You’ve spent months, or even years, investing your precious time and energy in building a relationship. You’ve tried to replicate his mother’s aloo paratha perfectly even though you know your version is better. You try to be understanding when he spends all evening whispering into the phone. You smile sympathetically when he returns from work at midnight.
And then an unease grows in the pit of your stomach. You find yourself sniffing his shirt for unfamiliar scents when he pulls you in for a hug. You consider installing spyware on his phone. You no longer smile sympathetically. You ask him who he is speaking to. You don’t believe his answer.
The questions whirl around your mind—“Is he seeing someone else? Don’t I interest him any longer?” Your self-esteem takes a beating and your doubts take on a life of their own, affecting you mentally, emotionally, physically, professionally.
Separated for a year now, 26-year-old Amisha (name changed) from Mumbai says her worst nightmare came true when she caught her husband cheating on her. However, instead of taking her side, her family started shifting the blame on her, and questioning her decision to separate from him. “When I told my family of his affair, they started pointing fingers at me. On paper, my ex-husband was the perfect man,” she says.
When Amisha had to respond to questions such as, “What made him cheat on you?” and, “Were you denying him affection and sex?”, she started blaming herself for her failed relationship. Although coming to terms with an unfaithful husband was tough enough, she recalls how people’s scrutiny of her made her feel even more helpless.
Women often blame themselves if their partner cheats on them, especially in cultures such as India. This happens because our societal norms are such that the onus of making a relationship work lies largely on the woman. So, how can women protect themselves—from others’ scrutiny as well as their own feelings of self-doubt—when they suspect their partner of cheating? We asked a bunch of therapists to put together a roadmap to help you avoid making some wrong turns.
“When I told my family of his affair, they started pointing fingers at me. On paper, my ex-husband was the perfect man.”
Don’t confront him right away
Although it is distressing when you start to suspect a partner of cheating, experts say that it is not advisable to confront them right away. Instead, it is important to spend some time to introspect on what caused you to suspect them in the first place. Was it something they said or did? Or could it be some sort of misunderstanding?
Ruchika Kanwal, clinical psychologist, Karma Centre for Counselling & Wellbeing, New Delhi, says that some suspicions arise due to other issues, such as a partner not spending enough time with you, or not participating enough in household chores, or not wanting to be intimate as often as you would like. “Unresolved issues between a couple could very well lead to suspicion. It is advisable to check if there are other stressors in your partner’s professional or personal life that is keeping them occupied,” Kanwal advises.
In addition, external factors could cause suspicions to flare up too, such as a friend confiding in you about a cheating spouse or even news about celebrity break-ups. Such information could trigger feelings of doubt and make you draw parallels with others’ situations.
“Unresolved issues between a couple could very well lead to suspicion.”
Don’t broadcast your fears
Discussing your fears with multiple friends or family members might worsen the situation, since their own biases may colour their perception of the issue, says Janki Mehta, consulting psychotherapist and co-founder of Mind Mandala, Mumbai. “I always encourage my clients to address their concerns with a neutral person. It’s better to hear a third person’s point of view before coming to conclusions,” she says.
Kanwal agrees. “Refrain from calling your 3am friends and discussing it,” she says. According to her close friends are unlikely to be objective—they may take everything you say at face value and join you in hypothesising about why your partner might be cheating on you, which could make your anxieties spiral. Else, they may go in the opposite direction and dismiss your fears outright because they don’t want to see you heartbroken. “Also, things can quickly escalate if your partner comes to know about your suspicions from someone else rather than from you,” she says.
If you have children, then you need to be even more judicious. “You don’t want your child to be privy to these conversations,” says Sahely Gangopadhyay, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist from Kolkata.
“It’s better to hear a third person’s point of view before coming to conclusions.”
Don’t bottle it all in
Gangopadhyay says talking to someone trustworthy and objective about your fears is important for your emotional well-being and clarity. “Lack of catharsis at times can worsen the relationship. Speak to a therapist if you suspect your partner of cheating or if you know for certain he has been doing so,” she says.
When Sangeeta (name changed), a successful businesswoman from Mumbai, was keen to marry her partner of eight years. However, they’d been in a long-distance relationship for a while and he did not seem ready for a commitment. Matters came to a head when during a trip together, she discovered that he was talking to and sexting multiple women he had met online. She also found out that her boyfriend had been portraying himself as a victim of a horrible relationship. Upon her return to Mumbai, she created a fake profile and started chatting with him; she even left hints but he did not catch on. “It was a harrowing time for her, and I am glad she decided to come for counselling sessions. She says she became so self-sabotaging that she often messaged him from the fake profile when he was sitting right beside her. And every time he replied complaining how he was stuck in a bad relationship,” Mehta says.
Having gathered enough proof, Sangeeta confronted him and his parents and walked out of the relationship. It was much later that she began therapy to process the resentment, grief and sense of betrayal she felt. Mehta says a heartbreak can be as painful as losing someone to death and that only a counsellor can provide guidance when the grief is so intense.
“Lack of catharsis at times can worsen the relationship.”
Don’t be a detective
If your suspicions persist, it is important to speak to your partner. Sometimes issues can be resolved just by a heart-to-heart discussion with him, says Kanwal, especially when it is just a miscommunication or misunderstanding at play.
However, if the root cause is incompatibility, it requires more commitment and time from both the partners. “I have met women who admit that emotional distance from their partners makes them more apprehensive about the relationship. My advice is to allow your partner to explain himself before you accuse him of cheating,” she says.
Trying to collect evidence or snoop around their laptops, phones and social media can be nerve-wracking and frustrating, and can affect your mental health, so it is generally preferable to have a conversation before playing detective. However, says Kanwal, “If you have already found enough evidence against him, then there can be no justification for his behaviour.”
“My advice is to allow your partner to explain himself before you accuse him of cheating.”
Don’t blame yourself
Indian society tends to fault the woman when a relationship or marriage fails. As a result, women often end up feeling guilty even if they have done nothing wrong. “I have seen even the brightest of women questioning their self-worth when their partner cheats. It is time we stopped feeling guilty for another person’s actions. Please stop telling yourself that you are the reason your partner had to be with someone else,” Kanwal says.
Gangopadhyay says a woman needs to decide for herself whether she wants to be in a relationship that doesn’t make her feel secure. “She should not be made to feel guilty if she chooses to move on. Indian women are not trained to love themselves, and I have seen clients who have been conditioned to perceive self-love as selfishness. I advise them to work on their boundaries and be around supportive people. Although we cannot change a person or alter his behaviour, we can be kind to ourselves,” she says.
Childhood trauma or previous heartbreaks can also make women sceptical and more cautious in new relationships. Mehta says she had clients who were certain of their partners’ infidelity. However, some of them were so deeply affected by their history of betrayals that they saw impending doom even when nothing was amiss in the current relationship.
Thus, is important to view every relationship as separate from others in the past and to approach issues with a minimum of bias, whether from your confidantes or your own history.