Infidelity in romantic relationships is surprisingly common as is hiding the affair. Within the last year alone, 2-4% of partners in highly-committed relationships had an affair, and across the lifetime, about a quarter of marriages include infidelity (as discussed in Fincham & May, 2017). Would you know if your partner was unfaithful?
Unfaithful partners take steps to hide their affairs
Sure, some partners might use infidelity as an exit strategy for hiding the affair, ultimately wanting their partner to know so that their partner initiates a breakup. For others, however, hiding infidelity is a top priority. They want to keep their primary relationship partner. They also want to keep their extra-dyadic partner(s). The costs of losing their primary relationship, in these cases, are too high, so they turn to the hard work of hiding their infidelity.
Recent research from Greece identified the strategies people use to protect their primary relationships while maintaining infidelity (Apostolou, 2022). In the first study, 300 participants were first asked to brainstorm what they might do to hide infidelity. These general ideas were synthesized into 11 different strategies. The 300 participants in the second study, all of whom admitted having been unfaithful to a romantic partner, indicated how often they adopted each strategy.
The findings provide an important glimpse into infidelity: By knowing these tactics, can we be better at knowing if a partner is having and hiding the affair?
Some strategies are more detectable than others
People vary in how creative they are in hiding infidelity, and how much energy they put into preventing their primary partner from discovering their unfaithfulness. The following strategies, listed here from most common to least common (Apostolou, 2022), align with specific tactics that people might engage in, in order to hide their affairs.
1. Be discreet. The most commonly endorsed approach to keeping an affair quiet is to be intentional about communications and meetings, to limit discovery.
2. Remove digital evidence. In today's technological world, incriminating text messages or photos could easily be read on a phone that is not guarded or an inbox left open. People who want to keep their infidelity quiet will remove any evidence of correspondence with their affair partners, making it more difficult for their primary partner to make informed accusations.
3. Behave the same as usual. Unusual behaviors could tip off a primary partner, so unfaithful partners will pay attention and bring their typical self to their interactions with their partner. No matter their typical style of interaction (e.g., as complainers, comedians, helpers, or cheerleaders), they keep that style going after their affair begins. By keeping their couple dynamic the same, they work to eliminate suspicion.
4. Maintain the same routine. Along with maintaining the same kinds of attitudes, conversations, and behaviors with their primary partner as they usually do, unfaithful partners will adhere to habits and daily routines. Changes in appearance (new haircuts, new fashion) can arouse suspicion, as could new expenses that are unaccounted for. Savvy cheaters will attend to their day-to-day habits and remain consistent as a way to cover their affair.
5. Use friends as excuses (and support). A person's friends might have new responsibilities (whether they know it or not) when a person embarks on an affair. Specifically, it is not uncommon for unfaithful partners to use their friends to provide alibis or believable excuses. Friends might know, or not know, that they are being an unfaithful partner's excuse to connect with their extra-dyadic partners.
6. Lock all technology. Concrete evidence of a partner's affair would not be hard to come by with all of the recorded communications we rely on today (texting, emailing). Partners who do not delete, or who do delete but want extra safeguards, might make sure, and quite intentionally, lock their devices. Changing passwords, signing out of social media—these types of behaviors are strategies to reduce the primary partner's awareness.
7. Limit contact with the extra-dyadic partner. Instead of seeing an extra-dyadic partner frequently, individuals who want to maintain their primary relationship (even as they wish to continue their affair) will intentionally limit how often they meet up with their extra-dyadic partner. As part of being discreet, attention to frequency reduces the likelihood of discovery.
8. Appear innocent. To cover an affair, some people will make sure they never introduce any questions about their partner's unfaithfulness (to limit return questions) and will try to make it seem like all is well. They might adopt a new hobby — innocent enough! — to reduce suspicion that they are being unfaithful.
9. Increase attention to primary partner. One presumed way to distract a primary partner so that they don't become suspicious is to shower them with interest, love, and attention. Being warmer and more generous, for example, are strategies partners might use to cover an affair.
10. New email or phone. Another technological approach to managing an affair is to open new accounts that a primary partner does not know about. This helps safeguard communication with extra-dyadic partners so that the primary partner is less likely to find out.
11. Introduce a primary partner to extra-dyadic partner. One rather dramatic way unfaithful people might throw a primary partner off the scent of infidelity is to present the extra-dyadic partner as a friend, colleague, or associate. By actively defining the relationship, unfaithful partners attempt to control their primary partner's awareness and divert their suspicions.
Strategically hiding the affair makes detection difficult
We often know our romantic partners quite well, and they us. On account of this intimacy, unfaithful partners likely have an advantage in covering their tracks. They might know which strategies and accompanying tactics are more important to use, and which might come off as artificial, suspicious, or alarming to their specific partner. In other words, they can cater their deception to their primary partner. Importantly, Apostolou (2022) learned that most people readily adopt at least seven separate strategies to hide their infidelity. This is effortful, but taking a multi-pronged approach might be perceived as the most effective way to keep an affair quiet. Perhaps this suggests that an evaluation of partner's behaviors holistically, not focused on one strategy in particular, could be the best way to discern if a partner is having an affair. Multiple signs, in other words, could be more informative than one behavior.
(Reprinted from Psychology Today)