Do quiet infidelities ruin relationships?

We all know what infidelity is, but what about the quiet infidelities that many of us casually commit – the little secrets that our partner knows nothing about? Rufus Purdy finds out how to stop them damaging your relationship


Do quiet infidelities ruin relationships?

We’ve all done it. The £20 we’ve knocked off the price when our partner has asked us how much something cost. The lunch we had with an ex and ‘forgot’ to mention. Or the large drink we pour ourselves every night after work, omitting to tell our health-conscious other half.

They’re all normal and generally harmless actions, part of the everyday imperfect business of being human and in a relationship. But there are also times when little white lies can be less benign. ‘We are all individuals, and there are plenty of things that your partner would not benefit from knowing about,’ says couples therapist Andrew G Marshall, author of How Can I Ever Trust You Again?. ‘But at times the information we are withholding crosses a line of acceptability and starts to threaten the relationship.’

These habits, harmless on their own, can escalate over time. It’s not cheating in the traditional sense of the word, but persistently lying to your partner can cause problems. ‘Quiet infidelities can be corrosive – it depends on how long it takes for them to implode,’ says Karen Pine, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and co-author of Sheconomics. ‘At first glance, this behaviour doesn’t appear to be as extreme as a sexual indiscretion, but the fall-out from it can be equally destructive.’ Here are some of the most common ‘quiet infidelities’ that can creep up on any relationship, and they can all pose a serious threat.

Covert smoking or drinking

It’s not unusual to smoke or drink without your partner being present or knowing about it, but if it’s becoming a persistent and secretive habit, it’s time to take stock. ‘When you decide to avoid a shopping trip with your partner so you can have a sneaky cigarette at home, or you stay up later to have another drink, you’re signalling different core values from your partner,’ says psychotherapist Paula Hall of Relate. ‘You’re showing that you value the time spent with yourself or your friends more than that within the relationship.’

There’s a danger, too, that the person who’s indulging in the secret habit starts to identify their partner as a control mechanism. If they admit their behaviour, then they lose their incentive to stop. ‘Both partners need to be open with each other to break this cycle,’ says Hall. ‘And, assuming that it’s not a dependency, one partner has to allow the other some autonomy – even if they don’t agree with their behaviour. Otherwise the relationship could develop a parent/child dynamic, which is potentially as corrosive as any secrecy.’

Seeing an ex

Spending time with a new friend or maintaining a platonic relationship with an ex isn’t unusual, but keeping your partner in the dark about these meetings is a sign that all is not right. If you’re lying to cover your tracks, you’re showing a lack of respect for your partner, and there is also a chance that innocent liaisons could escalate into something more.

‘Infidelity is built on secrets, and clandestine meetings with someone of the opposite sex could lead to one or both parties developing feelings for each other,’ says Marshall. ‘If you’re evading the truth, then you’re avoiding important conversations you should be having with your partner. You may start out trying to preserve the status quo of your relationship, but, ultimately, if you continue to mislead them, you are either entertaining the idea of starting a new relationship or your partner is so controlling that you can’t share information with them.

‘The acid test of all friendships is that they should be able to be held up to public scrutiny. If you’re going out with an ex, your partner should have the chance to say, “Oh, can I come along too?” and for that not to be a problem. You need to be upfront with your partner and expect to compromise on the "secret" relationship. If you ask for something reasonable – perhaps a lunch every six months, rather than weekly meetings – and talk openly about how they’re going to feel about that, then it’s far likelier your partner will be more accepting.’

Secret spending

‘Many people use money to regulate their emotions, and to anaesthetise themselves against  negative feelings,’ says Pine. ‘But it can be devastating to a relationship when a life-changing occurrence such as a new baby or job loss reveals gambling debts or financial “adultery”.’ It’s critical that you are transparent financially, says Pine, particularly if both your futures are tied up in joint accounts. ‘Be open and try to uncover your different money mindsets,’ she says. ‘If you’re going to confront your partner, you need to be as neutral and non-judgemental as possible. They’re probably feeling pretty ashamed about their situation, so try to be supportive rather than critical.’

But how does a gambler, struggling beneath a mountain of debt, open up to a partner? ‘First, you could get advice from a government-funded credit support helpline or a financial therapist,’ suggests Pine. ‘The important thing is to start the process of disclosure. Problems are far easier to reveal if you’ve already got a solution in place.’

When one of you moves forward without the other

When one partner starts to develop emotionally away from a relationship – perhaps through a promotion at work or by entering into therapy – this can bring about a shift, a breach of your relationship contract. ‘Couples go through life with a shared understanding about what’s possible and what’s not,’ says psychotherapist Avi Shmueli of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships. ‘But then one partner may find themselves growing outside the relationship.’

The partner who has been ‘left behind’ can experience resentment – even if, originally, they were encouraging. ‘They may feel enormous pressure to keep up or, as tensions increase, they’ll start to feel the limitations of the relationship,’ says Shmueli. ‘The relationship could then either break down or arrive at a stalemate.’ In these cases, couples should strive for what Shmueli terms ‘an attitude of discovery’. ‘The “less successful” partner needs to think about why their loved one has found such enjoyment in their new situation,’ he says. ‘It’s important not to be judgemental, and to be unafraid to explore why those feelings may be so difficult.’