By Vicki Tidwell Palmer LCSW, CSAT, SEP

A couple of months ago in one of my quarterly Clarity CircleLive Q&A Calls, a partner asked this excellent question:

How do I know the difference between an intuition or paranoia? My husband is really trying, but I am struggling to trust him because he’s lied so well in the past…

This partner speaks for just about everyone who has ever experienced chronic infidelity.

Paranoia is defined as:

Suspicion and mistrust of people or their actions without evidence or justification.

And here’s the definition of intuition:

The ability to understand something immediately, without the need for conscious reasoning.

A thing that one knows or considers likely from instinctive feeling rather than conscious reasoning.

Paranoia is almost indistinguishable from a worrisome — or even dangerous — intuition about someone or some thing.

The difference between them is a very fine line. And it gets even more complex to know the difference between paranoia and intuition when facing repeated betrayal or a spouse’s addiction.

As a betrayed partner, you know that your intuition is often spot-on. But how do you know for sure? And what do you do when you have a strong sense that there is something wrong or amiss, but you have no concrete data to back it up?

The simple answer is that you must trust your intuition, even when it may be inaccurate.

The danger of ignoring your intuition is that you will fail to act in your own best interest, or to protect yourself or others from pain or harm. And the reality is that you can always change your mind if new events, information, or experiences reveal that your intuition was inaccurate.

Here are 4 factors to consider when you’re not sure whether it’s intuition or paranoia.

How long since discovery or disclosure?

If it’s been less than one year since you discovered your spouse’s infidelity or addiction, you will tend to see deception, suspicious behavior, or signs of infidelity almost everywhere, even when the reality is there nothing to be concerned about. And that is perfectly normal and to be expected.

One of the many consequences of  betrayal is that you are hyper-vigilant and on high alert for signs of danger. And rightly so. In addition, if you’re less than one year post-discovery or disclosure your spouse probably hasn’t yet taken all of the necessary steps to regain your trust. And that means it is not yet time to be generous around giving him (or her) the benefit of the doubt.

So, in the early stages it is best to trust your intuition, and take action accordingly for your self-care and protection. If you get additional information, or otherwise decide that your intuition wan’t accurate, you can make any adjustments needed in terms of boundaries or self-care at that point.

Reality test

When you’re struggling to figure out whether you’re being paranoid or if you truly need to pay attention to an intuitive hunch, do some reality checking with a trusted friend, coach, mentor, sponsor, or therapist.

Reality testing means you tell the trusted person what you’re noticing both internally (your thoughts and emotions) and externally about the facts of the situation. If the trusted person is a skilled listener, they will likely ask you clarifying questions to help you get very clear about your reality so that you can decide whether or not you need to act on your perceptions.

Pay attention to consistent, repetitive thoughts

There is always the possibility that thoughts can deceive. However, if you’re having repetitive thoughts that seem to come from nowhere or are very persistent, unless you had pre-discovery issues around repetitive or obsessive thinking, you are likely experiencing an intuition rather than paranoia.

Is your intuitive thought part of a pattern?

Most of us have a lens through which we see the world, largely shaped by our childhood history, culture, and other important life experiences. For example, a person who was neglected in childhood will tend to see other people’s behavior toward them as “ignoring” or “neglecting” because on some level they have come to expect — even unconsciously — that they will be ignored or neglected by others.

If the intuition you’re having fits into a long-standing pattern of interpreting others’ action or words based on a similar story line, it will be helpful to explore this pattern more before taking action on an intuitive hunch. That doesn’t mean your intuition is wrong, but it would probably be helpful to do more internal exploration before proceeding.

A chronic, pervasive pattern of lying doesn’t stop immediately when someone enters recovery or begins therapy. And sadly, it is quite common for unfaithful spouses to have repeated problems around lying. Deception can be an even more challenging habit to break for a spouse who began hiding or lying early in life due to the impact of an intrusive or abusive parent.

Post-discovery and disclosure, the topics of deception are sometimes of a less serious nature than the initial betrayal, but that doesn’t change the fact that dishonesty and deception are toxic and harmful to all intimate relationships. This is one of the reasons why post-Formal Therapeutic Disclosure polygraph and after-care polygraphs are so important for rebuilding trust and restoring relationships impacted by chronic infidelity or a spouse’s addiction.


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