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How Private Investigators Save Marriages One Stakeout at a Time

You'd think a hardened private detective would be cynical about relationships. Think again.

It’s a private investigator’s job to watch and, after 10 years on the front lines of emotional warfare, Lisa Ribacoff has seen enough relationship carnage for several lifetimes. She’s watched wives go home with personal trainers, husbands slip out to massage parlors, and relationship after relationship unravel over secret vices and hidden motivations. Every year, Ribacoff and agents like her spend the day before Valentine’s Day — called “Side-Chick Day” by those in the know — staking out cheating husbands and every spring they polygraph fiancees, but the most shocking thing she sees is people holding their marriages together.

She sees this a lot. More than you’d think given her line of work. The good news from the tough world of private investigation is that couples often survive bad patches in their relationships — even really, really bad patches. Ribacoff thinks this is because the people she meets confront the truth, which she delivers in the form of polygraph results, pictures, videos, and thorough reports. As if to drive this home, Ribacoff says she approaches her work like a family business. The way she says the words, you’d be tempted to believe it was a small-town diner. There’s a sweetness to it.

“My parents have been together since high school and now they’re the president and CFO of the firm, and my brother is one of the operations managers here and then there’s me,” says Ribacoff, now the Operations Manager of the International Investigative Group. “About 90 percent of our investigators are parents. The whole operation is very family oriented.”

The jilted partners and couples who come into the firm’s offices — IIG has offices in New York City, Long Island, Westchester, Los Angeles, Boca Raton, and London — vary widely but generally fit in one of three groups. First, there are the suspicious partners looking for more information (, and potentially ammunition for divorce). These people often ask their partners to undergo polygraph testing even though it’s only admissible in court if both parties agree. Then there are separated husbands and wives looking for either proof of infidelity because of a clause in a prenuptial agreement or evidence that a spouse or former spouse acts irresponsibly or is profligate when the kids aren’t around. These cases require surveillance to uncover more timely, compelling, and expensive information — around $1,100 to $1,500 per PI for a four-hour minimum. Finally, there are mothers and fathers who want to know what is happening with their estranged partner is with the kid. It’s not totally uncommon for Investigators to travel internationally in order to track down parents who’ve abducted their children. (“That’s the worst thing you could possibly do,” Ribacoff says, citing a case that took her firm all the way to Tel Aviv, Israel over a decade ago. “It’s not going to help you in court.”)

When it comes to individuals who suspect that their spouses are cheating, Ribacoff is more spy than psychologist, advising them not to talk about their suspicions — not if they want to catch them. Keep track of what time they come and go, what they’re wearing and if they change, and save any receipts that seem odd. As much as this may seem like cynical advice, she more than believes in happy endings. She just takes an unusual route to get there. Why? She’s seen many families stay together after offending partners were confronted with photo and video evidence of their misdeeds. There is, after all, no dissembling after that. The conversation that comes next is often productive.

Ribacoff provides an example by describing a relatively recent case. The husband was working long hours and suspected his wife was cheating on him with her personal trainer (naturally). He turned out to be right. Investigators documented public displays of affection and afternoon visits to his place. The husband confronted his wife who ended the affair. They went to counseling and stayed together. As for the trainer, it turned out he had a girlfriend, who the husband found on Facebook and messaged with the intel. She left.

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“Everyone got it,” Ribacoff jokes.

And, of course, she has some fun outing jerks. She’s just careful not to conflate the joy of catching someone with an understanding of their relationship. It is her job to establish facts, not to tell people how to feel about them.

“We’re not here to just take people’s money and break up anyone’s homes. If you want to break up your home that’s your prerogative and we’re not here to judge them,” she says. “We’re not here to do anything except find out what the truth is.”

And the truth is not every spouse accused is found guilty. This is where polygraph exams play the most important role. Despite the controversy surrounding their validity, plenty of people trust polygraphs in lieu of trusting their spouses. But surprisingly, that’s exactly why people consent to the test — to prove their innocence. It’s not uncommon for the accused to call for the polygraphs themselves, clear their names, and then file divorce over the in response allegation.

“The whole purpose behind the polygraph really is to clear the innocent,” she says. “People are going to be getting caught, but forget the guilty. You want to be sure people aren’t being held accountable for something they didn’t do.”

But Ribacoff, who has a masters degree in behavioral psychology, has seen couples come back from this revelation just as often. She credits this to her father, a former PI and polygraph examiner, who taught her to use the polygraph as more of a therapeutic tool than an interrogative one. Her job is not to simply detect what could be indicators deception, but to give couples the opportunity to confess, clear the air, and potentially check toxic levels of paranoia and distrust. When they’re willing to work through that, Ribacoff refers them to family therapists and has even received thank you calls, texts, and emails afterward.

There are sexless and loveless marriages as well, but a trustless one is what all of Ribacoff’s clients have in common. Most people do not wake up one day and decide to tail their spouses or polygraph them to get them to show up to an appointment with a couple’s therapists. The impulse to prioritize their personal pride over trust in relationships is something that festers over time. Rather than communicate their concerns, insecurities, or suspicions, they’d rather take notes about shady behavior to relay to a private eye. On some level they want trust, but not at the expense of confirming their beliefs. They want to be right first and decide what to do about it second. To them, there’s no insurance too ridiculous to keep them from playing the fool. And that’s all that having a really PI is.

“You have to realize if you’re cheating you’re going to get caught. Someone is going to see you, or you’re going to slip up somehow,” Ribacoff says. “And in this case, a PI saw you.”