Is Your Partner Cheating on You?
If you've ever felt the subtle, icy shiver that heads down your spine when your partner doesn't quite meet your eyes, you know it's an uncomfortable sensation. Perhaps there's been an argument or a disagreement, or maybe you've got one agonizing question eating away at you.
"Are they cheating on me?"
A unique intuition often occurs when we suspect someone is being unfaithful to us, regardless of whether they tell us what they think we want to hear. In a recent article on digital media site Refinery29 UK, writer Laura Pitcher asked: "How can we distinguish between an intuition that's bang on the money and an insecurity that has more to do with us than the other person?"
Infidelity is a difficult situation to navigate, in both how to recognize it and how to communicate about it.
Why do people cheat?
Lyndsey Murray, M.S., a certified sex therapist and owner of Relationship Matters Therapy in Hurst, Texas, said there are many factors involved when people cheat in their relationship and listed the four most recurring reasons she hears in her private practice:
1. Existing issues in the relationship
"If one partner feels they have expressed concerns in their relationship that never change, they can find themselves turning to an affair," Murray said.
2. Disillusion with the way things currently are
"Partners who avoid vulnerability and getting through conflict with their partner can find themselves turning to someone else," she said. "This is often people who have a disillusionment around their partner not being everything they wanted, expected or believed [they would be]. And they may think that a different person can fulfill their needs."
She added that this thinking doesn't usually work because there really is no one person who can fulfill all of our needs.
3. Trying to find an identity again
"A lot of times, we sacrifice freedom or autonomy for the safety we get from a committed relationship, so we have to remember that when an affair partner brings someone excitement, it's usually not about the affair partner at all but instead about them trying to find the piece of them[selves] that they feel they lost along the way," Murray said.
4. Sex as a means of emotional regulation
"Individuals sometimes have difficulty experiencing or showing empathy toward others, including their partners," Murray noted. "Sex can be a way to self-soothe, but if it's someone's only way of emotional regulation, it may feel like their option to be in control is to have multiple partners."
All of this is acceptable if you're in an ethical nonmonogamous relationship, but not if you're committed to a monogamous relationship, particularly one without discussions about changing that status.
Is this a gender thing?
Nicole Moore, a love and relationship coach in California and founder and CEO of Love Works Method, noted that men tend to cheat more often than women.
"Historically, men have been taught to suppress their fears, triggers and emotions," she said. "At its core, cheating is more an attempt to feel better or to feel something different rather than an attempt to score a hookup.
"It's more about emotions than sex," Moore continued. "Most men have simply not been given the space or education on how to process fears and negative emotions in a healthy way. And intimate relationships tend to trigger the deepest fears and emotions that men have been taught to run from."
Moore added that women cheat, too.
"For women, cheating can also signal an inability to regulate emotions," she said. "The difference I've seen is that most women cheat in order to gain positive feelings, aka validation, feeling loved, wanted or desired, while most men cheat to avoid the negative emotions present in their romantic relationship."
Identifying telltale signs
Reading someone's text messages (or violating their privacy at all) is never acceptable, period. However, there are a few signs that could help separate cold facts from a sneaking (and potentially unfounded) suspicion of cheating.
Terri DiMatteo, L.P.C., is a couples therapist and affair recovery specialist based in Princeton, New Jersey. She suggested the first signs lie in—you've probably guessed it—the current state of your sex life.
"Any change in sexual expression could indicate a physical affair," she said. "For example, if your partner is not engaging with you sexually, it could mean that sexual needs are being met elsewhere. However, a renewed interest in sex and sexuality could also indicate sexual infidelity."
Moore agreed, saying: "Sex isn't just sex, it's also a highly intimate experience. So if your partner feels guilty about cheating, they may unintentionally pull away from being that intimate with you for fear of being vulnerable and exposed."
DiMatteo pointed to more physical or aesthetic signs, such as your partner changing their appearance, using cologne or perfume, or showing greater interest in fitness.
Check out their body language, too.
"If you notice that your partner appears agitated for no reason, is super-fidgety or can't sit still, or their eyes are darting around a lot when they talk to you, these may all be clues that your partner has something to hide," Moore said.
And then there are the less physical—but no less identifiable—signs.
"Usually it's when someone isn't at home as much," Murray said. "Or you feel an emotional distance from them. You feel you used to talk about the intricacies of your lives and you no longer get that communication. You may also be able to tell if they become paranoid of you. They know they are doing something wrong and hiding it, and may start accusing you of the same since they know it can be done. Perhaps they don't want to answer questions that you have for them."
What about emotional infidelity?
They may not be getting naked but having your partner forge an emotional connection with someone else can be just as damaging, if not more so. And even though there is no actual sexual consummation of an emotional affair, the signs can be even more identifiable than those of a physical affair.
"One of the biggest indicators that someone is emotionally cheating on you is their behavior around the screen—phone, computer, iPad, etcetera—that they use to communicate with people," Moore said. "If your partner seems to be hanging on to their phone or device more closely and they immediately click off the screen when you come close, that may be a sign that they have something to hide."
DiMatteo pointed to technology as a key indicator, too.
"As emotional infidelity requires talking and sharing, a sign would be more time on the phone, texting, chatting or emailing," she said. "People having emotional affairs can be very protective of their phones and be more secretive about their email communications."
Then there's the day to day.
"A person engaged in emotional infidelity may disengage from their usual activities to talk and share with the emotional affair partner," DiMatteo continued.
Examining your daily interactions with your partner is a good place to start if you feel something is "off."
"Another sign that your partner is emotionally cheating on you is that they become distant and stop telling you about their day, their feelings or what's bothering them," Moore said. "If you notice that your partner isn't sharing their innermost world with you anymore, they may have invited someone else in to be their emotional support instead."
Finally, Moore said it could be a warning sign if your partner seems happier or smilier.
"Remember that elated feeling you once had when a crush texted you? The sad thing is your partner who is emotionally cheating on you may be experiencing the same highs from communication with their cheating partner," she explained. "If your partner keeps having mood changes and won't give you any indication of why, that might indicate emotional cheating is going on."
How to confront your partner
All the above signs could be the result of many other situations that aren't related to cheating. Confrontation is important if only so you can stop agonizing endlessly over signs that may have no relation to an affair of any kind and the whole scenario has a perfectly innocent explanation.
Plus, you may need to know whether you're being cheated on for very practical reasons, such as sexual health.
Confronting someone can be difficult, though, especially if you're confronting them about something you're not 100 percent sure is happening.
"My advice is to be direct, clear and concise," Murray said. "If you don't have any evidence of cheating but have a suspicion, don't go in stating something as fact if it isn't actually a fact. Tell them why you are suspicious, how it makes you feel that they are behaving differently and express you'd like to discuss what's happening."
Moore agreed, recommending that staying calm is important.
"Approach the conversation as if you were asking a friend if they were cheating, rather than if you were asking your partner," she said. "Try to be curious, unaccusatory and interested in the truth, not a condemnation of your partner."
A calm, mature approach is critical because it may encourage your partner to be honest, DiMatteo advised.
"If the spouse conducting the questioning is highly emotional, enraged or out of control, it makes it more difficult for the partner to be forthright and disclose," she explained. "Creating an atmosphere of trust and safety is more likely to bring forth an honest reply."
Murray encouraged you to really think about what you want to get out of the conversation, especially if your worst fears prove correct.
"Does this mean the relationship is over? Are you mentally prepared to hear their side of things? Do you want to get professional help to repair the relationship?" she said. "I know it can be hard to make a decision in the heat of the moment, but think about what you'd like to achieve when approaching them before you do."
And, of course, safety is paramount.
"If you're in an abusive relationship and worry about being harmed when confronting, make sure you have someone there with you and don't do it in a place that you wouldn't be able to get out of," Murray advised.
Hard as it may be, it's ultimately best to put that sneaking suspicion to bed once and for all. We can spend way too long agonizing over signs, but a direct approach is generally best.