Date of Award

January 2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Counseling Psychology & Community Services

First Advisor

Kara B. Wettersten


The purpose of the current study was to examine what factors are involved in defining emotional infidelity among professional women who are in monogamous, cross-sex, romantic relationships. Constructivist grounded theory (CGT; Charmaz, 2014) was the qualitative methodology used within this study to capture participants’ lived experiences, perspectives, and worldviews. Eight partnered, self-identified women, between the ages of 30 and 50, who were established in their careers engaged in semi-structured initial interviews and follow-up interviews. Seven participants identified as heterosexual and one participant identified as bisexual. Race and ethnicity represented included White (6), Latino (1), and Black (1).

During the interviews, participants were asked about how they would define emotional infidelity, how it was differentiated from other relationships, such as a close friendship, and how technology might play a role in understanding this concept. There was also exploration of possible boundaries or agreements that were established within the primary relationship, such as in the context of work and through technology interactions. All semi-structured interviews were transcribed and analyzed through CGT procedures. Through data analysis and integration of participants’ perspectives and experiences, four main categories emerged including (1) defining emotional infidelity, (2) how emotional infidelity occurs, (3) relationship safeguarding, and (4) factors influencing relationship boundaries.

Furthermore, a substantive, though preliminary, definition of emotional infidelity was developed in this study and involves an emotional connection to an outside individual of potential or actual romantic interest that goes against the stated or unstated agreements of the primary relationship. Emotional connection includes intentional investment of time (physically and/or cognitively) and placing trust into a specific individual (sharing personal, vulnerable information about self and/or primary relationship) while withholding information (regarding nature of interactions with outside individual) from the primary partner. After immersion into previous theories and

literature on close relationships and intimacy, two amended definitions were also proposed, one that is informed by the triangular theory of love (Sternberg, 1986) and one that is informed by the sound relationship house theory (Gottman, 1999, 2011).

A literature review is included, which highlights relevant theories and prior research on infidelity, close relationships, work relationships, and intimacy. Limitations are also highlighted with recommendations for future research. Finally, there is a discussion of possible clinical implications, including ways in which practitioners can incorporate the findings of the current study into their work with couples that are in presumably non-abusive, non-violent romantic relationships.