Help! I'm having an affair! What should I do?
Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Cheaters get a pretty bad rap.
Infidelity isn’t something most people have much empathy for – unless you’re the one who was cheated on. Most of the advice out there on the subject of dealing with an affair tells you how to prevent an affair before you have one, or how to repair a relationship after the affair is over and done with.
But what if you’re currently having an affair, and have no idea what to do about it?
You have rights too, even if other people see what you’re doing as categorically Bad – or maybe even see you as being fundamentally Bad.
If you’re cheating on your partner, here’s a quick rundown of your rights:
You have the right to advice that recognizes the fullness of your humanity and the complexity of your situation.
You have the right to reject “advice” that’s little more than thinly veiled judgment.
You have the right to be confused, and not know what you want.
You have the right to take some time to figure out what you want to do about your situation… even if that means perpetuating the deception for a little while longer.
You have the right to be “selfish.” That is, you have the right to decide what’s right for YOU, even if other people aren’t going to be happy about your choices.
You have the right to positive self-regard. Yes, your actions may be somewhat problematic. But that doesn’t mean you’re a fundamentally terrible person. You can take responsibility for your actions without relinquishing your self-worth.
You have the right to enjoy the good aspects of your situation. Yes, you may be in a bit of a pickle, and your situation may involve some morally and ethically questionable behavior, and you may feel bad about that. But you still have the right to recognize and appreciate the wonderful aspects of your situation. And in fact, you need to do this if you want to make decisions about your relationship(s) that are truly right for you. But that’s another story.
Those aren’t your only rights, of course, but they’re ones worth emphasizing.
And along with these rights, you have some responsibilities:
You have the responsibility to do your best to get your shit together as quickly as possible. Existing in moral and ethical grey area for a while, while you’re grappling with some major existential questions is one thing. Lingering in that zone indefinitely, because you’re wallowing in confusion or are scared to take action is another.
You have the responsibility to take responsibility for your actions. Sure, it’s possible that your marriage had been stagnant and loveless for years before your affair, and your spouse bears some responsibility for that. But if you’re cheating, you’re cheating. The chain of events that led to your affair may be complicated, but you don’t get to blame your actions on your unsatisfying marriage, or on your spouse, or anything else. Context always matters, but your actions are always your responsibility. (And I promise that operating from this premise is far more empowering than it might sound.)
You have the responsibility to be as considerate of others as possible. If and when you change the nature of your situation, for example by ending your affair, or by ending your marriage, or whatever you choose to do, it’s important to bear in mind that other people’s feelings and lives will be affected by your decisions. Do your best to be kind and respectful. But also bear in mind that there’s a big difference between being considerate of other people’s feelings, and attempting to take responsibility for other people’s feelings – which you can’t do, because it’s impossible. We’re all responsible for our own feelings, period.
You have the responsibility to be honest with others. What this will mean, exactly, will vary depending on the specifics of your situation. People have very different ideas about what it means to “be honest”; some people think that honesty entails a full accounting of your every thought, word, and deed. Others think honesty means telling the truth only when forced to do so. I appreciate the shades of grey here, but still suggest a few guidelines: Don’t be deceitful. Don’t omit details you know are important. And most importantly, don’t fudge the truth for the sake of your own comfort. Which brings me to my next point…
You have the responsibility to bear the discomfort that will almost certainly come with taking responsibility for your affair. Dealing with your situation may not be easy, and it might even be excruciatingly difficult and unpleasant. But you’ve gotta step up to the plate and deal with it as best as you can. Most of us have never learned how to deal with our uncomfortable emotions – like anger, shame, fear, anxiety, frustration, etc., etc., etc., and that is really too bad, because ALL of us experience uncomfortable emotions at some point in our lives. And when we do, we may take them out on others, simply because we don’t know what else to do with those feelings… and this often leads to outcomes that are worse than those wrought by the affair itself. If you’re not sure what to do with your difficult feelings, now’s a good time to learn – and help is out there.