Maybe your partner has started coming home later than usual or they smell vaguely like someone else’s scent: You know the Spidey-sense tingle of feeling like something is amiss in your relationship and that your partner could be cheating on you. If you’ve started to identify signs your partner might be cheating, your gut reaction might be to look for ways to catch them in the act. But there are much healthier ways to handle a potential cheater and unpack what’s making you feel so disjointed.
We’ve gathered tips from experts to help you move forward in your relationship in a constructive way and figure out if your partner is cheating. Here are the do’s and don’ts of how to catch a cheater.
Don’t snoop through their digital private life
When you think your partner is cheating, it might be tempting to go through their phone or laptop when they’re not around. We advise against that sort of toxicity for a few reasons. For one, you might misinterpret something you’ve found or assume something written is deeper than it suggests. Additionally, it can sow doubt in places where you didn’t have it previously.
With the advent of the internet and social media, it can feel like it’s not really snooping if you’re scoping out their Facebook if they’ve left it open, but it is and that sort of boundary damage can be difficult to parse through.
People have private lives, even with a partner, for a reason. Not every single interaction they have needs to be communicated to you and vice versa. If there’s doubt that’s there, that should be addressed head-on and not using messy methods of trespassing on their digital private lives.
Matt Lundquist, founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy, also tells O.school that he “strongly recommends against” snooping.
“While this may go against popular wisdom, I do believe that when there are suspicions couples need to be able to do the hard work to understand where those are coming from and, ultimately, if cheating is happening it likely needs to be exposed,” he tells O.school.
Don’t employ sneaky tactics, like following or recording them
Just as you should avoid snooping through your partner’s digital life, invading their privacy in other sneaky ways isn’t the way to go, either. Following your partner or using other tactics like secretly recording them only creates more distrust between partners, and can cause you, the pseudo investigator, to create false or exaggerated narratives about what’s really going on. It can also sour the relationship further, which can be especially damaging if you find your partner isn’t actually cheating.
While it’s entirely normal to want to seek vengeance on your partner after they’ve wronged you, the notion of “catching” your partner in any situation is setting a dangerous precedent. While mistrust is clearly present when there are questions of someone cheating, it deepens the fissure when one party goes out of their way to do something devious to find their partner in a compromising position.
Do negotiate boundaries when it comes to privacy
Negotiating boundaries with your partner where you carve out what sort of privacy you both need and feel comfortable with can also help strengthen the relationship overall. It’ll help you avoid the desire to want to check their social media, follow them or go through their phone and studies have proven it: Discussing rules helps in “enhancing trust and fostering harmony” in young adult relationships.
Do retreat to “higher” ground.
Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the book, Fragile Power: Why Having Everything is Never Enough, tells O.school that it’s a bad idea to try to catch a cheater because it “consumes too much of a person's energy.”
“A better strategy,” he advises, “is to empower yourself to trust yourself and take actions that move yourself in a more esteemed relational position. So rather than advancing forward, retreat back. The further you move away, the clearer the forest will become. If you find in your more removed position that the forest is on fire, continue your retreat to higher, more esteemed ground.”
Creating space on your own terms between you and your partner allows for you to take stock in who is putting in the effort to work on the relationship on a daily basis. This can mean actively choosing to work elsewhere if you and your partner both work from home, a typical happening in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic or it can also mean self-care, where you prioritize your me-time. If your partner recognizes that you are pulling away and putting space between the two of you, open a conversation to communicate your reasons for doing so.
Do collect evidence
When you start seeing or feeling like things are off in your relationship, the best thing to do is keep a log of evidence for your own perusal. This helps avoid you looking through your partner’s devices and have a record of things that seem different. By having a list in front of you, you can use them to make sense of your suspicions.
Psychologist and couples therapist Dr. Lonnie Barbach, head of content for the relationship app Happy Couple told StyleCaster that keeping a journal is best because “simply relying on memory is not the best plan.”
“Keep track of things like bills, ATM withdrawals, and car mileage, and start putting things together,” she emphasizes.
When emotions are high and the future of a relationship is on the line, your memory isn’t always a reliable narrator. Having evidence or a log of what’s been happening can prevent you from being gaslit or manipulated when you approach your partner about it.
That data can be used in a conversation with your partner later and positioned by saying, “I’ve noticed some things have been off about our dynamic and I want to be open about them so that we’re on the same page.” If you feel that your partner is still neglecting to be totally truthful, only you can choose whether or not trust is repairable.
Do talk it out
There’s no question here: Confronting your partner about your suspicions is necessary. It can be uncomfortable and very emotional, but it has to be done to move forward — either in the relationship or outside of it. If you’ve gathered a log of evidence and/or have also retreated to your “higher ground,” psychotherapist and relationship expert Alex Carling advises, “think of somewhere you would both feel safe so that your energies can go into communicating, feeling and being."
Carling told Insider that “you may feel comfort in a busy place because your partner is less likely to have an outburst or you may want somewhere private and quiet to help you focus.”
“There is no right or wrong environment but considering it is important. Remembering that subconsciously we can set up anything — not considering this may set you up to fail and reinforce not being heard and your thoughts and feelings being valued,” she says.
Do seek a couple’s therapist
If you have a log of evidence, and if you have tried talking it out with your partner, but are still finding conversations to be unproductive, consider seeking help from a third party. A couple’s therapist can help you make sense of what is going on while mediating a conversation between you and your partner. If your partner is continuing to make justifications that seem unduly, a counselor can help bring the focus back to the hard evidence, noting the log you’ve kept.
In one study that compared 145 couples dealing with infidelity and in therapy against 385 couples not dealing with infidelity, but still in therapy, the “infidelity couples were significantly more distressed and reported more depressive symptoms at the start of therapy but continued improving through the end of therapy and to six months post-therapy.” What’s more is that the “infidelity couples were not statistically distinguishable from non-infidelity couples, replicating previous research,” meaning therapy in the wake of fidelity can be very successful and lead to a healthier relationship down the line.
Is an STI a sign of cheating?
If you don’t have an STI and are in a monogamous relationship with your partner, it can bring up many questions if your partner suddenly tests positive. Namely, did your partner cheat? The short answer — not necessarily.
There are two possibilities here. it’s possible that your partner had the STI prior to the relationship and that it was in an incubation period. It could take months or even years before symptoms appear. The other possibility, however, is that they became infected while in the relationship with you. Either way, you’ll need to sit down with your partner and have a conversation about the potential origin of the STI and what it means for your relationship.
What to do if your partner refuses to be honest
If you’ve exhausted all healthy options for communication and given yourself and your partner space to work on things, but things still feel off, it can be difficult to figure out what to do next. Being with a partner for any length of time, you can almost always realize when your partner isn’t being totally forthcoming and when that’s the case, you may need to strongly consider couples therapy and/or reevaluate whether the relationship is doing you more harm than good.
Breakdowns in communication or manipulation of your feelings are issues that go down to the core of the partnership. If you’re putting in most of the work most of the time to make the relationship survive with zero reciprocity, then it might be time for you to end things. Sometimes that conversation can be as simple as asking your partner if they want to put in the effort to be teammates. If their answer is no, then you need to evaluate whether it’s healthy for you to be in an entirely one-sided relationship.
The bottom line
While there are many reasons people cheat, finding out your partner has been unfaithful can be devastating. There are resources for those who have experienced the trauma of infidelity as well as for those who are paranoid about cheating. Taking care of yourself is of the utmost importance. Knowing when to fight for your relationship and forgive a cheater, and knowing when to walk away, can also feel empowering. We strongly advise you to work on your communication skills and establish personal boundaries to avoid using more malicious tactics with a partner you believe is being unfaithful. It can be hard to take the moral high ground, but all told, go with your intuition and do what you can to shed light on the truth.