Lauren thinks her partner might be cheating on her. Healthista therapist Sally Brown offers her thoughts on the situation and explains the behaviour of a ‘serial cheater.’
Over the past few months, I have become convinced my partner is either cheating on me or about to. I’m embarrassed to admit it as it’s such a cliché, but I check his shirt collars for lipstick marks and go through his pockets for receipts. I question him about who he’s met and scroll through his emails and phone messages. I have never been a jealous person, but now I find myself googling female work colleagues to check out what they look like. So far I have managed to hide this obsession from my partner, but it’s making me feel stressed and irritable with him. I also find myself withdrawing from him emotionally, as if he’s already hurt me.
I find myself withdrawing from him emotionally, as if he’s already hurt me.
We’ve been together for two years, and the first year was the most amazing, passionate, intense time of my life. He was in an unhappy marriage when we met. After a year, his wife found out, and he left and came to live with me (he told me it was his decision but I have since found out that his wife threw him out.) I was blissfully happy for around six months, but then the doubts starting creeping in. He used to make me feel like I was the most important person in the universe, but I don’t feel like I have his attention anymore.
He used to make me feel like I was the most important person in the universe, but I don’t feel like I have his attention anymore.
He is working longer hours and doing a lot of working away. That also worries me as we got together at a residential conference. He is very charismatic and outgoing, and I know women find him attractive. When we first met, he told me he had never done anything like this before, but his ex-wife sent me an email wishing me luck and telling me I ‘wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last’ (which at the time he said was just her being bitter.) Now he’s admitted that he had a few ‘drunken one-night stands’ because his marriage was so unhappy but swears he would never do that to me because I’m his ‘soulmate.’ He makes me laugh, he’s great company and the sex is great. But am I kidding myself to expect him to be faithful?
Lauren, 31, Chester
You are wise to wonder, and the key question is, was your man serially unfaithful because A, he was in the wrong marriage, or B, he is incapable of being faithful to any woman? At the moment, you seem to be amassing evidence to confirm option B. But not every cheater cheats again, and sometimes being unfaithful is a reaction to a specific situation like an unhappy marriage rather than a personality trait.
Not every cheater cheats again, and sometimes being unfaithful is a reaction to a specific situation rather than a personality trait.
He has explained his serial cheating as a symptom of his unhappy marriage, and it’s safe to assume to you didn’t have any ‘predator alert’ warning bells when he started paying you attention. I am assuming he came across as sincere rather than sleazy. It may be that this is a well-practised persona he steps into, or that his marriage genuinely had broken down, and he saw in you someone he could build a life and a meaningful relationship with.
But my question is, if he is a genuinely trustworthy person who was trapped in the wrong marriage, why are you now trapped in a cycle of compulsively checking up on him? The innate trust that underpins a healthy relationship is just not there, and that is worrying. It may be that you have simply put two and two together and come up with five (he’s cheated before, therefore he will cheat again, which isn’t always the case.) Or it may be that your gut instinct recognises him as untrustworthy.
It may be that your gut instinct recognises him as untrustworthy.
You worry that your partner’s travelling gives him the opportunity to cheat, but internet dating sites mean that opportunity is just a finger-swipe away if you’re looking for it. Not everyone cheats for the same reason, but serial cheaters often share certain characteristics. I wonder how many of these you recognise in your man?
Six signs he will cheat on you
1. He thinks rules don’t apply to him
Compulsive cheaters often have an elastic relationship with the truth. They are so comfortable in manipulating situations to get the result they want that they may not even recognise what they’re doing as lying. Once he has told a story often enough, he believes it, making it impossible for you to find out the truth, especially—as you have experienced—about past relationships. At work, they may take credit for other people’s ideas, big up their minor achievements, embellish their CV and blame everyone but themselves when things go wrong. It’s all just a means to an end for him, and if people object, then it’s their problem, or they’re just ‘jealous’ of his success. At the heart of this behaviour can be a pathological lack of empathy. He can fake empathy when it serves a purpose – to make other people like him – but it rarely comes from a place of genuine concern.
Compulsive cheaters often have an elastic relationship with the truth.
2. He rarely feels guilty
Anticipating the guilt we would have to deal with can be enough alone to keep most of us from straying. But guilt doesn’t figure on the emotional spectrum of serial cheaters. They may genuinely believe that their sexual infidelity has nothing to do with anyone else but themselves and the person involved. They can convince themselves that what their other half doesn’t know about can’t hurt them. They are wrong, of course, because however outwardly devoted they are, if a relationship is built on lies and deception there will be a limit to the intimacy it can achieve. He may have developed the ability to dissociate or compartmentalise his feelings as a defence growing up if his childhood was turbulent or he had insecure relationships with his parents.
guilt doesn’t figure on the emotional spectrum of serial cheaters.
3. He doesn’t like being alone
Cheaters who are operating from a place of deep insecurity will feel adrift in any situation where they haven’t got an identified ‘special person’ as an anchor. They’re the type that pair up in groups—they can’t tolerate being ‘one of the gang’ and instinctively start to divide and conquer. Consciously or unconsciously, they can also seek out potential candidates for their next relationship as a sort of insurance policy in case the current one goes wrong, such is their terror of being alone. Warning bells should ring if he’s never lived on his own or if one relationship segues seamlessly into the next. People like this are particularly vulnerable when they are away from home among strangers – as your partner was when he met you.
Warning bells should ring if he’s never lived on his own or if one relationship segues seamlessly into the next.
4. He’s outsourced his happiness
Many serial cheaters haven’t learned to manage their own emotions, so they rely on others to prop them up or distract them from uncomfortable feelings or even stress. Some men (and women) use flirting to prop up their ego, with no intention of acting on it. But it becomes more toxic if he needs someone being madly in love with him to feel acceptable as a human. Losing external validation can feel as threatening to him as being deprived of oxygen, so as soon as he feels undermined in his current relationship, he will feel compelled to look elsewhere. People like this are more at risk of straying when they are under pressure at work, or after a bereavement or other family crisis, especially if their partner is preoccupied with coping with their own feelings, which may feel like abandonment.
Losing external validation can feel as threatening to him as being deprived of oxygen
5. … and blames everyone else for his unhappiness
If you increasingly find yourself at the top of his list of people who have let him down, not understood him or failed in some other way, he is laying the foundations to stray, armed with the conviction that it’s your fault. The subliminal message is ‘if you’re not meeting my needs, I feel justified in looking elsewhere.’ He may be subtly critical of you, perhaps disguised at least initially as ‘constructive criticism’ to help you do better in your career, or in how you look. At a basic level, focussing on everyone else’s shortcomings means he never has to look at his own. He may also tend to idealise people and put them on a pedestal before chipping away at them and gradually knocking them down. This dynamic is at play if he likes to point out things you ‘used to do’ or how you used to look, compared (unfavourably) to the way you are now.
6. He’s made you the centre of his universe
As you’ve discovered, the intensity of feeling like you are the centre of someone’s universe, the specialness of being ‘everything’ to another person, can soon feel like a pressure, a role that has unspoken and invisible responsibilities that you cannot fulfil. As a normal, flawed human being, it’s impossible to be the centre of someone’s universe and not let them down. The ‘rupture and repair’ process is part of every relationship, but if your partner harbours deep insecurities, every time you let him down he will yearn for that ‘perfect’ person who will make him feel OK about himself.
Of course, not every insecure person cheats – many find that their self-esteem is nurtured by being in a happy relationship. A healthy relationship acts as an incubator for personal growth for both partners. But a relationship that brings out the worst in you, that generates jealousy and insecurity for the first time in your life, is not a healthy relationship. Listen to your gut instincts – if you find it impossible to trust this man, you need to understand why. You could wait until you have more concrete evidence one way or the other. Or you could take the initiative to have an honest conversation about how you’re feeling and see where it leads.
A healthy relationship acts as an incubator for personal growth for both partners.
If you can’t get the answers you need, then consider getting professional help. Suggest it as a way of strengthening your relationship and making it better for both of you. He may resist, in which case, go on your own, and spend some time looking at the emotions this man has generated in you. They have a lot to tell you if you are prepared to listen.
Sally Brown is Healthista’s resident therapist and agony aunt. She loves finding out what makes people tick and will winkle out your life story if you sit next to her at a dinner party. She feels lucky to make a living from hearing those stories, and helping people make sense of their lives and reach their true potential. Registered with the British Association of Counselors and Psychotherapists, which means she has the qualifications and experience to work safely and effectively, she also writes about emotional and psychological health for the national press.