EVERYTHING’S OKAY WITH your partner…or is it? If their behavior seems off, and you suspect cheating, it can make you feel angry, anxious, or both.
“Finding any signs of infidelity [is] like a heart attack to the relationship,” says Talal H. Alsaleem, Psy.D., LMFT, an infidelity recovery specialist. “It’s an indication that there is something seriously wrong in the relationship, or on the individual level of your partner, so it needs to be treated as a priority.” This is not an issue to sweep under the rug.
To be clear, cheating can be a breach of any exclusivity agreement you have with your partner—for instance, having an emotional affair, sexting, or even flirting—which means it isn’t necessarily limited to physical contact. And infidelity can be a particularly hurtful kind of trauma, because it’s happening from a loved one versus from a stranger, says Christene Lozano, M.S., LMFT, a certified sex therapist.
Potential Signs of Cheating
But what are the signs of cheating? They’ll vary from person to person.
Remember, just because your partner has exhibited these signs, it doesn’t mean they’re definitely unfaithful. For instance, while some sources may say your partner’s new underwear is a sign, these sexy upgrades might just mean they want to look better for themselves, or for you.
Alternatively, there also are people who “hide very well,” Lozano says.
Check out these signs of infidelity, along with expert advice on how to address any suspicions. (Hint: Sources do not suggest channeling Law & Order detectives to find the facts.)
Being suddenly overprotective of their phone.
Some people generally keep their phones private to maintain their individuality. And some people have to be protective of their devices because of work restrictions, for instance. But if you used to have permission to hop onto your partner’s phone, and now you don’t, this change could signal an issue. Similarly, if your partner now carries their phone around more often when they used to leave it near you, this might be a sign, Lozano says.
Having a burner phone.
If they’re not on the lam—because hopefully not—why do they have the other phone? Of course, harmless second phones, like work phones, exist. But Lozano says some people will use burner phones when cheating. And some cheaters start stepping out from the beginning of their relationships, she says, which means their daily habits don’t seem to change. So if you’re suspicious about your partner’s new or long-standing second phone, this might be a sign.
Clearing chat windows or browser history.
Nothing wrong with cleaning up. But if your partner can’t stand for you to see their online activity, this can be a problem. In fact, secrecy is one of the most common elements of infidelity, says Alsaleem, also the author of Infidelity: The Best Worst Thing that Could Happen to Your Marriage: The Complete Guide on How to Heal from Affairs.
Starting to delete texts.
Some people generally clear their text histories, and that kind of person is not who we’re talking about, says Alsaleem. But if suddenly they’re deleting everything, or only deleting messages from one contact, this may be fishy.
Using certain apps.
Some people who suspect infidelity will check their partner’s phone records, says Alsaleem. So if your partner is suddenly communicating using apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, or Kik, this could be a sign, he says. (We’ve even heard of people keeping secrets via a makeshift calculator app.) And if their behavior also seems weird—like if they start communicating only when you leave the room—this might be suspicious. That said, some of us just have platonic international contacts, and WhatsApp or similar can be best for those situations.
This could happen because they got hacked or want to keep their accounts safe. But if the password changes are sudden or all-encompassing, and you have other concerns, this could signal something off.
Stopping the use of shared devices.
Are they just more private or is this new independence more sinister? If your partner suddenly rejects the devices you used to share, they might be hiding something.
Changing sexual desire.
Sexual changes can happen because of health reasons, like having lower libido due to medication or stress, or having other sexual dysfunction. So if the issue could be health-related, your partner can talk with a health care professional. But if medical or other relational issues like difficult communication don’t figure in, and your partner wants way more sex, super different kinds of sex, or much less sex—their change in desire might be influenced by other activities.
Changing personal grooming.
This is like our early clothing example: A new look could mean they’re merely trying to look better for themselves or for you. But if they’ve never cared about grooming and all of a sudden their downstairs grass is getting mowed more regularly and precisely, it might be a sign. An unclear sign, as Alsaleem confirms, but possible.
Giving you big gifts.
Presents are great. But if you’re suddenly feeling like you’re being bribed, this could be a sign of infidelity. And yes, it’s counterintuitive. But becoming a super partner, says Alsaleem, may be how some people try to counteract cheating.
Making other grand gestures.
This is similar to the gifts example. Like, maybe they’ve resolved to spend all day watching back-to-back games with you when they hate sports. Or maybe they’re doing all the work to plan the epic trip you’ve been wanting. Don’t necessarily assume the worst. But sometimes people show up more because of guilt, Alsaleem says.
Exhibiting selfish behaviors.
If your partner is arrogant and entitled, narcissism may figure in, notes Alsaleem. And “narcissism is a predictor of intentions towards infidelity,” researchers wrote in a 2020 paper in PLOS ONE. So if your partner already has these tendencies and exhibits selfish behaviors with a lack of remorse, this could signal something untoward. (At minimum, it can make sense to question your next steps. Because do you want to be with someone like this?)
If your partner gets defensive when you express curiosity about their behavior, versus showing compassion if you’re confused, this also might be a sign, Lozano says.
Having financial problems.
If you’ve been having money issues in your relationship—maybe you’re arguing about it, seeing strange credit card charges if you share accounts, or your partner stops planning for big joint purchases—this could signal a problem. For instance, a “poor economic situation and financial problems faced by couples were other causes of infidelity in marital life,” wrote researchers in a 2021 paper in Practices in Clinical Psychology. So while money problems are a leading cause of divorce, they also can figure into infidelity.
Spending more time away.
Personal interests are great. But if your partner suddenly has multiple business trips or a very time-consuming new hobby—especially if they’re vague about their whereabouts—they might be spending that time with someone else.
Suddenly being unreachable.
We all have our own lives, and everyone doesn’t want to, or cannot, answer texts or calls immediately. But if you suddenly can’t reach your partner for, say, days, or for other unusual periods for you both—and they, um, don’t work for emergency services or a national security agency—this could be a sign.
Deceit is a major red flag. If your partner has been dishonest about other things, or they can’t keep their story straight when you ask about their super friendly coworker, be on alert.
Reducing emotional openness.
This is a big one. A reduction in emotional intimacy may look like your partner no longer wanting to share details about their day, or no longer sharing deep feelings. You also may notice that you feel more like roommates than partners or no longer have deep conversations, Alsaleem says.
What to Do if You Suspect Your Partner Is Cheating
Your first instinct may be to make serious accusations, but don’t, Lozano says. Because while these issues may signal cheating, they also may not.
Similarly, if you’re tempted to confront the person you think your partner is cheating with, Alsaleem advises against it. That’s because the other person may not even know your partner is in a relationship, or the other person could exaggerate or minimize the story. Plus, if your partner has had an affair in the workplace, confronting the other person can bring on human resources issues or even legal problems, he adds.
“The narrative should be really coming directly from the unfaithful,” Alsaleem says.
That said, do discuss any observations with your partner right away, Alsaleem says.
Instead of coming in hot, Lozano suggests starting with a “curious” attitude, particularly if you’re noticing a number of signs. She says you can say something like: “I’m noticing these behaviors, and there are a few of them, so I want to better understand why these are happening. Can we talk?” Or, she says you can say something like: “Hey, I’ve been noticing [insert behavior]. The meaning that I create around that is [fill in what you think]. So I wanted to check in.”
And while you may be tempted to ask, straight up, “Are you cheating?”—because, look, you want to know—Lozano says closed questions like this can allow for less discussion.
So do your best to communicate. And remember you can figure out how to move forward…no matter what.