Trust is the cornerstone of any grown-up relationship. When entering into one that's even semi-serious it's natural to have some basic expectations: that your partner won't lie, cheat or betray you. And yet people – men and women – do all these things, and many of them get away with it for a long time.
Sometimes it's a case of someone casually dating a few people at once; more bruising for all involved is when someone manages to get away with living multiple lives with different partners for months or years at a time. More Doctor Foster, Bliss or The Affair than John Tucker Must Die, it leaves the once trusting, betrayed party(-ies) believing the whole relationship was a lie, blaming themselves and asking: why?
"There are many reasons why someone may lead double lives with multiple partners," Anjula Mutanda, a relationship psychologist and vice president of Relate, tells Refinery29. "There's an exciting and dangerous element to it. There may be sexual compulsions and the desire for multiple partners to fulfil those needs. They may have created a fantasy around themselves. It may give the person a sense of power and control of others that they themselves may not feel in their everyday life, thus masking feelings of inadequacy."
Psychologically, they may have convinced themselves that what they’re doing is okay or even normal, adds Mutanda. Research also shows a correlation between this behaviour and psychopathy – those with psychopathic traits "desire and/or experience less intimacy in their relationships and are more likely to engage in sexual infidelity". For someone like this, Mutanda says, "a relationship is about getting their needs met, no matter how it affects the other person."
The problem is that it's easy to be sucked in by them, meaning that their "victims" shouldn't blame themselves. "These people are often extremely charming, will love-bomb you, are highly manipulative and can be extremely affectionate, even generous at times," warns Mutanda. "They may also stalk their victims, which is easier these days with social media, so that they come across as your 'soulmate'." Crushingly, she adds, they're experts at mimicking empathy while having no feelings for their victims.
One woman who learned this the hard way is 28-year-old Daisy*, who dated her ex-boyfriend, Dan*, for nearly a year, spent countless hours with him and even met his family and friends, without being privy to who he really was – or what he was getting up to behind her back. She shares her story – and shocking discovery – with Refinery29.
"I’d just got out of a long-term relationship when I began dating Dan. To be honest, it started out as a rebound thing but he got intense very quickly. I was trying to keep things casual, and at the beginning I didn't want our relationship to escalate as much as it did. He told me he loved me after a month and said, 'You're exactly what I've been looking for'. It was very over the top and he behaved like this the whole time we were together. I'm not like that and had never been with anyone like that before. Looking back, he was manipulating me and was very clever about it. He had psychopathic tendencies and I didn’t realize what was happening.
I was always a bit on edge throughout the relationship – he wanted to put a label on it within weeks and his grand gestures of emotion would freak me out. But there were so many good things about it and I was going through a busy period with work. I obviously did really like him – he was sweet, nice and very romantic – otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed with him for a year. All my friends and family met him and really liked him, although a couple of people said 'he talks about himself too much' and called him narcissistic. My dad thought he said 'thank you' too much.
Soon after we started dating I found out he had a child, and he introduced me to her early on, after just a couple of months. I told him it was quite soon to take such a big step, and he said, 'I know, but I think you're a really strong influence for her and will be such a good role model.' I thought, That's a lot. But I formed a strong bond with his daughter, even though we weren't a strong couple at that point. He must’ve figured that if he introduced me to his daughter, we'd start seeing each other a lot more. If I’d trusted my instincts, I would have realized this was emotional manipulation. At the time, I just thought he was an emotional, romantic person. I thought that was why he was so jealous of other people I’d dated and would keep bringing up my long-term ex. What I didn't realize was that he was sleeping with other people the whole time we were together.
There was always one girl, Sarah*, who he’d often be tagged with in Instagram photos. Once, when I thought he’d been somewhere else the previous night, I saw a new picture of them together. I thought it was strange and asked who she was. He said, 'I think she might like me a bit but nothing has happened or would happen. I'm friends with one of her friends and she comes and hangs out.' On one occasion he even introduced us to each other while we were both dating him.
They’d been dating for about four months at that point, while we’d been together for five. I’d stayed at his house with his daughter, and suddenly Sarah showed up with her dog, which his daughter was excited about. Dan introduced me as a friend who had a close relationship with his child. The whole thing lasted about five minutes, but I had a strange inkling about her and they’d often meet up for coffee. Whenever I’d bring her up, he’d always brush her off as 'a friend of a friend'.
One morning I was doing some work on his laptop when an email notification popped up. It had the words 'child maintenance' in the subject line and was from a woman who wasn’t the mother of his daughter. I thought, What the fuck? He had a secret son who was the same age as his daughter. I was furious he’d hidden it from me. When I confronted him he sat down and cried. He was apologetic that he hadn't told me, and said it had been a difficult time for him and he deeply regretted not being able to see his son. It was all bullshit.
A year after we started dating, the whole thing blew apart. It was my birthday and all my friends and I went out to celebrate. Dan was there and acted strangely the whole night. When he went to bed I stayed up and talked to his flatmates. I asked them if anything was going on between Dan and Sarah because I had a funny feeling about it. One of them said, 'I really like you and I can't tell you it's not.' I asked for how long – 'a few weeks?' – and he said since last summer, about nine months. I was in shock. I went to wake him up and took his phone out of his hand. He jumped up and said, 'Give me that back now, give me that back.' I said, 'Are you fucking joking? I’ve just found out you've been seeing Sarah for nine months.' He started slamming me into his wardrobe and telling me to 'get the fuck out' of his house. 'You don’t know anything.'
He'd sent us the same photos and texts – even sex messages.
I dropped his phone and went to grab my stuff, because I was thinking Oh my god, this whole thing is a lie. He started shoving me, pushing me down the stairs and throwing my stuff around. My friends had given me a plant for my birthday, which he threw at my face. Eventually I found myself standing in the street, wondering How did that happen? How did that turn from me finding out that he had another girlfriend for the past nine months, to me being told to 'get the fuck out' and him throwing stuff at me? People on the street were watching me picking up my stuff and asking if I was okay.
I ordered a cab and when I got in, the first thing I did was type in Sarah's name on Instagram. I messaged her saying, 'Hi, do you mind giving me a ring?' and put my number below. It was 6.30am at this point and she called me immediately. The first thing she said was, 'I just saw a picture of you kissing my boyfriend.' So I told her I’d been dating Dan for almost a year, and I’d just found out she’d been dating him for the past nine months. She was in shock and told me to come and meet her. I drove to her house, which was a few minutes away from his, she opened the door and we spoke for about three hours. I was in such shock that I don't remember much of what was said between us, and I hadn't slept. It was my birthday that day.
There were six other girls who he’d either slept with, dated or been dating over the same period.
Sarah and I ended up spending a lot of time together and even went on holiday. It was so shocking that we became friends because we spent so long working out what had happened to us, and how Dan had managed to get away with that. The whole thing was so ridiculous that we laughed about it together. We realized he'd sent us the same photos and texts – even sex messages. We found out there were six other girls who he’d either slept with, dated or been dating over the same period. We were all interlinked – one worked in my office and a lot of them I’d met before or had worked with.
I still have no idea how he managed to manipulate me for so long and I'm still confused about it. But when I speak to my parents and friends who met him, they all agree how nice, kind and charming he was, and that they had no idea what was going on. In hindsight, I'd describe him as a psychopath. He was a drug addict, too, which I didn't know. And he worked a lot and often went on work trips. If he was in Paris with Sarah, he’d tell me he was 'just working' and I sometimes wouldn’t see him for weeks at a time. He’d take photos at work and send me them while he was at dinner or away with Sarah, as if he was in the studio at that moment.
Looking back, I’m not glad it happened but the experience benefited me on many levels. Beforehand, I hadn’t realized what people could be like. I'd always given people the benefit of the doubt, which was my downfall with Dan. I genuinely just thought, Why would he be lying? I thought, at most, maybe he’d drunkenly slept with someone. But no way did I think he was hiding children, hiding girlfriends, hiding long-term relationships, hiding a drug problem. And a lot more has come out since. I now have so much gratitude towards people who live their lives properly. I'm not a good liar – I don't lie to people, don't like lying, and never have. It baffles me that I was with someone who found it so easy.
Anyone with suspicions about someone they're seeing should be wary of certain behaviours, like long periods of time without contact. Sometimes he'd just go offline with no explanation. He'd often say one thing, backtrack and then say something different. He was also very funny about his social media accounts. Often when I commented something innocuous beneath his photo, he'd delete and make an excuse when I asked why. Trust your instincts. If you have an inkling something is wrong, stick to your gut and don't let somebody manipulate you into thinking it isn't.
I’m now back with the long-term ex I was seeing before Dan came along. It took us a while to get back on track after that happened, but we live together now and my life couldn’t be more different. I'm so much more respectful than I ever would have been because I know that there are people in the world like Dan. I thought that sort of thing only happened in the movies. If you date somebody for a year, two, or three years and you're lying to them the whole time, you're altering their life. You're taking time away from them. I'm so glad we didn't go any further."
*Names have been changed.
The warning signs
There may be cause for concern if your partner is often home late, away a lot, has more than one mobile phone or is suddenly taking greater care of their appearance, warns Dr Lisa Matthewman, a psychologist at the University of Westminster. They may avoid paying with cards so there's no paper trail, and often complain "that the Wi-Fi is bad, or say their battery died when you try to contact them," adds Anjula Mutanda.
The psychological signs of someone living multiple lives are harder to detect, but just as revealing. They may bombard you with attention early on in the relationship, which you may be vulnerable to if you're at a low point in your life, Mutanda says. "They have great sob stories, and often tend to zero in on highly empathic people.
"If you start to get too close or ask too many questions they retaliate by gaslighting you, and mess with your reality to the point that you feel as if you don't even know your own mind. You may start to feel brainwashed by them," she warns, adding that they may also isolate you from friends and family, particularly if those close to you have started to raise the alarm about them."