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How to Spot a Cheater

Learn the signs that could protect your heart.
He seems so perfect. But then you get that feeling something’s not right. Suddenly you’re checking his pockets and his cell phone. The reality stops you cold: He’s cheating. Many of us have been through this scenario, sometimes more than once, and with more than one man. When that happens, it’s easy to think, Was there something I could have done? Was there something he said or did that could have tipped me off? Research tells us that some men are more inclined to stray than others, and a cheater often shows his hand well before the damage is done. Learn to read the signs and discover how you can protect yourself and safeguard your relationship.

Want to find a cheater? Check out his friends. “Seventy-seven percent of men who cheat have best friends who also cheat,” says M. Gary Neuman, a family counselor in Miami, who surveyed 200 men for his best seller The Truth About Cheating: Why Men Stray and What You Can Do to Prevent It (Wiley, John & Sons). Neuman notes cheaters were also twice as likely as faithful men to have fathers who strayed. “These men live in a world where cheating is done. For them it seems normal,” he says.

Protection Plan: Before you get into a serious relationship, find out your man’s views on staying faithful, Neuman advises: “Does he have a cavalier attitude about infidelity, or does he have a very clear position that it’s wrong and there is no excuse for it?” If your man thinks of straying as no big deal, that’s a red flag that you two may not have the same ideas about what constitutes a commitment.

Cheaters lie. And often that duplicitous behavior begins well before an affair. You might catch him fibbing about his whereabouts or the company he keeps, or simply withholding information if he thinks you might disapprove. He’ll tell you he’s visiting his mother when he’s really out with his boys or convince his boss he’s at a funeral when he’s headed to a ball game. “Notice if he’s lying about simple stuff like running late to pick you up,” says Washington, D.C., relationship expert Audrey B. Chapman, author of Getting Good Loving (Agate). “If he isn’t truthful about the things a healthy person would be able to take ownership of and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ then you’re in trouble.”

Protection Plan: A man who lies with ease should not be readily trusted. “Depending on how severe the lie is, you either back away from him immediately or make it clear that he needs to be straight with you,” says Neuman. “If he continues to lie after that, I wish you the best if you choose to stay in that relationship.”

Men respond to danger, including a failing economy, with a heightened interest in short-term sex, according to researchers at the University of Kansas. “This happens at an unconscious level,” explains Omri Gillath, Ph.D., lead author of the study. Experts believe this behavior is designed to ensure the survival of our species. The impulse is the same whether the threat is a pack of lions or impending economic doom.

Protection Plan: If your man has lost his job or is facing foreclosure, “reduce his anxiety by showing him he’s loved and supported,” advises Gillath. “Being a safe haven for each other is good advice for any relationship.”

Men who are financially dependent on their wives or girlfriends are five times more likely to cheat than men who contribute an equal amount of money to the relationship, according to the 2010 Cornell University study. Researchers theorize that some men who feel like financial failures look to sex with multiple partners as a way to shore up their masculinity.

Protection Plan: If your man is a stay-at-home dad or a struggling student, make a special effort to help him feel that his non-monetary contributions to the relationship are invaluable. Good: “Honey, this dinner is delicious.” Not so good: “That apron you’re wearing really brings out the color of your eyes.”

Work. Kids. Bills. Sometimes life gets so hectic it feels as though you and your man are business partners instead of lovers. Emotional, not sexual, dissatisfaction is the number one reason men give for cheating, according to Neuman. “A man needs someone to love and appreciate him,” he says. “If that’s not you, he’s more likely to find it somewhere else.”

Protection Plan: If your passionate good-bye kiss has been replaced by a “see ya later,” it’s time for a change. Neuman advises couples to make a priority of spending time together. His study found couples who spent at least 30 uninterrupted minutes a day together were significantly happier than those who didn’t.

“Some men have trouble communicating their disappointment,” says Chad Dion Lassiter, professor of race relations at the University of Pennsylvania School for Social Policy & Practice. “So when he’s faced with an obstacle like racism or he doesn’t get the promotion or he loses the deal on Wall Street, his hyper-masculinity won’t allow him to sit and cry or pray. Instead he gets his power back conquering women.”

Protection Plan: If you notice a change in your man’s demeanor—for instance, if he seems withdrawn and anxious—he might be dealing with a challenge that he doesn’t know how to talk about. Sometimes gentle and loving probing is all it takes to get your man to open up.

Does your man think he’s so wonderful he deserves special treatment from the world? Does he care little about your feelings and loves to be the center of attention? He may be a narcissist, explains Chapman. “Narcissists are driven by their egos. They need women to idealize, admire and be in awe of them,” she says. “And they are going to cheat 99 percent of the time.”

Protection Plan:
“If your man is a narcissist, understand that you’re dealing with a serious personality disorder even therapists can’t cure,” counsels Chapman. Unsure if your man fits the profile? Consult a professional.

It can feel as though you’ve struck gold when you meet a single man of a certain age who doesn’t already have an ex-wife and a couple of kids. But if he’s in his forties and has never been in a serious relationship, it may be a warning, says Chapman, host of Sirius XM’s The Audrey Chapman Show. “Some women want to believe their love is so powerful that even if this guy has never committed to anyone, she will be the exception to the rule,” says Chapman. “But this is a man who will cheat to keep himself from getting in too deep.”

Protection Plan: If he’s commitment-phobic, it’s okay to date him, but keep your eyes;and options;open. He may not turn out to be your Mr. Long-Term, and there’s no reason to focus on a romance that might be on the slow train to nowhere.