You tell yourself that you trust your partner completely, and yet every time they pull out their phone to text, you can’t help but wonder who is on the other side. Maybe they came home later than usual one day, and you immediately started thinking about who they could possibly be with, what they’re doing, and if they’d tell you the truth if asked.
If you've ever thought your partner was cheating on you — even when they weren't — you're not alone. It can be a very stressful situation to find yourself in. And while it may seem like trust issues are what's leading you to constantly worry your partner is cheating, experts and research say it could point to something deeper than that.
“For some, they might have experienced infidelity in their home with their parents or close relatives,” Dr. Vanessa Milagros, PhD, licensed mental health counselor, tells Bustle. “For others, they have experienced the pain of being cheated on first hand at a younger age, and that experience had a deep and profound impact on the way they viewed relationships moving forward.”
Typically, people develop a constant paranoia about cheating for three reasons, Susan Golicic, Ph.D., a certified relationship coach and co-founder of Uninhibited Wellness, adds. Trust issues are certainly one of them, but it may also mean you're struggling with confidence, or projecting your own behavior and fear onto them.
The good thing is, there are ways to cope with this. According to experts, these are the potential root causes, as well as what you can do about them to ease that cheating paranoia.
1. You Have Cheated In The Past
If infidelity has been an issue before, projection might be a factor in your current insecurities. "Projection is a very low-level coping skill," Dr. Paul DePompo, PsyD, ABPP, a clinical psychologist and author of The Other Woman's Affair, tells Bustle. "People that do things themselves like cheat, think about cheating, or have cheated in the past, project these thoughts of desire onto their partners. Their mind ends up creating a reality that their partner is cheating as well."
In fact, a recent small study of 96 heterosexual couples, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships of 96, found we project our attraction towards other people onto our partners. When the participants in the study were attracted to someone outside their relationship, they were much more likely to say their partner was attracted to others, too, even if they really weren't.
If you cheated in the past, are currently cheating, or are even thinking it, chances are you'll believe your partner is cheating, too. It may be a subconscious way to "justify" your own behavior, Golicic says. Because if you convince yourself your partner is cheating, the logic goes, it makes your potential transgression less severe. Obviously, it doesn’t really work that way.
"When these [thoughts] are driving the paranoia, there doesn't have to be any actual evidence that cheating is occurring," Golicic says. "[You] will still manufacture them and cling to the simplest sign." If your partner receives a text at night, for example, you may assume it's a sign of an affair because you're also receiving texts late at night.
2. You Struggle With Trust Issues
If you have trust issues, it only makes sense you'd assume your partner is lying, cheating, and going behind your back. You inherently don't trust others, Golicic says, possibly based on past experiences, like being cheated on by an ex, or even betrayed by parents and friends.
In many ways, whatever was modeled to you as a child is often how you'll relate to others as an adult, Meredith Prescott, LCSW, a psychotherapist in NYC, tells Bustle. If your parents cheated on each other, she says, you may be more likely to expect the same in your own relationships. And the same is true if a past partner let you down, as that experience can be a very difficult one to overcome. Forshee echoes the importance of those formative moments: “Those experiences impact how we view the world, how we view our relationships, and how we interpret situations that we are exposed to in life. It's a filter that we have on that automatically creates trust issues in a situation where they may be none.”
How to stop worrying about it:
“Finding a couples therapist would be a great way to work through issues around cheating and betrayal,” Prescott says. You can go together, or find a therapist of your own to work through your past, so it no longer has a negative impact on your current relationship.
In addition to therapy, Forshee explains that you can work on some of the physical manifestations trust issues might be causing. “A lot of times when people have trust issues ... they also have an emotional response that's really distressing. And that emotional response usually leads to panic, increased heart rate, and a lot of anxiety.” She recommends strategies to help relax yourself, like diaphragmatic breathing or listening to a guided meditation on your phone, particularly ones that focus on progressive muscle relaxation.
3. You Have An Anxious Attachment Style
If you’re constantly worried about your partner cheating, your attachment style may play a role. Attachment theory was first developed in the 1960s by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Your personal attachment style is determined by how your caregivers interacted with you while you were young. If you had a consistent, attentive and supportive caregiver growing up, you’re more likely to develop a secure attachment style. As an adult, you can give your partner space and freedom in a relationship without feeling like they’re going to leave.
On the other hand, if you grew up with a caregiver who was inconsistent or wasn’t responsive to your needs, you may develop an anxious attachment style. As relationship coach Julie Teffeteller tells Bustle, this type of attachment is characterized by a deep desire to be close to your partner constantly. You’re more likely to fear rejection and abandonment.
How to stop worrying:
“You can try to overcome relationship anxiety and anxious attachment by looking at your attachment history to understand the way you relate to others, communicating with your partner about your anxieties so they can be empathetic to your needs and concerns, and using mindfulness exercises to disconnect from future worries so you can fully enjoy living in the present with your partner,” Teffeteller says.
4. You Don’t Feel Worthy of Love
If you don't have enough self-confidence to feel worthy of love, Golicic says, there's a greater chance you'll look for reasons to tell yourself that your relationship isn't working. This can stem from low self-esteem, as well as the three problems listed above.
When it comes to the connection between self-worth, trust, and cheating paranoia, Forshee explains a common thought process one might have: “If I don't love myself fully, because I don't believe that I'm capable of it, how could it be possible that someone could love me the way in which I cannot?” Believing you’re worthy of love therefore becomes a critical component in trusting someone else’s affections — and their fidelity.
How to stop worrying:
"Telling your partner about the work you need to do for yourself will let them know this is a past wound that you want to heal to have a better relationship," Golicic says. "It also helps to be vulnerable and share any insecurities you have in a relationship. Your partner may be able to help you work on that and feel more secure."
When it comes to working on your self-worth and self-confidence, there’s also lot you can do on your own that might gradually allay cheating fears over time, Forshee explains. “Go out there and be be productive. Do something that makes you feel good about your abilities, your skills, or your competence. Get a job or do some charity or volunteer work that makes you feel utilized,” she says. “Setting small goals for yourself over time and accomplishing them helps generate a more fulfilling sense of self worth.”
Whatever the root cause may be, if you find yourself always wondering, “Why am I so paranoid about my girlfriend cheating on me?” or, “Why do I always think my boyfriend is cheating?” it's always possible to reframe how you view yourself and the world.
Sure, sometimes the feeling your partner is cheating might stem from legitimate truths. But other times it's more about you and your perception of the situation. The important thing is to recognize your feelings, talk it out with your partner, and above all, trust yourself to find the truth behind the situation.
Neal, A. M. & Lemay E. P. (2017). The wandering eye perceives more threats: Projection of attraction to alternative partners predicts anger and negative behavior in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Oct.10, pp. 1-19. DOI: 10.1177/0265407517734398
Emily Pfannenstiel, LPC, LMHC, therapist
Meredith Prescott, LCSW, a psychotherapist
Dr. Danielle Forshee, Psy.D, and licensed clinical social worker
Julie Teffeteller, relationship coach
Dr. Vanessa Milagros, PhD, licensed mental health counselor
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