When we talk about cheating—and we do talk about, it a lot—we typically focus on the two people in the affected partnership. There’s the cheater and the cheated-upon, yes, but so often overlooked is the cheated-with, a person who may or may not know they’re the “other” in a crowded relationship.
If you find out you’re the third party in a two-party system, it’s up to you how you proceed. You can end things, you can tell the person who’s getting two-timed, or you can continue as you were and put the moral weight solely on the person you’re hooking up with. It’s up to you—but before you decide on any course of action, you must understand with certainty that you’re trespassing in someone else’s territory, inadvertently or otherwise.
But that all will come in the wake of your discovery, so how do you figure out if you’re hooking up with someone who already has a beau?
Keep an eye out for suspicious items
This is the most obvious trick, especially if you’re going home with someone you just met. Once you arrive at their place, have a good look around. Framed pictures of a loving couple or shoes by the door that are obviously not theirs are clear signs, but a seasoned cheater or someone who has put any thought into this bit of subterfuge will probably hide the really egregious stuff, so dig deeper.
Excuse yourself to go to the bathroom to “freshen up.” You probably do need to freshen up, so this is fine, and won’t cause any alarm. Once you have the door shut and locked, get busy. Did you go home with a short-haired man who has a paddle brush and leave-in conditioner in his drawer? Or maybe a woman who has a beard trimmer plugged in on her counter? Use judgement and common sense while you evaluate the personal items before you. Don’t feel bad about snooping; if you’re about to let this person gain carnal knowledge of you, you can gain a little knowledge back. Post-vax slutty summer or no, it’s generally a good idea to know as much as you can about someone before you bang them—but remember not to be too snoopy. Their medications and private items are still personal. Those aren’t what you’re after, so don’t even go there.
Whether or not there is anything suspicious in the bathroom, there could still be hints to discover in other parts of the home, though you’ll have to move with a little more caution when your potential bedmate is watching you in more public spaces.
If you’re going into this situation already suspicious, you were probably given a reason to be, whether it’s leftover anguish from being cheated on in the past or something this new paramour said while chatting you up. Don’t assume they’re cheating, but do stay alert. Say they ask you to watch some Netflix—keep an eye on that screen, and take note of the user profiles that pop up.
In the event this isn’t a first- or one-time hookup, use your knowledge of the person’s likes and dislikes to your advantage. If they hate spicy food but you find a bottle of Frank’s Red Hot in the fridge when you go to get a beer, ask yourself who, exactly, that’s for.
The evidence will vary in every situation. Is there a phone charger plugged in on the side of the bed where your partner doesn’t sleep? Is there an empty space in the closet where it looks like a suitcase might go, if its owner weren’t, say, on a business trip somewhere while their partner stays home alone to philander? Pretend you’re an investigator and you’re looking for clues.
Physical items aren’t the only things that can raise suspicion. If you’re seeing someone who goes hours at a time without responding to your texts at night or can only hang out during very specific hours, they might have a demanding job or they might have another partner they’re spending time with. As with anything in a romantic entanglement, trust your gut.
Try to add them on social media
The second major red flag inevitably appears when you try to add your new hookup on social media. Yeah, everyone values their privacy, but they also value Instagram followers. If your lover isn’t telling you their handles, there’s a reason. It could be benign—a disinterest in mixing work and play—but it could also be an attempt to hide tagged photos and pics with their real significant other.
I once caught a man who was cheating with me in exactly this way. He looked at my Instagram Story but forgot to block me afterwards (which is a key if you want to view a Story without its poster knowing, so write that down). Imagine my surprise when I tapped on a name I didn’t recognize only to find photo after photo of the man I was casually seeing with a woman who did not look very casual with him at all. It turned out he’d lied about his name, his job, where he lived, and even his birthday, creating for himself a fake persona who, coincidentally, didn’t have a girlfriend. But in real life, when he wasn’t with me, he did. And she had no idea what he was up to when he slipped into his fake identity.
See, even if someone tries to hide their social media from you, it’s too connected to who they really are for that to be reliably possible these days. Snapchat, TikTok, and Facebook can all cull your phone’s contacts to offer up a list of “people you may know.” Unless this person is so dedicated to cheating and keeping you from realizing it that they preemptively block you on every platform, you’ll probably come across their pages at some point. If you don’t, however, you can try reverse-searching the photos from their dating profile or Googling details they’ve given you about their life. It’s hard to make up a fake life and stick with every lie; the truth always comes out, and you can be the one to force it.
Once you do, it’s up to you how you handle the new information. For my part, I set up a fake date with the cheater after compiling a massive folder of evidence with my friends (and made them sit in the back of the bar in case he got scary during the confrontation). We had fun, almost. It was very John Tucker Must Die, but less entertaining because we knew someone was about to be seriously hurt.
During the fake date, I told the cheater he was going to tell his girlfriend what he’d been doing, or I would—and I stuck with it. It sucked a lot to bring news like that to someone who had no idea what her boyfriend was doing when she wasn’t around. Bear in mind that even if you never meet the person who’s being cheated on, they’re a real human being with thoughts, feelings, and emotions. If you decide to keep seeing the person doing the cheating, don’t let yourself forget that. There are very few scenarios here wherein everyone will get out unscathed, but it’s not your fault the cheater is cheating. Unless you’re actively egging the cheater on, the blame for two-timing falls squarely on them. A word of advice, though: An emotional, cheated-on person might not always see it that way, so let your willingness to be screamed at or called a homewrecker factor into the decision of when and whether you tell them.
That brings us to communication.
If, for whatever reason, you think you’re hooking up with someone who has a significant other already, you can just ask. You really can. It’s awkward, sure, but you might find that they are in an open relationship or going through one of those messy breakups where they’re still kinda-sorta seeing their long-time love while trying to get back into the dating scene. Honesty is always the best policy, and being informed and aware beats being suspicious and guarded every time.
Whether you have an arsenal of evidence or just an unfounded hunch, be direct. True, I’m giving advice I didn’t take myself here, since I set up a fake date to confront the cheater I caught, but I did that out of a concern that he’d block my number from her phone if I texted him the evidence I was prepared to text her. (Yes, I sleuthed her number online, but that how-to is a story for another article.) In fairness, I was very direct once the phony date got underway. Don’t punk out once you get them sitting across from you. It’s always better to have all the facts, even if they make you uncomfortable.
That’s the advice Sarah N., a 29-year-old New Yorker who declined to give her last name, has, too. While attending a conference a few years ago, she started talking to the keynote speaker and found they had a lot in common. One thing led to another and they had sex. On the third day of the conference, she noticed a ring on his finger, but told herself, “Surely, they must be in an open marriage.”
Don’t delude yourself or make up scenarios in your head if you do catch someone. It bears repeating that if someone cheats on their partner with you, it’s not your fault, no matter how aggressively you flirted or how you look. Give them the benefit of the doubt, sure, but once you see something suspicious, confront them. That’s what Sarah did, and the keynote speaker was surprisingly honest with her.
“He was completely deadpan about it, as if it was, like, normal,” she recalled. “He was almost disgusted that I asked if they were open. He said, ‘No, definitely not,’ so I asked, ‘You cheated?’ He said yes, so I asked if it was the first time. He tried to pretend it was and I got upset. Then he admitted it wasn’t and he told me about the other women. I just didn’t want to be the girl he ruined his marriage on.”
Let’s get one thing straight: If someone cheats with you, it’s not you who ruined the relationship. It’s them, full stop, and even then, the relationship might not be destroyed. People talk through infidelity all the time. (Here’s how.) Sarah says the keynote speaker is still married to his wife, though she doesn’t know if he ever told her about his wandering eye. The man who cheated with me is still with the girlfriend he had at the time, and I can personally attest to the fact that she is well aware of what happened.
Again, it’s up to you what you do after figuring out the big secret. If you find a box of tampons in a seemingly single man’s bathroom, you can leave a note in there telling her he’s a cheater, or you can just shut the drawer. If you find a hookup’s real-life partner on social media, you can DM them, or you can close the app. You can keep seeing the person, or you can block them and hope they don’t just cheat again with someone else. What matters most is that you know and can make an informed decision. Now get out there and be nosy.