We've all seen the headlines: "7 Signs Your Man is Cheating" and "How to Know if Your Wife Is Having an Affair." I don't know about you, but I used to hold my marriage up to those checklists and, upon finding none of the warning signs in my own relationship, felt a sense of smug satisfaction. I found comfort and security in the fact that, at least according to popular wisdom, my marriage was strong and intact.
But I was wrong.
I used to believe that my marriage was impervious to outside pressures -- we were passionate, communicative and had weathered many storms. I was confident. Too confident. My assurance that there was no danger was the danger. Subtle signs, that perhaps I would have seen if I was on high alert, went unnoticed since I thought I was safe.
I was familiar with the usual signs of infidelity -- changes in hours, habits or behaviors. Apparently, he was familiar with them as well, as he was careful to cover his tracks without triggering any alarms. When his double life was revealed after he left the marriage with a text message, I was questioned endlessly about how I didn't see it coming.
I didn't see it because I failed to recognize the following myths about relationship red flags:
The danger of slipping on a wet floor does not come when we pass the orange cone emblazoned with, "Cuidado: piso mojado." Rather, the hazard is when we do not see the sign and we continue to walk boldly across the innocent-looking floor until we are caught off guard by some hidden spill.
Marriages are not that different. We become accustomed to the particular topography of our relationships. We trust in it. We assume that any alterations in its composition will be readily apparent.
I assumed that since I had access to his phone and computer that he was not hiding anything. I assumed that since we had an active sex life that he would not stray. I assumed that since we talked about everything that he told me everything. I assumed that he was telling the truth since he had proved himself trustworthy in the past. I assumed that I knew him.
Well, you know the saying about assumptions, right?
Articles and shows about how to spot signs of cheating or how to affair-proof our relationships prey upon our insecurities and fears. We want to believe that we are safe and secure so we place our trust in those experts and their wisdom, much like I did when comparing my marriage against the warning lists. But that is misplaced trust. We know ourselves, our partners and our relationships better than any so-called expert.
It's not unlike installing an alarm system on your home only to neglect to lock the front door. In my case, I not only trusted the experts, I also trusted him. In fact, at some point in the 16-year relationship, I began to trust him more than I trusted myself. I believed his stories. I allowed the whispers of anxiety and unease within myself to be soothed by his embrace and comforting words. I trusted him to be my alarm system and I neglected to arm my own.
Two Can Play
I find it a bit funny how we seem to believe that only faithful spouses are aware of the common signs of infidelity, that somehow cheaters are all uninformed morons that have no idea how to cover their tracks. I have to presume that the unfaithful are just as aware of the common warning signs and are prepared to operate covertly.
My ex-husband was better than most in this regard. He used his background in graphic design to create documents to mislead (financial statements, insurance cards, etc.). He showed no limits in the extent he was willing to go to add credence to a lie. My favorite? He cut the phone line to the house so that I would not receive the calls from bill collectors. He then claimed that the line was malfunctioning and spent $50 and two full days attempting to "repair" it. Now that's commitment to a lie!
The common signs of infidelity that we are all taught -- disconnection, lack of sex, change in hours and secretive behavior -- act as a distraction from the underlying issues that can destroy a relationship. It keeps you looking outside the union for threats when your gaze should really be turned inward.
Since all the outward signs were that everything was okay with my marriage, I never thought to dig deeper and look for cracks beneath the surface. I didn't recognize his growing addictions and unhappiness. I failed to see the destructive path that he was on and I only realized too late that he was lost.
One Size Fits All
By its very nature, relationship advice is both sweeping and vague. It makes presumptions and generalizations to apply, at least somewhat, to everyone. This is certainly true with typical relationship red flags. What may be a warning sign in one marriage may be typical in another. Conversely, something that is not a common sign could still be a signal of impending disaster.
My ex frequently traveled for work through most of our marriage. As a result, I was not suspicious at all with a two week trip to Brazil. A trip that turned out to be with his soon-to-be new bride. Travel for him was not unusual, but some of his behaviors in the final weeks were. For example, he did not want to meet our good friend's newly adopted baby. It was only in retrospect that I realized that he was pulling away from her and our other loved ones since he knew that he was leaving that life soon. I never thought to consider that a single turned down invitation could indicate infidelity.
We all want to believe that we can affair-proof our marriages. We want to believe that we are infallible, incapable of being fooled. We are quick to judge others -- "How did she not see that coming?" "What a fool, didn't he know that his wife was running around?" That smugness, that certainty is exactly what makes us vulnerable. When you don't believe that it can happen to you, you will not see it coming.
The mistake I made was not listening to the one red flag that is always true -- my own gut. We are told that red flags come in the form of external signs. The real red flags are found within. Trust in yourself and do not become too complacent in your security. Betrayal doesn't always scream. Sometimes it whispers. Be sure you're listening.