“Here’s the thing,” I was explaining to one of the spouses that had recently come in for marriage therapy, “Your actions in here are very much like someone who is having an extramarital affair; I’m not just talking about physical or sexual contact—emotional affairs where you actually never see the person can be just as powerful. I’m only going to ask you one time—are you at all involved with another person who is competing with your spouse for your affection and attention? You can lie to me, and I’ll have no choice but to play along, but I can promise you that if you are involved in an affair, marriage therapy will not help you and you might as well go burn your money in the parking lot.”
This is a question I have had to ask repeatedly since starting marriage therapy in 1989. Sometimes the answer is a solid, “No,” and sometimes there is an admission of a hidden dalliance. However, if I’m asking the question to a spouse alone after meeting with the couple for a few sessions (since it’s an initial screening question), it’s because I’m about 90% certain that the spouse is having an affair and lying about it. I can usually tell by how they are engaging in therapy. More often than not, I eventually find out that I was correct and the person was indeed carrying on a hidden romantic relationship with someone else.
Sometimes I have been surprised that the spouse can’t see the signs of an affair. Most of the time it’s because he/she cannot imagine that the partner could ever choose such duplicitous behavior, which is why the eventual revelation of betrayal is so devastating.
Here are clues that tip me off that a partner might be hiding an affair:
- They are very protective of their phones. If your spouse won’t let you near his/her phone or it is always password protected, it’s quite possible that he/she is hiding communication with someone else. They will use the excuse that they are entitled to their privacy, but as a general rule, people who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.
- They will let you see their phones but…the history and messages are deleted or you see messages and contacts for people you don’t recognize. People are very good at disguising names of their affair partners.
- They are suddenly taking more care with appearance. It’s not uncommon for people in affairs to suddenly be more worried about their looks and hygiene. They obsess over wardrobe choices, work out more to be physically in shape, spend more time at the tanning bed, wear make-up to the gym, and generally spend more time in front of the mirror. Take note that if these behaviors are normal and ongoing for someone, it’s not a strong affair indicator. Sometimes people preparing for divorce will do the same things even though they aren’t actively having affairs.
- They are suddenly a lot more distant and irritable or a lot more solicitous and loving. The point here is that a sudden ongoing shift in behavior can be suspect. Sometimes spouses will be more annoyed with their partners, aloof or distant for no apparent reason, or they will be more attentive, because their mood is lifted by the affair, and/or because they feel guilty and are trying to make up for it.
- Their behavior in the bedroom is suddenly different. This is related to #3, where they can be more or less attentive suddenly. It’s also the case that they might be learning new behaviors with a different partner and are trying them out. Please note that just because your spouse wants to try something new doesn’t mean infidelity is occurring, but this is just one of several possible indicators taken as a whole.
- There are sudden changes in routine with no reasonable explanation. Longer and unexplained absences can be indicative of an affair. Sudden and persistent shifts in past routines sometimes parallel a spouse meeting up with someone else.
- They are getting up in the middle of the night to use the computer, when this wasn’t a pattern before. Lots of clandestine connections happen while the spouse is asleep and unaware.
- They have more password protection. Changing passwords or setting up accounts without giving a spouse the password are sometimes clues to extramarital behavior.
- There is general weirdness and new, unexplained behavior. I know this is kind of a catch-all category, but that’s because there is so much variation from case to case. Spouses often have a sense that something is different, but can’t quite identify what’s happening. Also, spouses who are having affairs do lie. A lot. That’s part of the infidelity—the deception. When confronted, if they aren’t ready to come clean, they can get very defensive and make their spouses feel crazy for suggesting such a thing. They gaslight.
You’re probably seeing the common theme that a big indicator of infidelity is a sudden shift in behavior, so the spouse feels different somehow. This list isn’t predictive, but if you’re seeing a combination of several things on this list and your gut is telling you there is something wrong, you might want to check into it. Please note that many spouses really have no idea that their partners were having affairs, because the partners were so adept at hiding it. Sometimes, part of the injury is that the betrayed partners feel so ashamed that they didn’t see the signs. This actually happens a lot.
Unexpected Affair Partners
Sometimes people experience complex betrayal when their partners had affairs with other people close to them. They don’t usually expect other people with whom they have a relationship to betray them. If a spouse had an affair with a co-worker, it’s painful, but it’s also a commonly perceived risk factor. Meeting people in hotel bars or at work events while traveling is another acknowledged risk factor which doesn’t surprise people, even though the betrayal hurts. If they don’t know the affair partner, they feel pain, but they can easily villainize the partner who is a stranger.
However, affairs happen from proximity and opportunity. In other words, people have affairs with people with whom they have ongoing contact. Over time, familiarity increases and people don’t maintain boundaries and end up in affairs. Betrayed partners in these cases feel doubly wounded and ashamed for missing the signs, but I think this type of affair might happen more often than not. Here are common but unexpected types of affair partners:
- A best friend of the couple. People are always shocked by a spouse having an affair with their best friend, but it happens fairly regularly. Sometimes it’s a situation where the couples hang out together all the time and build familiarity as a couple.
- A neighbor. Same process as a best friend–right under the spouse’s nose.
- Someone in the same exercise group. I’ve seen it with cycling, running, hiking, cross-fit, and gym routines.
- A member of a church congregation. This seems so ironic, and yet….proximity and opportunity. I see lots of these grow from texting, particularly when people exchange regular communication related to church projects.
- A family member. You might be surprised how often people have affairs with a spouse’s sister, brother, in-law, mother, father, aunt, uncle—I’ve seen it all (except every time I say that, someone surprises me with something new).
Lastly, please know that ANYONE can have an affair. Most people who have had affairs are people who had no intentions of betraying their partners. With easy access to former romantic partners via the internet, it’s more important than ever to maintain solid boundaries. Preventing affairs is an active process nowadays. Anyone who wants to have a long-term successful marriage must intentionally protect the marital relationship from ANY possible outside intrusion.
For a thorough explanation of the need for boundaries to prevent infidelity, read Not Just Friends by Shirley Glass. It’s not the newest publication, but it remains one of the best classic works on infidelity on the market.
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