Dear Dr. Hurd,
I really liked your article about being suspicious and jealous of your husband or wife, even though there’s no evidence that he or she is having an affair. But what, exactly, is ‘evidence?’ Should I get suspicious if my husband leaves the house (or ‘works late’) with no explanation? What about separate credit cards and email accounts? Or phone calls he takes secretly? How can I know the difference between just quirky behavior, behavior meant to hide something, or just paranoia on my part?
‘Evidence’ means facts. If you suspect that you see hard evidence of infidelity, I suggest that you first step back and take a look at your relationship. Are you happy or unhappy? This can be a really difficult question. For one thing, it forces you to think about something you haven’t thought about in years—or maybe even at all: What exactly do you want and expect out of a relationship?
Though the answer to that question can be highly personal, I maintain that there are some answers that apply to everybody in their relationships and marriages. One is the need for integrity. Integrity, quite simply, means doing what you say you’re going to do. A bridge has structural integrity if we can be sure it will remain stable and protect us from a fall. Likewise, we say a spouse has integrity if you can be reasonably certain that he will do what he says he’s going to do, and that he always means what he says.
Another measure of a satisfactory marital relationship—I think for everyone—is the sense that you look forward to going home to this person. When talking to someone about his or her marital unhappiness, I know that something is seriously off when he or she wants to avoid going home. Call it ‘evidence’ if you want, but it’s more than a breakdown in simple communication; it’s a breakdown in love and good will.
You mention some examples of this breakdown in love and good will. For example, the unexplained insistence on a separate credit card; mysterious phone calls from the same number; secret emails and the like. Are these indicators of an extramarital affair? Very possibly so. But they are also evidence of something even more basic: A breakdown in connection, trust and good will between the two of you. If the love and good will leak out of a relationship, it will eventually go flat, whether the cause of the breakdown is an affair or not.
Keep in mind that extramarital affairs are almost always symptoms, not causes. Affairs sometimes develop because of the loss of good will between partners. Over time, this erosion of love leads to an erosion of trust. When trust breaks down, suspicion and jealousy begin to develop. In this sense, whether there is—or isn’t—an extramarital affair going on matters less than the fact the two partners are losing their emotional connection with one another.
If you find yourself obsessing because you have evidence that your other half is cheating, but he or she flatly denies it, then you’re in one of the most heart-wrenching and frustrating situations imaginable. Some people have been there but won’t speak to anyone about it. My advice would be to take off your detective cap for a while, and focus on what’s missing from your relationship.
Although people are sometimes to blame and sometimes do inexcusable things, it’s not always wise to focus on blame at first. Blame, valid or not, distracts from the more important issue: Does this marriage or relationship consist of two people who are really getting something out of it? In other words: Is it mutual? Marital relationships are not supposed to be ‘work’ so much as a good match, based on mutuality and connection.
Regarding affairs, I know that sometimes it’s important to just know for sure what’s really going on. If the relationship is over (or even if it can still be salvaged) you need to know what did or didn’t happen. You might not ever really know, especially if there is a break-up. But sooner or later the truth has a way of worming its way out. Even if it doesn’t, you can at least discover the most important thing: Whether or not it’s time to move on.
If you learn, or at least have solid evidence to suspect, that your partner is having an affair, you have to get past the emotions of hurt and anger and recognize that this was a CHOICE he or she elected to make. Some marriages and relationships actually survive the damage done by an affair. When this happens, it’s not because of successful detective work, evidence-gathering and punishment. It’s because the two of you have managed to restore the connection, good will and authentic love that brought you together in the first place. This is the root of the issue. What’s done is done. Now the question becomes whether your relationship is strong enough to try and patch up, or if it’s time to let it go and move on.