Let’s say you’re married, or in a committed, monogamous relationship. You and your Person had been together for years, or maybe decades, and things had gotten a little stagnant between the two of you. And then, out of nowhere, Someone New and Amazing came into your life, and before you knew it, you were having a full-blown affair with them.
(Important note: a “full-blown affair” means different things to different people. Whatever it means for you is a valid definition.)
And for a little while there, it was wonderful! It was exciting and crazy and glorious and you thought you were in love with them and you thought you were going to break things off with your spouse/partner and run off into the sunset with Someone Amazing and live happily ever after.
And then… well, then things with Someone Amazing kind of fizzled out. And you realized how good things are with your spouse/partner, and you ended the affair, and fully recommitted to your spouse/partner with all of your heart.
Except you didn’t tell them about the affair. And you’re not really sure if you want to. But you kind of think you should, or have to, or something, and you’re not really sure what to do.
DO you have to tell your spouse/partner about your affair? You know for SURE the affair is over, and you are as sure as you can be that you’re never going to cheat on them again.
Here’s the deal: you don’t have to do anything.
There may be great reasons to tell your partner, and there may also be great reasons not to tell them. But you are the only person who gets to decide what counts as a great reason.
So where does that leave you? Here are four things to consider as you decide whether to confess or not.
ONE: TELLING THE TRUTH IS COMPLICATED
We tend to valorize – or even fetishize – the ideas of honesty and telling the truth.
And that’s fine and great, in some respects. But telling the truth is more complicated than we usually acknowledge. What counts as telling the truth? If you don’t share a key piece of information, is that the same thing as lying about it if asked? If you fudge a few details that seem minor to you, does that matter? If you tell most of the story, but leave a few things out, is that telling the truth? And who gets to decide?
We are all unknown to our partners in many respects, and vice versa. We tell each other things, and don’t tell each other things. What counts as a lie or secret or a meaningful omission is highly contingent upon our own individual beliefs and preferences, and whatever agreements we’ve made in our relationship.
In addition, there are many good questions to be asked about whether or when telling the truth is doing someone a favor. In some times and places, avoiding cold hard truths has been or still is considered a kindness. In some contexts, it’s considered much more compassionate to avoid or omit the truth – or to, effectively, lie – than to throw down a truth bomb that might devastate someone. And even here in our current context – the USA, in 2020 – there are some things some of us would prefer not to know.
That isn’t to suggest that you can safely assume your spouse would prefer not to know about your affair and use that as an easy justification for not telling them. But it is possible that they might prefer not to know – or have to confront the topic directly. They might already know! And they might be hoping like hell that you never, ever, make them have to talk about it, or acknowledge it directly. Plenty of people go their whole lives letting sleeping dogs lie. Or, your spouse may be pretty sure they know you’ve had an affair, and they may be yearning for you to confess, apologize, and tell them that you really love them and want to be with them.
The point isn’t that there isn’t value in telling the truth – sometimes there is tremendous value in telling the truth – but rather, that it isn’t an unambiguous matter of doing the “right thing” or the “wrong thing.” Life is messy.
TWO: YOU GET TO CHOOSE WHAT YOU DO. YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING.
If you think you SHOULD tell your partner about your affair, or NEED to tell them, get clear on WHY.
And then, ask yourself if you can re-frame your reasons why you “should” or “have to” tell your partner into reasons why you might CHOOSE to tell your partner. Doing something because you choose to do it is very different from doing something because you think you should do it, or have to do it. There’s so much more power in “I choose to” than “I have to.”
And if you think you don’t have any choices, allow me to disagree. We ALWAYS have choices. For instance, you could choose to lie and deny the whole thing, even if you were confronted with hard evidence.
People do this all the time! With no compunctions! That’s not to say that you should do this, but it is an option available to you.
So get really clear about your reasons why you would CHOOSE to tell your partner about your affair. Write them down. Make the list as exhaustive as possible. (You can always burn it later!).
And while you’re at it, make a list of all of the reasons why you would choose NOT to tell them.
Which set of reasons do you like better? That’s how you begin to make a decision.
Surely it can’t be as simple as that, you say? It sure could be. And if it isn’t, it’s a pretty good starting place. (And if it does seem too simple, ask yourself why it needs to be harder!)
Bear in mind that whether you choose to tell your partner about the affair or keep it a secret, two things will be true either way:
Discomfort lies ahead.
If you choose to tell you partner, even if you feel GREAT about your reasons for doing so, having that conversation with them may be HARD. The next phase of your relationship could be difficult and painful. And if you choose not to tell your partner, digesting your feelings on your own, and keeping your secret may be difficult in other ways.
No matter what you choose to do, no matter what information you share or keep to yourself, there’s no way to predict the ultimate consequences of your choices.
You might tell your partner that you had an affair, you’re terribly sorry, but the experience made you realize how much you want to reinvest in your relationship… and your partner might tell you to get lost. OR it might be the beginning of a beautiful new chapter in your life together. Similarly, you might choose NOT to tell your partner about the affair, and make peace with that decision… only to have your partner, through some weird turn of events, find out about it sometime down the line. Maybe by then it won’t matter anymore. Or maybe they’ll be crushed that you didn’t come clean at the time.
This is why it’s so important for you to like your reasons for your decision.
THREE: IF YOU’RE GOING TO CONFESS, DECIDE WHICH DETAILS YOU’LL SHARE
If you DO decide to tell your partner, figure out WHAT exactly you are going to tell them before you sit down to talk.
There are probably a million things you could say about your affair. How it began, what you were thinking at the time, how it felt to experience feelings for a person other than your spouse/partner, how you justified the whole thing to yourself, and so on. And there are a million other things your partner might want to know about the affair. Like all of the details of your sexual encounters. Like where you were that night when you said you were going out for pizza with your friends and didn’t come home until two in the morning. Or where you were that week when you said you were on a work trip and had so many meetings you couldn’t talk on the phone.
Getting into the nitty gritty details of every aspect of your affair could be cathartic. Or it could be EXCRUCIATING for you and your partner, and not particularly helpful for either of you.
Some people will tell you that nothing but complete honesty about everything your partner wants to know about the affair will suffice – the idea being, that if you’ve cheated, you owe it to your partner to tell them anything and everything they want to know. Others caution against this. In my discussion with non-violent communication expert Joyce Swaving on my podcast, Your Secret is Safe with Me, she urges against sharing all of the gory details of your affair with your partner. Sharing intimate details of the affair may not actually accomplish anything good for anyone – even if your partner thinks they’re entitled to answers to any question they care to ask.
Take some time to think through which details you’ll divulge and which you’ll keep to yourself before you have your conversation with your partner about your affair. Once that conversation begins, it may get intense pretty quickly, and thinking about the limits on the information you’ll share ahead of time will help keep you steady. Again, it’s a great idea to figure out WHY you’ll share whatever details you decide to share, and why you’ll keep other things off limits. (Here are some additional tips for having a difficult conversation with your partner.)
FOUR: STOP PROCRASTINATING
If you’re having trouble making decisions about whether to tell or what to tell your partner about your affair, know this: there is no perfect decision.
No matter what you do or don’t do, there will probably be things that come about as a result of your decision that you like, and things you don’t like. (And you always have the opportunity to shift your perceptions – and with them, your feeling state – about whatever those things are.) If you’ve been telling yourself you can’t make a decision or “don’t know what to do” for any length of time, that’s a good sign you’re putting off making a decision – and that’s a decision in and of itself.