's in pieces, every bit of disclosure is just less of a lie. It is tearing me to shreds because I love him and want to be with him. One day I am ok, the next not. One hour I am ok, the next not. I love myself, my kids, my family, but I have seriously never felt this kind of pain in my life and I don't know what to do with it.


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