Nip Infidelity in the Bud

Here are 7 signs your mate may be thinking of straying.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 19, 2006

Think cheating is something that can never happen to your relationship?

Think again.

Statistics from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy suggest that 15% of wives and 25% of husbands have had sex outside of their marriage. When emotional affairs or sexual intimacies without intercourse are included, the number jumps by 20%.

But straying is not inevitable, no matter how many soap operas you watch, says Frances Cohen Praver, PhD, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in Locust Valley, N.Y., and the author of Daring Wives: Insight into Women's Desires for Extramarital Affairs.

"For the most part, people don't just go out and cheat. There are warnings," she tells WebMD. The good news is that knowing the common signs and addressing them head-on can save your relationship from infidelity.

"The most common warning is when a partner tells you something is amiss and you don't believe it," Praver says. "He or she may say, 'This marriage isn't working,' or 'I am not happy.'"

"This is akin to being hit over the head with a 2 X 4," Praver says. "If your partner is reaching out, take the bait," she says. "First open up a dialogue, and if you can't get anywhere, consider couples therapy."

Is your husband talking about getting botox to eliminate their frown lines? Did your wife recently start coloring their hair and scrapping their jeans for a low-cut black dress? If so, this may indicate they are on the prowl, experts say.

"This can make you bitter or better," says John Van Epp, PhD, a therapist in Medina, Ohio and author of the forthcoming How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk: the foolproof way to follow your heart without losing your mind.

"If they are going through changes and you are fairly certain no one else is involved, this is an opportunity," he says. "Join in and spice up your relationship."

"If your partner says, 'You need to see a psychiatrist,' 'You need help,' 'Get a job,' 'Lose weight,' or 'Go to the gym,' and is constantly critical, it's all part of the same theme -- which is that there is something wrong with you," points out Elizabeth Landers of Gross Pointe, Mich., co-author of THE SCRIPT: The 100% Absolutely Predictable Things Men Do When They Cheat.

"Unconsciously, they are setting it up to say their partner was nuts and wouldn't even go for help." "Another tip-off is when he or she starts picking fights about something you are good at, so you fight back and then he or she calls you argumentative," she says. "These things happen 100% of the time."

"If a man says 'I have grown and you haven't,' the natural reaction is that he is being critical and insulting. But talking about feelings is good," she says. "Encourage him to talk more because he will feel that you understand him," Landers says. Use a counterintuitive approach, she advises. "If a man says to his wife, 'Those two women are attractive', her natural reaction is to say, 'I don't want to hear it,' but encourage him so he will feel that he can talk to you about anything and that can keep him to words -- not action."

On HBO's The Sopranos, mobster Tony Soprano often presents his doting wife with lavish jewels so she will look the other way about his extramarital activities. "Sometimes it's a guilty, look-the-other-way gift or a see-I-am-really-a-good guy-even-if-I-leave-you gift," Landers says. "It could be a diamond bracelet, a cashmere sweater, a new car. Or if you are former President Bill Clinton, it could be the state of New York," she says, referring to Clinton's now notorious philandering and his wife Hillary Clinton's ascension to New York's senator. "It may seem normal to think, 'He's obviously not cheating; he just gave me this gorgeous bracelet' -- but don't be fooled," she says.

Don't turn the other cheek, she says. "It can be so frightful if it's true that it is difficult to accept [potential infidelity], but addressing it early, even with no concrete evidence, can help save the marriage," she says. "Speak up early because if you think something's wrong, it probably is," she says. "Trust your instincts. You will be much more likely to be successful in saving the relationship if you catch potential problems early."

"If you get the cold shoulder at your husband's company holiday party where everyone used to be friendly, it's a sign," Landers says. "His colleagues either know about the affair and figure you are on the way out, so why be nice? Or your partner has been making critical comments about you so they think you are no good."

"Don't make excuses," she says. "Bring it up and open the lines of communication as soon as you notice anything unusual," she says. "When your doctor prescribes pain medication, he or she will tell you to take it before the pain gets really bad because then it is more likely to be effective," she says. The same holds for marital problems.

"One of the red flags is when a partner is sneaking around a bit," Praver says. Maybe they take secret cell phone calls on the porch instead of using the phone by the bed, or maybe they are out on weeknights whereas they used to be home watching television, she says. "If you see that a person is not around that much and is gone on different nights, something may be up," she says.

"Obviously you have to confront a person and say, 'What's going on here?'" she says. "Once a person has been found out, they must 'fess up and that can be the first step in rebuilding trust," she says. While not necessarily advising it, Praver says people can check call logs on cell phones to see if there really is fire where there is smoke.

"Sometimes people with a background of these types of things may be more likely to repeat them," Van Epp says. "There are exceptions and people can change patterns in their life, but if we are talking about red flags, history is a red flag."

"It may be more up to the individual to set strong boundaries in these cases," he says. "You can't necessarily protect your spouse from having an affair, but you can come to an agreement about how far you will go in relationships outside of the marriage," he says. For example, pre-emptively discuss how much you will open up to people outside of the relationship as a way to safeguard against affairs down the road, he suggests.

But remember that nothing is fail-safe, Van Epp says. Many people who stray do so from a relatively good relationship.

Praver adds that affairs don't necessarily mean a marriage is over. "An affair can bring about change," she says. "A partner may need more companionship; they often don't have affairs just for sex."

Show Sources

Published June 19, 2006.

Sources: Frances Cohen Praver, PhD, clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, Locust Valley, N.Y.; author, Daring Wives: Insight into Women's Desires for Extramarital Affairs. John Van Epp, PhD, a therapist in Medina, Ohio. Elizabeth Landers, co-author, THE SCRIPT: The 100% Absolutely Predictable Things Men Do When They Cheat. American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy web site: "Consumer Update - Infidelity."
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