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Signs of Cheating

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on December 22, 2020

What Is Cheating?

Cheating, also known as infidelity, is when a person in a monogamous romantic relationship has an emotional or sexual relationship with someone else without their partner’s consent.

Infidelity, however, doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all definition. What one couple would consider cheating might be a healthy part of another couple’s relationship. For example, is an emotional connection with someone without physical intimacy cheating? What about an online relationship? What if a couple practices ethical nonmonogamy?

Couples need to define for themselves what constitutes infidelity in the context of their relationship.

Signs of Cheating

If you’re already thinking that cheating might be present in your relationship, chances are it is. While there’s no clinical diagnosis that can uncover whether or not your partner is cheating, there are several signs that could mean infidelity is there.

Here are 10 well-known signs of cheating:

Protectiveness With Electronic Devices

Partners engaged in infidelity often cheat over the internet, either on their computer or phone. If your partner is overly protective of their electronic devices or defensive about spending time on them, that might mean they don’t want you to know who they’re talking to. 

Periods of Unreachability 

There might be times when your partner simply disappears and you have no clue where they are. That might mean that they are with someone they don’t want to tell you about. 

Different Levels of Sexual Interaction

While you might think that a person who is cheating would have less time for sex with their partner, this isn’t necessarily true. For some people, cheating actually causes them to feel sexually energized and suddenly start to seek out more frequent or different kinds of sex with the person they’re cheating on.

Inconsistent Explanations

Lying is much harder than many people understand, especially constant lying to a committed partner. While liars will do their best to repeat the same story each time they lie, they usually start to give inconsistent information when under stress or if asked the same questions in a way they’re not used to.

If your partner gives conflicting explanations for where they are, what they’re doing, or how well they know someone who you suspect they’re cheating with, this could be because they’re having difficulty keeping their lies consistent.

Altered Schedule

If working late is suddenly a new normal even though your partner’s job doesn’t really require it, they may not be telling the truth about where they are. 

Uncomfortable Friends

The friends of the cheating partner usually know about it before you do. If their attitudes and behavior change towards you, and you have no explanation as to why, it could be because they know what’s really going on. 

Inconsistent Expenses 

Sudden changes in spending habits can be a sign that there might be something else going on with your partner. A big red flag, for example, is unexplained large cash withdrawals. 

False Accusations of Cheating

Projection happens when a person who has done something wrong starts to accuse others of the same bad behavior and/or imagine everybody else is doing it, too. While mental health professionals disagree about how projection works, they do agree it exists. Projection is what makes a cheating partner more likely to accuse you or someone else of cheating.

It’s also possible for your partner to falsely accuse you of cheating because they’re just feeling jealous or insecure and not projecting. Unfortunately, that’s still a bad sign, because this kind of jealousy and insecurity is common in people who cheat. In interviews, some people reported cheating on their partners as revenge, because they believed their partners had cheated first.

Hypercriticism

Cognitive dissonance is what happens when someone believes two or more things that can’t be true at the same time. In the case of someone cheating on their partner, those mutually exclusive beliefs are that cheating hurts their partners and that they are kind people who wouldn’t hurt their partners.

People have a natural urge to fix their cognitive dissonance by rationalizing their opposing beliefs. This process is called dissonance reduction.

A person who is cheating on their partner will sometimes try to practice dissonance reduction by telling themselves their partner is not worthy of honesty or faithfulness. In order to prove to themselves that their partner isn’t worthy, they may begin to criticize or demean their partner on a regular basis.

If your partner suddenly finds fault with everything you do, you’re probably not the problem.

You Think They’re Cheating but Don’t Know Why

A large number of people who discover their partners are cheating on them are already suspicious for reasons they can’t quite explain. Some studies show that people can reliably detect lies unconsciously, even if they’re unable to discuss or consciously identify those lies.

If you have an uncomfortable feeling or a suspicion you can’t seem to justify, that might be your subconscious telling you that your partner is lying about something.

Dealing With Cheating

Finding out your partner cheated can bring up an array of emotions. You may feel angry, sad, guilty, betrayed, and more. It is usually difficult to think clearly immediately after you’ve found out about infidelity. You should consider the following:

Don’t Rush a Decision

This is a volatile and sensitive period, and it’s okay to feel anger and sadness. Seek professional help immediately if you think you might hurt yourself or someone else, or destroy property.

Reach out for Support

You should not keep your emotions bottled up inside. Try to find a release valve for that pressure. Share your feelings and what you’re going through with trusted friends and loved ones.

Consider seeing a therapist either alone or as a couple. A professionally trained counselor is a great resource to provide guidance towards reconciliation or establishing a new life without your partner, whichever you choose.

Be Accountable 

If you were the partner who cheated, an essential first step towards reconciliation is to take responsibility for your actions. Accountability is a non-negotiable part of the healing process.

Respectful Communication

Communicating respectfully is important — even if you and your partner don’t stay together. This is especially important if there are children involved. Parents should respectfully negotiate a custody agreement to avoid harming their relationship with their children. Married couples should focus on responsible communication to help aid the divorce process.

If you hope to reconcile, your partner may request that you end all contact with the person you cheated with.

Reestablish Trust 

If you decide to stay with a partner who has cheated, you’ll need to figure out a way to regain lost trust. The partner who cheated may want to seek individual therapy to help ensure the infidelity won’t happen again. Agree on a timeline with milestones and how you will work together to reach them. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

APA Dictionary of Psychology: “cognitive dissonance theory.”

City University of New York: “A Grounded Theory Investigation of the Subjective Responses From Partners in Couples Where Infidelity Has Occurred.”

Computers in Human Behavior: “Do You Have Anything to Hide? Infidelity-Related Behaviors on Social Media Sites and Marital Satisfaction.”

Frontiers in Psychology: “Learning to Detect Deception from Evasive Answers and Inconsistencies across Repeated Interviews: A Study with Lay Respondents and Police Officers.”

Journal of Personality: “Freudian Defense Mechanisms and Empirical Findings in Modern Social Psychology: Reaction Formation, Projection, Displacement, Undoing, Isolation, Sublimation, and Denial.”

KidsHealth.org: “Helping Your Child Through a Divorce.”

Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy: “Pathways to Infidelity: The Roles of Self-Serving Bias and Betrayal Trauma.”

Marriage & Family Review: “Permission-Giving and Marital Infidelity.”

Mayo Clinic: “Infidelity: Mending Your Marriage After an Affair.”

Psychology Today: “10 Signs Your Spouse Is Cheating.”

Trends in Cognitive Sciences: “Can Ordinary People Detect Deception After All?”

Swell: “A Therapist on How to Rebuild Trust After Infidelity.”

WomensLaw.org: “Divorce.”

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