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Why do emotional affairs turn physical?

An emotional affair is a romantic connection between two people that does not involve physical intimacy. Often, emotional affairs arise when one partner feels their emotional needs are not being met in their current relationship. This unmet need leads them to seek emotional intimacy with someone else, forming a deep emotional bond that can quickly cross the line into inappropriate territory. Though starting out innocently enough, emotional affairs have a tendency to turn physical over time. But why is that? Let’s explore some of the key reasons emotional affairs often become physical affairs.

Intimacy Needs Aren’t Being Met

As mentioned above, emotional affairs frequently start because one partner feels their intimacy needs aren’t being fulfilled in their relationship. This could be due to problems with communication, lack of quality time together, mismatches in sex drives, or any number of issues that prevent a couple from truly connecting on a deep level. When someone then meets another person who seems to “get” them in a way their partner does not, it’s easy to develop strong feelings for this new confidant. They provide the understanding and emotional intimacy that’s missing at home.

However, emotional intimacy alone is often not sustainable long-term, especially for monogamous individuals. Humans have an innate, biological drive for physical closeness and sex that emotional connections alone usually cannot satisfy indefinitely. If the intimacy issues in the primary relationship are not addressed, the emotionally unsatisfied partner may eventually seek to fulfill physical needs with their affair partner as well.

Chemistry and Attraction Build

Emotional affairs are fueled by sharing thoughts, dreams, and vulnerabilities. When two people open up to one another at this level, it builds a powerful emotional bond. As they continue communicating intimately and learning more about one another, chemistry and attraction often grow alongside the deepening connection. Even if the relationship started platonically, flirtation and romantic feelings may gradually develop the more time the affair partners spend together.

This mounting attraction makes it increasingly difficult for the affair to stay “just friends.” There is a natural urge to want to act on romantic feelings that are brewing under the surface. As it becomes clear both individuals want more than an emotional connection, taking things to a physical level starts to feel inevitable for the pair.

The Taboo Factor

There is an undeniable air of excitement and taboo surrounding an affair. Partners are often drawn to the secretive, forbidden nature of their involvement, even if they don’t consciously acknowledge it. This element of the clandestine can act as an addictive dopamine hit for the brain’s reward system. It heightens the affair partners’ feelings for each other and makes them wanting more – not just more conversation, but more intimacy, more closeness, more physical contact.

Knowing the relationship is considered wrong by societal standards adds thrill and arousal. The adrenaline rush and “high” the affair partners get from sneaking around to be together pushes them to escalate things physically. After all, the more they risk, the bigger the dopamine reward.

Feeling Desired Again

For people in long-term relationships, especially those with children, the early hot-and-heavy romance often cools into a more stable, domestic partnership. The raw, passionate desire of the early days simmers down as the years go by. This transition is perfectly healthy for a maturing relationship, but it can leave some partners – often women who bear the brunt of domestic duties – pining for the excitement and electricity of feeling wanted.

An affair reignites that sense of desirability. The newness and danger of it stirs up those passionate feelings again. For affair seekers longing to feel attractive, sexy, and lusted after, that’s a very compelling experience. And it inevitably leads them to take things physical with their affair partner in hopes of recapturing the fire of early romance.

Loneliness in the Primary Relationship

Feeling lonely and disconnected from one’s partner is one of the most commonly cited reasons for seeking an affair. Even when someone’s practical needs are met by their spouse – things like financial support or co-parenting – they may still desperately crave true companionship, understanding, and a sense that someone “sees them.”

The intimacy of an emotional affair satisfies this unmet need for companionship. But emotional connection alone cannot banish feelings of loneliness entirely. The lack of physical touch, kissing, sex, and other physical intimacy behaviors in the primary relationship leaves a void. Affair partners often naturally progress to physical intimacy as a way to fully combat those lingering feelings of loneliness.

Validating Their Attractiveness

Midlife affairs are common as people start to feel less youthful and question their attractiveness. Entering into a new relationship, particularly with a younger partner, serves as a way for affair seekers to prove they’ve “still got it.” Having sex with someone new seems to validate they are still virile, fertile, and desirable.

Additionally, the positive feedback loop of compliments and romantic gestures from the affair partner further affirms their appeal. The hunger for this reassurance and ego boost often drives affair partners to consummate the relationship physically.

Crossing Emotional Lines Builds Guilt

As an emotional affair grows deeper, the partners often feel guilt about their secret emotional bond. However, this guilt can actually drive the affair to become physical rather than stop it. Once an emotional line has already been crossed into inappropriate territory, it becomes easier to justify crossing physical lines as well. After all, the damage has already been done to the primary relationship.

Since the affair partners have already invested so much time and emotion into the relationship, they feel compelled to take it “all the way”, even if they know it’s morally questionable. This prevents their efforts from being “wasted” and brings the relationship to its natural intimacy conclusion.

Physical and Emotional Intimacy Are Linked

It’s difficult for most people to entirely separate physical from emotional intimacy. Once a strong emotional connection has formed, there is a natural urge for physical expressions of that bond through sex, kissing, and other affectionate behaviors. While some affairs feature physical intimacy without emotional attachment, this arrangement is less common.

Once an emotional affair has gone on for any length of time, affair partners often find they have inadvertently developed feelings for each other. This blurring of emotional and physical intimacy frequently leads partners to share their bodies once they’ve already shared their hearts and minds.

The Endless Communication Cycle

The communication cycle of an emotional affair knows no breaks. Between work, kids, and other obligations, affair partners often have limited windows to connect. So when they do find time alone, there is a mad dash to bring each other up to speed on everything they’ve missed since the last chat or stolen moment together. This constant urge to catch up and share intimate details keeps the emotional spark alive between in-person meetups.

However, this cycle also bonds the partners together and escalates attraction. The more they open up, the closer they feel, which makes them want more time together, more communication, and ultimately more physical connection. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Increased Oxytocin from Emotional Bonding

Oxytocin is sometimes called the “love hormone” or “cuddle chemical” because it is released when people bond socially or physically. When two people engage in the intimate self-disclosure and vulnerability of an emotional affair, their brains release oxytocin, strengthening social attachment.

This oxytocin boost from their emotional affair bonding then motivates partners to seek further oxytocin release through physical touch and sex. The chemical reactions in their brains literally compel them to desire full physical consummation of the relationship.

Diminished Impulse Control

Carrying on an affair requires consistent lying, sneaking around, and covering one’s tracks. The affair partners become adept at saying and doing whatever is necessary to keep their relationship hidden. The longer this goes on, the more their impulse control may start to slip in other areas of life as well.

Specifically, resistance to the temptation of escalating the affair from emotional to physical weakens over time. Much like with cheating on a diet, once someone’s willpower is compromised, it becomes easier and easier to give in to impulses that were initially off-limits or taboo.

The Fantasy Becomes Reality

Early in an emotional affair, much of the intrigue lies in the fantasy of what could happen between the partners. Imagining all the ways they would explore each other physically provides a dopamine rush that fuels the emotional engagement. However, fantasizing will only suffice for so long. Soon enough, partners seek to make the fantasy a reality through physical affair consummation.

They may still continue engaging emotionally as well, but the physical component becomes a critical channel for truly actualizing the secret relationship they’ve envisioned. It takes the affair from an idea to an undeniable reality.

Trapped by Secrecy

By its very nature, an affair relies on secrecy and discretion, especially if one or both partners are married or in committed relationships. This secrecy makes it thrilling at first but can eventually start to feel isolating and trapping. The affair partners become one another’s sole confidants in the bubble of their hidden relationship.

This feeling of being trapped together with no one else to turn to sometimes imbues the relationship with a sense of doomed inevitability. If they have already sacrificed so much and shredded boundaries to be together, physically consummating the relationship starts to seem like a foregone conclusion.


While emotional affairs may seem harmless at first, they carry an extremely high risk of progressing to physical cheating due to a wide array of psychological and hormonal factors. Understanding why emotional connections so frequently cross this line can help shine light on unhealthy patterns and motivate people to seek solutions before betraying their partners’ trust.

If you find yourself growing too close to someone outside your relationship, take it as a warning sign that your intimacy needs are not being adequately met at home. Seek help through counseling or relationship coaching so you don’t wind up caught in a harmful cycle of physical infidelity. Prioritize reconnecting with your partner and directing romantic energy back into your primary relationship where it belongs.