Norman knew his wife was not happy. They were in counseling, but he was worried that it was already too late. One day, a thought took root in his mind and he could not shake it: “She’s having an affair.” He started to look for specific proof but it was hard to pin down. But that thought was in his head because the proof was all around him—it just wasn’t the kind of “proof” that you can take a picture of or throw in somebody’s face. If you are asking yourself, “Is my partner cheating?” chances are you already “know” because the warning signs are there. You just need to know how to see them.
What will tip you off?
1. Changes in behavior. Marla was suspicious when her husband, Dan, started listening to old Sam Cooke love songs, stuff he had not played for years, maybe since he and Marla first dated. These and other slight alterations may seem quite normal—people do change their musical tastes from time to time—but combined with a few other clues, Marla thought there was reason to worry.
Some other signs range from the usual clichés (late meetings, lots of extra work-related travel) to the less obvious. For example, surprise gifts, calling more often or, suddenly taking an interest in your water-lily garden or stamp collection—these behaviors can be motivated by a wish to distract you or pacify their guilt or both. Justin noticed his girlfriend was rather moody lately, but she suddenly unpacked all the bins (that had been bugging him) in the guest room that she had been putting off for over a year. When she did it, out of the blue, he got a funny feeling about her motives.
2. Secretiveness. I know that sounds super-obvy, but some of forms of secretiveness might be so subtle you would not necessarily catch on. It’s not always whispered conversations in the other room. One day, Diane noticed that when her girlfriend got texts, her screen notification settings had changed. Instead of the first few lines of the text message appearing, it was just an alert that someone had texted. Diane wondered why Michelle had changed the settings on her phone. When she asked, Michelle had an answer ready: “My students were getting nosy.” Michelle did not leave her phone alone with Diane any more after that.
If your partner suddenly has a password protected phone and computer, no longer answers calls in your presence, never leaves the phone sitting out or the computer open…. These behaviors might not even register at first. It’s when a few little changes become evidence of a bigger agenda that you might think, “Hmmm.” For Matt it was when Patty suddenly offered to go out and do those annoying last minute or unexpected errands. It struck him as odd. For most of their relationship, Patty would say, “Honey, we’re out of tea bags. D’you mind running out and getting me some English breakfast?” Now she’d say, “I’m just running to the store for a minute. I forgot something when I was out earlier.” Sure enough, these outings were a chance for her to call her lover.
3. Changes in appearance. When we live with someone for a long time, we let it all hang out. Hair in a ponytail, old flannel pajama bottoms or baggy sweats, no make-up, no shaving… unless you’re going out or to work. It’s one of the beauties of a committed relationship. “You know I’m gorgeous, so I don’t have to prove it to you every second of the day and night.”
But suddenly your guy shaves before going to the gym—and by the way goes to the gym a lot more—what’s that about? Your girlfriend dabs on lipstick or spritzes on perfume to grocery shop. A sudden urgency about teeth whitening, or waxing, or tanning, or tattoo upgrades— warning signs. I actually knew someone whose husband became all agitated about making his 30 year old tattoo look better. He started calling tattoo artists to find someone skilled at spiffing up old artwork. Later, the affair he was having ended and, lo and behold, he did not care about his old tattoo any more.
4. Picking arguments. Everyone squabbles now and then. But when your partner suddenly goes out of his or her way to provoke an argument, you have to wonder why. It’s a red flag if your partner suddenly becomes extra critical—your job doesn’t pay you enough, your friends are jerks, your family is pushy—and asks you impossible questions—“Why can’t you wear a tie to work?” or “What’s the point of parasailing? It’s such a pointless hobby!” or “When did you start saying ‘righteous’ all the time? You sound ridiculous.”
I was at a weekend house party once and saw this behavior play out with Steve and Pearl. One day in the kitchen, Steve, sounding nasty, was saying, “You always drink too much when we are out with people. Remember that time when you passed out at Lem’s engagement party?” When Pearl said, reasonably, “Yeah, I did drink a bit too much last night. Sorry about that. And that party was 15 years ago!” Steve said, “That’s not the point. You embarrass me,” and stormed out. Pearl told me, “He does that all the time now, like he’s looking for reasons to be mad at me or to find fault.” Sure enough, Steve was cheating. Now that he had someone else, nothing Pearl did was good enough. He was looking for any justification he could find to make his behavior “okay.”
5. Sexual shifts. There is no rule-of-thumb when it comes to how a cheater will behave sexually towards his or her partner. The classic shift is away from sex with the partner, higher likelihood of pulling away from advances, failing to initiate hugs or kisses. However, that is not always the shift you will see. Often, someone who is in a heightened sexual state due to an affair will be even more interested in sex at home, interested in trying new things, for example. Because women tend to cheat out of unhappiness, and men cheat more often because they can, women are more likely to pull away sexually. In fact, as with Norman’s wife in our first story, the sexual shift may have started even before the affair, making it less easy to tell.
You know your partner. You know when he or she is happy, agitated, worried, excited, bored. Listen to your intuition, but realize you could misinterpret signs… so be careful.
Next week I’ll write about why people cheat, and the following week about how to safely have the conversation with the partner you suspect is cheating—in a way that protects you and has the best chance of a positive outcome.