5 Signs Your Partner Is Living a Secret Life, Therapists Say
These red flags may be subtle, but experts say you should take note.
Relationships are built on trust: You want to feel confident that you can rely on your partner, and vice versa. But unfortunately, things aren't always as they seem, and your partner might not be sharing their full self with you. In the most extreme scenarios, they could even be living a secret life, and there are some warning signs to look out for.
Clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, defines a secret life as "an alternate world that's purposefully hidden from a partner." She notes that this includes dishonesty and lack of transparency, which can be "highly toxic" to your relationship.
A secret life may include an affair or just taking part in activities outside of the relationship that the other partner isn't aware of, Joni Ogle, LCSW, CSAT, CEO of The Heights Treatment, tells Best Life.
"In some cases, this could be something relatively harmless such as shopping sprees that are kept secret," she explains. "However, in other cases it can involve much more significant issues such as substance abuse, gambling, or criminal activities. This type of secret life can present a huge challenge to any relationship, not just because of the potential damage it could cause, but also in terms of trust and communication between partners."
While there are some master manipulators who are extremely skilled in keeping their secrets private, Manly notes that your partner will probably send up some "emotional and behavioral red flags." With that in mind, you'll want to keep an eye out for certain behaviors that might indicate your partner is leading a double life. Read on for the five most telling signs.
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They're showing some financial discrepancies.
The saying suggests that you should "follow the money," and that's true in your relationship, too. If your partner is hiding a second life, there might be a change to how they handle their money.
"If your partner starts spending more than they normally do without explanation or suddenly has unaccounted for income, this may indicate that something else is going on," Ogle says.
Kalley Hartman, LMFT, clinical director at Ocean Recovery in Newport Beach, California, also points to money as a sign of trouble.
"Have you noticed money disappearing from joint accounts with no explanation? Are there any new credit cards or loans in your partner's name that you don't know about? This could mean they're using the money to finance a secret life," she says.
However, Ogle notes that this doesn't always mean something sketchy is going on. "It's important to pay attention and ask questions if you notice these behaviors changing," she adds. "Talk to them openly and honestly about what's going on, but try not to jump to conclusions too quickly."
They're extra defensive.
If your partner is getting more guarded or defensive lately, it could signal that they're juggling a second life—and they don't want you catching on.
"The existence of a secret life is increasingly likely if a partner is highly defensive or unwilling to discuss any changes noted," says Manly, who is also the author of Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships & Love Fearlessly. "In fact, it's not uncommon for the deceptive partner to engage in gaslighting as a defensive tactic; by making the partner question their reality, the problematic issue—the concern of a secret life—is avoided."
Sameera Sullivan, matchmaker and relationship expert, also highlights defensiveness and gaslighting as red flags.
"They will display defensive or even hostile behavior when you call attention to their suspicious behavior or catch them in a lie," she says. "They might even gaslight you, causing you to question your memory or sanity."
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They have unexplained absences.
If your partner is, in fact, living a secret life, they'll need time to do so. If you're noticing time periods when they're missing—and they don't have a valid reason—keep your guard up.
"Some may show changes in their routine or behavior, such as coming home late at night without providing an explanation, and being unresponsive when asked about their whereabouts," Ogle says.
They may also make changes to their schedule, which could indicate that "something's going on behind your back," Hartman adds.
They're extra private with their phone.
Someone with a secret life might be more protective of their phone or computer.
"Does your partner always keep their phone hidden and make sure you can never see the call log? Are there frequent calls or texts at strange hours?" Hartman asks. "This could indicate they're talking to someone else or even having an affair."
They may get angry if you ask about it, but Hartman notes that having an honest conversation is your best bet. "If they are living a double life, confronting them might be difficult, but it can help bring things into the open and allow both of you to work together toward finding a solution," she says.
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They give vague answers.
Some people living a secret life will get defensive when questioned, but others might placate you with ambiguous answers instead.
"If your partner only responds in vague answers, they might be signaling to you that they're pulling away from the relationship or attempting to hide information from you," Beth Ribarsky, PhD, professor of interpersonal communication at the University of Illinois Springfield, explains.
Sullivan says they might try to avoid the question entirely. "A person leading a double life will frequently duck questions like 'Where have you been?' and "What have you been doing?'" she says. "They can give you a hazy response, divert the subject, or even make you feel bad if you inquire."
But if this sounds like your partner, Ribarsky stresses that it's unwise to jump to conclusions. Like Hartman, Manly, and Ogle, she recommends a straightforward conversation.
"If you notice a change in your partner's behavior, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about what you're noticing and find the root of its cause," she says. "Outside stressors, such as work issues, can easily affect our behaviors and how we are connecting with others. Creating an opportunity to talk about what's going on or what you're observing might just be what you partner needs to relieve some of that built up tension, while also perhaps giving you peace of mind."
You may also want to seek out the help of a licensed counselor or confide in a trust friend, experts say. But if your instincts are correct, there are steps that you can take.
"If it turns out that your partner is indeed leading a secret life, figure out how you want to proceed with the relationship," Ogle says. "Talk about what kind of changes need to happen in order for trust to be re-established."