A little while ago I wrote a blog rambling about trust and promised to write in more detail about trust later on. I had hoped to be able to write something new today, but late papers from students have put and end to that hope. Fortunately, I have a piece I wrote a while ago that is about trust and breaking trust.
One area in which trust is critical is in a romantic relationship. Not surprisingly, such trust is often violated by cheating.
Put in very general terms, cheating involves straying outside a committed relationship in order to have sexual relations with another person or persons. Some people also consider emotional infidelity to be a form of cheating and that could also be considered cheating-although defining it could be somewhat problematic.
People cheat for a variety of reasons, but there are two main motivations that are almost certainly present in every case. First, the cheater believes that s/he is not getting something she needs or wants from the existing relationship. For example, a person might not be receiving the amount or type of sex s/he wants. As another example, a person might not be receiving the emotional intimacy s/he needs. These unsatisfied needs are what motivate the person to stray outside the confines of the relationship. Second, the cheater believes that s/he is getting something of value out of the existing relationship or is avoiding something undesirable by remaining in the relationship. Obviously, if the cheater got nothing from being in the relationship, then s/he would most likely end the relationship rather than cheat. What the cheater gets from the relationship can vary greatly. One person might remain in a relationship out of love, but stray because her sexual desires are not being gratified. Another person might remain in a relationship for financial security, yet wander because his partner is emotionally distant. A third person might remain in a relationship out of fear of being harmed, yet cheat in order to attempt to have a relationship that is not based on threats and coercion.
While people cheat for a variety of reasons, it is generally desirable to avoid having someone cheat on you. Laying aside the moral harms, cheating is harmful in two very practical ways. First, there is the matter of physical health. There are many sexually transmitted diseases in the world and some of them, such as AIDS, are life threatening. If someone is cheating on you, the odds of you being exposed to one of these diseases increases significantly. Second, there is the matter of emotional health. Being committed and loyal to a person who does not reciprocate this loyalty can be quite devastating when this infidelity is revealed. The extent of this emotional harm increases the more you are committed to the person and commitment tends to increase with time. Given that both the chance of being harmed and the extent of the harm depends on the amount of time on is a victim of a cheater, it is reasonable to think that the sooner a cheater is exposed, the better.
To spot a cheater, you need to know what types of cheaters you might be dealing with. There are three types of cheaters: the traitor cheater, the stealth cheater, and the open cheater. Each of these types will be discussed in turn.
The traitor cheater is the classic cheater. The cheater is cheating with a person who is aware of the relationship that the cheater is violating. This is analogous to historical traitors who secretly betray their alleged loyalties to another party who is fully aware of their traitorous deeds. A traitor cheater can be hard to catch because s/he has a willing accomplice who will probably aid the cheater in concealing the cheating.
A stealth cheater is a person who cheats on one person with another person who is ignorant of the cheater’s other relationship. The cheater is thus cheating on both people because only s/he knows about the cheating and the others believe they are in a committed relationship.
Because the stealth cheater does not have a knowing and willing accomplice, they can sometimes be easier to catch. In fact, one of the people involved with the cheater might accidentally expose the cheat. For example, a person who is unaware that s/he is involved with a cheater might stop by the cheater’s place unexpectedly when the other person is there.
An open cheater is someone who, as the term states, is open in his or her cheating. While s/he remains in a relationship, no attempt is made to conceal the cheating. The notion of an open cheater might seem rather odd. After all, cheating seems to almost require secrecy by definition. However, such cheating does occur and occurs enough that there are slang terms for those who engage in it. People who are open cheaters have been called “swingers” and “players.”
The good thing about an open cheater is that there is no need to expose the person-they are open about the cheating. The bad thing about an open cheater is that s/he is still a cheater.
A single person might conceivably be a cheater of multiple types. For example, a person might be cheating with one person who is aware of his infidelity while he is also involved with a third person who is unaware of the first two. However, most cheaters tend to fall into just one type.
Not surprisingly, there have been numerous attempts to determine the percentage of people who cheat. The main reason to know this is to gauge the likelihood that you will be a victim of cheating. Based on a sampling of various surveys, about 20% of women and 40% of men claim they have cheated. However, these percentages are untrustworthy for three reasons.
First, if there is one subject that people lie about, that subject is sex. Second, cheaters are most likely also liars-hence they certainly cannot be regarded as an honest source of information about cheating. Third, social expectations probably influence the answers people give. For men, there is a certain machismo associated with cheating-so some men might claim they have cheated even if they did not do so. Although there have been great strides in equal rights, women are still socialized to regard cheating as extremely bad, so women are probably less likely to admit to such indiscretions. Given these facts, it seems unlikely that the actual percentage of cheats will ever be known. However, based on anecdotal evidence it seems likely that cheating occurs at fairly significant levels and is hence something to be concerned about.
While you should be concerned about the possibility of cheating it is very important to know that even if it is true that 40% of all men cheat and 20% of all women cheat, it does not follow that your partner has a 40% or 20% chance of cheating on you. Individuals are more or less likely to cheat based on their personal characteristics. So, for example, if your boyfriend is loyal and devoted, he does not have a 40% chance of straying.
Whatever the percentages, people do cheat and it is a good idea to be able to spot the signs of cheating in order to minimize your health and emotional risks. Fortunately, there are signs that a person is cheating. The signs presented below are not exhaustive-there are other signs of cheating.
Before presenting these signs, I am obligated to give the following warning: It is very important to keep in mind that these signs are not conclusive and that a person could exhibit some or even all of these signs and not be cheating. Accusing an innocent person of cheating is an almost surefire way to put an end to a relationship so it is wise to approach this sort of situation with due caution. Along with the signs I provide possible alternative explanations and some suggestions on how to deal with such situations. In any case, the responsibility lies with you-I assume no moral or legal responsibility for any actions you might take or not take based on my advice.
The sign: Your partner receives an unusual number of phone calls, text messages, emails, etc., seems unusually interested in them and is rather vague about them. For example, s/he will break off what s/he is doing with you to respond to a text message and when asked about it will say something vague about “a friend.”
People who cheat need to plan their cheating and people involved in cheating seem to often need a great deal of contact with the cheater. One likely reason is that they know the cheater is a cheater-hence are probably checking up on him/her. Someone who is a traitor cheater will be harder to catch by this sign-they will tend to tell the other person when to contact them. Stealth cheaters are most vulnerable to exposure by this method-the person s/he is cheating with is ignorant that s/he is involved with a cheater and hence has no reason to be discreet in communication.
Alternative Explanation: Many people have perfectly legitimate reasons to receive a great deal of communication-they might have many friends (or needy friends), it could be work related, and so on. People also have good reason to be interested in such communication-they might like their friends or be dedicated to their job. People often have good reasons to be vague about their communication-they might not think it is important or necessary to keep you informed about all their interaction with others. Also, many people seem to regard the phone or text message device as taking priority to a person who is actually present. I have even had students break off a discussion about a failing grade to respond instantly to the beep of their mobile phone. So, it is best not to always read too much into such behavior.
Resolution: Avoid the urge to snoop or press too hard into your partner’s communication. People tend to like some degree of privacy and resent such intrusions. Also, such behavior shows a lack of trust and a might convey the impression that you are trying to unfairly control his/her communication. Such behavior might very well create a problem where there is not one. If the communication situation bothers you enough, a reasonable approach is to express your concerns to your partner and see if they would be willing to explain the situation or change their behavior. If the person becomes hostile about the discussion or seems secretive or evasive, then something might well be up.
Restrictions on Communication/Meeting
Sign: Your partner places seeming unusually restrictions on when and how you can contact them and when and where you can see them. Since most cheaters do not want to be caught they will obviously attempt to control your contact with them. That way they are not exposed-either by you catching them cheating or by you exposing them to someone else they are also cheating on.
Alternative Explanation: People can have good reasons for telling you when you can contact and see them. In some cases the person might seem to be placing restrictions, but is merely telling you when they will be available. In other cases people like having their space and prefer to set aside time for themselves away from you. In other cases, people like to keep their romantic relationships out of their workplace and hence will ask you not to call or visit them at work. All these can be good reasons and not signs of cheating.
Resolution: Do not assume the person is cheating and decide to immediately attempt to “catch” them by intruding into those restricted times and places. This will display a lack of trust and a lack of respect for the person that might be very harmful to the relationship. If you find their restrictions problematic or are otherwise concerned with such limits, then discuss these restrictions with the person. If the restrictions are reasonable, then the person should be able to justify them. If the person is evasive or becomes hostile, then there might well be something going on.
Sign: Your partner is secretive about certain things. They go places, but do not say where they went, what they did or who they were with. They have missing time in their schedule that they do not account for. They are overly concerned about you seeing their email, text messages or phone logs and take steps to prevent you from doing so or overact if you show interest in such things.
Alternative Explanation: Your partner might be a CIA agent. Seriously, there can be good reasons for such behavior. First, your partner might not even realize that they seem secretive-they might simply not feel the need to report everything they do to you. Second, people need privacy even in a relationship. Psychological space is critical to a person’s well being and even the most open person will act to preserve that space. Third, people tend to regard their phone logs, email and text messages as private-and rightfully so. Sharing such things is a matter of choice and there is no legitimate expectation to full access to your partner’s communication. Of course, there can also be problems other than cheating that are the cause of such secrecy-such things as alcoholism, gambling or drug addiction.
Resolution: Avoid the temptation to spy on your partner. Doing so shows a lack of trust and respect that can spell ruin for a relationship. Also, doing so might involve crossing the line into illegal activity-such as hacking their email accounts. A reasonable approach is to ask them about their apparent need for secrecy in such matters and attempt to see if they are willing to either be more open or reassure you about such matters. If they seem suspiciously reluctant, then they might be cheating. Then again, they might also be protective of their privacy.
Sign: Your catch your partner in inconsistencies. They initially tell you that they do not need to travel for work, yet suddenly start taking weekend business trips. They tell you that they always get off work at 5:00, but then cancel a dinner date because they have to work late. They tell you they went to lunch with a friend, but the friend has no recollection of that event.
Alternative Explanation: Apparent inconsistencies can often be legitimately explained. For example, a person’s work schedule or requirements might really change so that they do need to take business trips or work late. As another example, people do forget things, so the friend might have forgotten about having lunch. As with secrecy, there is the possibility that some other problem is occurring. For example, a person with a drinking problem might say he was helping a friend paint when he was actually at bar.
Resolution: Do not simply assume that they are up to something and try to ferret out the information by interrogating them or their associates and friends. This will show a lack of trust and respect that can be rather detrimental to the relationship. If the inconsistencies seem problematic, discuss your concerns with your partner. If they can explain the seeming inconsistencies, then things can be resolved. If they remain unexplained or the person seems evasive or worried, then there might be a problem.
The Sign: Your partner has become cold and distant. People commonly cheat to satisfy their sexual and emotional needs. Given that people do not have unlimited needs, it is common for cheaters to have less desire to have sexual and emotional relations with their partner. A reduction (or elimination) of the interest in intimacy can thus be a sign of cheating.
People who cheat also often want to feel justified in their misdeeds. One way this is done is by attempting to provoke the other person into behavior that the cheater can use to “justify” his/her cheating. This can be done by being emotionally distant and cold. The other person will tend to respond in kind-thus creating a situation in which the cheater thinks his/her cheating is justified.
Alternative Explanation: Coldness and distance are not always signs of cheating, but they are almost always a sign of some sort of relationship problem. A person might be cold or distant because of stress, illness, depression or other factors that will (hopefully) come to an end. A person might also be cold or distant due to more lasting reasons, such as an enduring depression, dissatisfaction with the relationship, or deep seated character or emotional problems. A person might also be cold or distant because they are reconsidering the relationship or even using this method to end the relationship. Some people are reluctant to directly end a relationship and instead attempt to make the situation intolerable to the other person so they will initiate the break up.
Resolution: If you value the relationship do not respond by retaliating against the person. Being cold and distant in return will only worsen matters and lead to further emotional harm for both of you. If s/he is cheating, s/he will feel even more justified in the cheating. If the cause is stress or other problems, retaliation just makes matters worse. Especially avoid any foolish gestures, such as moving to sleep in another room or making cutting remarks about the person’s behavior.
If your partner is cold and distant, the simplest and often the most effective means of dealing with it is by having a discussion about why they are being cold and distant. Try to determine if the cause is something that you can help them with and take the appropriate action. For example, if they are distant because of stress, help them relax and see if you can help reduce what is causing the stress. If they want out of the relationship, it is usually best to let them go. If they are cheating, it is almost certainly best to send them packing.