It's the ultimate betrayal between a couple, but infidelity does not need to be the end of your relationship or your sanity.
When Sarah* became suspicious of her husband's behaviour, she wanted proof that he was cheating. She obtained spy software for the home computer and discovered he was sending and receiving emails from a woman via a secret Gmail account. Instead of confronting her husband, Sarah engaged the services of a private investigator and provided details of a business meeting her husband said he was attending on the Gold Coast. Investigators obtained covert video of Sarah's husband having dinner with a woman then going to a hotel room together. The next morning when her husband said he had scheduled a game of golf with clients, the couple were filmed enjoying a shopping trip and lunch. Sarah got the proof she was looking for and was devastated.
With 44 per cent of people admitting to cheating in a relationship, according to this year's Great Australian Sex Census — infidelity is widespread and suspicious partners are turning to technology to catch them out.
Jarris Fuller, from private investigators JFA Brisbane, says he frequently encounters women who secretly check their partners' phones, email or Facebook accounts searching for signs of cheating. "Women generally tend to have a better 'sense' for infidelity in their partners and, in around 80 per cent of cases I've worked on, their fears are proven correct," he says. "Someone being overly possessive of a phone, even taking it to the toilet, is usually one of the first signs that something might be 'going on'," says Fuller. "That tends to make most women even more keen to check out the phone, but it also becomes a bit of a Catch-22 situation and 3 am phone checks are not uncommon."
According to a report by Telstra 40 per cent of Australian women admit to checking their partner's mobile inbox for flirty texts and 24.5 per cent claim to have caught out a partner 'flirtexting' with someone else by text message or email.
But what toll is this kind of surveillance taking on our relationships and our sanity?
Websites such as Truthaboutdeception.com are brimming over with the insecurities of suspicious partners. One woman writes: "I have every password to every account (bank, phone, email, etc) my boyfriend has. I found a piece of paper in his drawer with them all written down. Will I ever tell him? No way. Do I check them? Occasionally. But honestly I'm trying not to. It's so easy to make nothing into something and become obsessive. I've been there and it's not fun."
Clinical psychologist Dr Seth Meyers, writing in Psychology Today, says that checking up on a partner "seems to have become so common that people actually feel comfortable — or justified — to disclose such behaviour." Meyers highlights the dangers of snooping. "When someone reaches the point of secretly accessing their partner's voicemails, texts, and emails due to suspicions of infidelity, all has been lost in the relationship — regardless of whether the cheatee's investigation proves guilt or innocence. When someone starts breaking into his partner's phone, the cheatee reduces himself or herself to desperate actions and often ends up engaging in the same kind of inappropriate behavior that the cheater engaged in to begin with." Instead, the cheatee should behave with integrity, writes Meyers. "The number one goal in a relationship should be that you can say that you're proud of who you are in the relationship — that you're good, kind, and respectful. Even if you sense that the relationship is going to end because of your partner's cheating."
Dr Lissa Johnson, a Sydney based clinical psychologist agrees that snooping on a partner is counterproductive: "It is human and absolutely understandable to want to snoop when things feel awry in your relationship. And technology makes that much easier than it used to be, so it's tempting to let yourself lapse in a moment of weakness. However, the costs usually outweigh the short term relief." The long term costs she says are "your self-respect, the integrity of your relationship, your partner's trust in you and the emotional distance you create by going behind your partner's back. Ultimately, snooping to relieve your suspicion is like gambling to relieve stress. It might provide short term relief but it only inflames the original problem and can leave chaos in its wake."
Instead of spying, Johnson too recommends an honest approach. "At the heart of a healthy relationship is the willingness to confide, be vulnerable and honest, express feelings and needs in a respectful way, and to treat your partner's needs and vulnerabilities with care. Difficulties and conflict in relationships are opportunities for greater closeness – for learning about yourselves and each other, evolving as people, and finding out how to better meet each others' needs. By snooping rather than confronting problems you are robbing your relationship of important opportunities to deepen and grow."
Infidelity can have a range of causes and often comes from a place of fear or pain, says Johnson. "There may be avoidance of conflict, fear of abandonment, fear of loss of self, insecurities about attractiveness, a need for approval or adulation, or a lack of other means of responding to problems in a relationship. The better you understand it, and the more support you get, the less likely you are to act recklessly."
Johnson admits the discovery of cheating partner can often elicit strong emotions and unleash the desire for revenge. "Betrayal can be excruciatingly painful, and that is human," says Johnson. "It is also human to be angry and to want to lash out. To avoid acting recklessly in the grip of strong emotion, find outlets for your feelings other than revenge or desperation," she advises. "Get support from people who care about you; talk about it with compassionate friends; write about it in a journal. Focus on making sense of the betrayal in a way that doesn't demonise or dehumanise anyone, yourself included."
Lyn Fletcher, Director of Operations for Relationships Australia NSW, also recommends thinking through the consequences before you act. "Don't deny your feelings but deal with them appropriately. Being angry and lashing out is not appropriate. You're doubling the problem by lashing out at the other person. That's not going to change their mind; in fact, all it's going to do is fuel the evidence that they've done the right thing."
However those who find themselves dealing with a cheating partner can take heart from Relationships Australia's Relationships Indicator 2011 report. It cites infidelity as the reason behind only 11 per cent of couples going their separate ways, implying that cheating is easier to overcome than financial difficulties, which, at 26 per cent, is the leading cause of break-ups. Fletcher agrees with the findings: "History is littered with betrayals, but only a very small percentage of couples don't survive adultery. Life goes on."
*Name has been changed to protect identity
Relationships Australia has been a leading provider of relationship support services for over 60 years. Counselling, relationship education programs and family dispute resolution services are available nationwide. If you need help to create positive and respectful relationships contact Relationships Australia at 1300 364 277 or visit: www.nsw.relationships.com.au.