You cheated on your partner. You feel terrible. Between the guilt, the fear of discovery, the anger at yourself, and the rest of the crazy feelings, you don’t want to go on with the secret. You’ve thought through the pros and cons, and you’ve decided it’s time to come clean. Now what?
Here are the elements that go into telling your partner that you cheated:
- Find a good time.
- Be remorseful.
- Don’t try to minimize what you’ve done.
- Prepare for the storm.
- Listen to your partner’s needs.
- Tell the whole truth.
Let’s tackle these one at a time.
1. Find a good time to tell them about the infidelity.
This revelation is going to be a big deal. So this may be an obvious point, but don’t try to do this on the fly. Don’t do it 10 minutes before you have to go to work. Don’t do it the night before your partner’s big presentation. Don’t do it in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner. Don’t do it by text! Be sensitive to your partner’s needs. This has to be about them, not you. If your main focus in coming clean is to make yourself feel better, then you are still acting selfishly rather than in your partner’s interest. This is not a great step forward from where you have just been.
Plan for a time when things are decently calm at home; when no deadlines are looming; when you can both give this the time and attention it’s going to need. I understand this may be a tall order if you’ve got a stressful job, or young kids, or both, or more – but if you want to fix this, you’re going to have to do the best you can to plan for, and possibly engineer, a time and setting that’s going to fit the bill.
Lisa finally felt she could no longer continue her affair and decided to end it and tell her husband Steve. Being the type of person who makes a decision and executes it, she marched right into his home office, sat down, and broke the news. Steve was already stressed out from work; now he was also blindsided, furious, and overwhelmed – and he had to join a big meeting on Zoom in 20 minutes. They barely had time to discuss anything before Steve had to cut off the conversation. After the meeting (which went poorly), he came out of the office and a major blowup ensued.
Mark spent days with his stomach in knots as he prepared to come clean to Raina. Their 3 young children regularly left them with little time or energy at the end of the day. Every night Mark was tempted to finally do it already, but he recognized that it would not be a good setting for either of them to manage the situation. He waited, with great difficulty, until the weekend when two of the kids were out at playdates and the third one was napping, giving them a chunk of free time to deal with the fallout. It was a big deal, of course, but at least Raina wasn’t exhausted or time-pressured on top of having to deal with this massive news.
2. Be remorseful.
The most critical ingredient of recovery from infidelity is going to be your remorse.
If your partner sees that you feel bad about what you’ve done, then there is the possibility of repair. If, on the other hand, you come out of the gate with explanations and rationalizations, it’s going to be a much bumpier ride. (Likewise if you are expecting some kind of appreciation for your honesty at this stage.)
Your partner needs to know that you recognize and regret your actions. If you don’t feel bad about what you’ve done (and convey this to your partner), the message you send is that their pain doesn’t matter much to you, that you do not respect them, and that really you might just do this again. All of those messages are pretty damaging to any relationship.
Feeling bad, by the way, doesn’t mean feeling bad that you got caught (or were about to). Feeling bad means you recognize the hurt you have caused your partner and have empathy for that. Your partner will be able to tell the difference pretty easily. If you don’t feel bad for the pain you’ve caused your partner, then there is a bigger problem here than just the breach in the relationship.
On the other hand, feeling bad also doesn’t mean beating yourself up and confessing how much you hate yourself and what a piece of garbage you are. That is actually focusing on you again and your feelings. At this point it’s got to be all about how your partner is feeling. (Remember, when I say you should feel bad, it means you should feel bad for them – empathic pain, not your own pain.) This is the starting point for any success in recovery from the infidelity.
Connor had at last decided to end his affair for the good of his family. When he told Keisha, she was furious. Connor tried to be understanding at first, but he soon became defensive, with comments like, “at least I told you!” This only made her angrier. When he said, “well how do you think I feel?” she stormed right out of the house.
Mariana confessed to cheating on Jordan. He responded loudly, and angrily. Mariana did her best to be understanding; she validated his anger, saying things like, “I totally get that you’re obviously very angry and hurt about this.” Part of her wanted to throw in his face all the insensitive things he had said and done that had pushed her away and into someone else’s arms, but she held onto that for the time being and focused on how he was feeling. That at least got them through the first conversation in one piece.
3. Don’t try to minimize what you’ve done.
Trying to frame the situation as less bad than it is being perceived is a losing proposition. It inevitably comes across as justification and an attempt to avoid responsibility, and it will definitely not help, even if you do mean well. (Meaning, even if you are trying to convince your partner it’s not as bad as they think because you truly want them to hurt less – it’s not going to work at this point.)
The fact of the matter is that you have, by your own standards, violated a trust that was placed in you. How hurt and angry your partner will be is actually not directly related to “how far you went.” The fact that “it didn’t mean anything” is unlikely to calm them down at this point, nor is the fact that “it only happened one time.”
Like we said above, you need to focus on their feelings. Be where they are and don’t try to turn down the heat because it is uncomfortable for you, or even because you want to make it less uncomfortable for them. You’re going to have to go through the fire to get to the other side.
James told Kaya about his affair and she was understandably livid. “I cannot believe this has been going on for a year and you have been lying to me all this time!!!” she yelled. “It was actually only 9 months,” replied James matter-of-factly. This attempt to reduce the severity of his infraction did not go over well and in fact made the discussion that much worse. The message to Kaya was that James was more interested in getting out of trouble than anything else.
4. Prepare for the storm.
The reaction is almost certainly going to be bad. There will likely be a good deal of yelling and crying. Your partner might become enraged. Or they might be devastated. Or both. (There are some people who handle this kind of news relatively well. Don’t count on your partner being one of them.)
Do not at this point try to make these feelings go away. As above, don’t try to minimize the severity of what you’ve done. Do not try to calm them down or to cheer them up. It’s not going to work. And it’s not a good approach anyway; people need to feel their feelings. Otherwise, those feelings get stuffed down inside and come back later to haunt both of you.
Instead, just validate how they are feeling. That sounds like this: “I know. I know. I get it. You have every right to feel that way.” Sprinkle that liberally with “I’m sorry” and “I’m so sorry.” It does not sound like this: “You need to calm down.” “It’s not that bad!” “It’s not like I ____.”
(That said, you can’t spend 3 hours being yelled at – you’re human too, and you just won’t be able to handle it. It is fair to acknowledge this and ask for a break. But you may have to pick up and continue later.)
When Carly told Mitch about her affair, he broke down crying. He couldn’t even look at her. He kept moaning, “how could you do this to me?” Carly felt worse than she had ever felt. She wanted to reassure him that it was over, that she had learned her lesson, that it wouldn’t happen again. Instead, she just focused on where he was at. She said “I’m sorry” over and over, and she meant it. When the tears dried up, Mitch was able to look her in the face, see she was genuine, and decide they were going to work through this whatever it would take.
5. Listen to your partner’s needs.
If you are going to succeed at getting through this ordeal, it is going to have to be on your partner’s terms, at their pace. As we said earlier, you need to let them have their feelings and not try to move them on to a better place before they are ready.
(An exception to this is if your partner seems stuck in crisis mode for days on end, can’t stop crying, isn’t functioning, etc., these might be indications that it’s appropriate to urge them to see a therapist to help get a handle on things. Likewise if they fall into depression and can’t get out of bed, or certainly if they become suicidal, making a push for professional help is sensible.)
Listening to their needs also means answering questions as they come, even when they come over and over again. It may be hard for you to admit things you have done – you may feel embarrassed and ashamed – but if your partner wants to know, it is incumbent upon to you meet their need with an honest answer (see also the next section).
Even when you’ve already answered the question, answer it again with no complaint or exasperated sigh. Hearing the same answer multiple times is reassuring. Imagine what happens if they get a different answer each time they ask the same question! This is the opposite: it builds confidence that they are getting the truth and provides a lot of emotional comfort. Remember, this is about them right now, not you; if this is what they need, you are in a position to give it to them. You will need to have the patience to sit tight and answer questions as they come without responding negatively.
(There is an exception here as well, which is that I generally recommend to betrayed partners not to ask about graphic sexual details – that can produce images in their mind that will be hard to get rid of. So if you are asked about this, you may want to ask if they are sure they want to go there, and share your understanding that this can just make things worse for them. If this comes up in the very first conversation you have about it, you might say something like this: “That is a fair question. I’ve read that it can be really hard on you if I answer that – you will be stuck with mental images you really don’t want. If you truly want those answers, I will tell you – but how about we leave that for another time and you can think on it a bit more whether you do want to hear it?”)
Listening to your partner’s needs also means giving space as they want it. They may not want to answer questions or talk to you at all for a while. You cannot force them to listen to your apologies or to work through things and putting any pressure on them to do so is not respectful of their needs; it will only make things worse.
Of course, if they walk straight over to a divorce lawyer, you may have to pull out all the stops – but anything short of completely and permanently cutting you off is worth respecting. This includes not talking about what happened, and even wanting some time apart or a formal separation. You may feel panicked that it’s a step towards the end, but if you refuse to honor their needs, you are showing that, just as when you stepped out of the relationship to begin with, what you want is more important to you than what your partner wants. You can’t put out a fire with fire.
Blake truly felt bad about cheating on Miranda. He had a long apology planned, but she stormed out before he could even get into it. He followed her around the house trying to get her to listen to how sorry he was and how he really wanted to fix things. She wasn’t having it. She just got angrier and angrier. Blake became defensive and angry himself, accusing her of refusing to listen and running away from their problems. Needless to say, this did not make things better.
After Octavia came clean to Andre she had hoped they’d be able to talk about things so she could apologize and explain what happened. Andre was not at all interested. He was angry, of course, but he said almost nothing and ended the conversation quickly, telling her he wanted some space. Over the next few days Octavia held back and gently asked him once a day if he wanted to talk about things. It took a little over a week before he was ready to sit down and work through things.
6. Tell the whole truth
One of the worst mistakes people make when admitting to their infidelity is to tell half-truths and let the fully story out little by little. The desire to avoid causing more pain for your partner and more shame for you is completely understandable, but I can assure you it will make things much worse in the long run.
What will happen is that eventually, more is going to come out. The incomplete story will never quite add up in your partner’s mind; they will continue to puzzle over inconsistencies and missing pieces. This itself makes recovery harder. But then it’s very likely that you will have to answer another question to resolve their skepticism (or you’ll just let something slip, because maintaining a web of lies is very difficult), and now more information has come out.
This communicates to your partner a number of very bad things. It says to them that you are more interested in avoiding responsibility for the extent of your misdeeds than in how they feel or in actually fixing the problem. (Even if you were just trying to “protect their feelings,” the message of care and concern is definitely not the one that’s going to get across here.) It reinforces to them that you are neither honest nor trustworthy. And perhaps worst of all, it tells them that even now when you say you are telling the truth, you cannot be trusted on that count.
This is devastating to recovery, because it makes it that much more difficult for your partner to believe what you’re saying. If you are 100% honest about what happened and stay that way, it will mostly likely register with your partner and the healing process goes forward. If you are not 100% honest – and this includes lies by omission – then once your partner discovers this, they are going to remain skeptical of everything you tell them for much longer – and justifiably so. If you say you’re coming clean but are lying about that, why would they believe you the next time? It is like crying wolf. It seriously delays the repair process, and, when you finally do put the whole truth out there, you will find that your partner still isn’t believing you (and with good reason).
A note about trying to protect your partner’s feelings by covering up or leaving out the really hurtful stuff – don’t do it. Every single time I ask a betrayed partner, they agree that they would rather know the whole truth even if it hurts. Finding out later that you are still lying to them is far worse in their book. It tears them apart all over again.
It is worth reflecting for yourself whether your instinct to protect their feelings is genuinely out of empathy, or if it is really you trying to avoid your own pain of having to see them hurt and your shame about what you did. If it is the former, then realize that the best way to care for your partner now is to give them the whole truth (at the level and pace they ask for).
If really this is about protecting you, then it’s time to change where your focus is at, or else prepare for the recovery process to be a rocky one. (If you are having trouble sorting out your motivation, or are having trouble overcoming your shame and guilt in order to be able to be honest, speaking with an individual therapist can be a big help.)
When Ben told Rachel that he had slept with his coworker, she was shattered. He assured her it was a complete mistake, that he was drunk, and that he felt absolutely terrible. After a long discussion Rachel was prepared to accept his apology and work through things. However, when she found text messages in his phone that showed he had actually slept with her more than once, her trust in him was broken even more than before. For months he tried to apologize and make promises, but she simply couldn’t feel at ease or believe that he was now telling the whole truth, and the relationship fell apart.
Words You Can Use
For those of you who are not on the creative side, here are some actual words you can use. Feel free to modify as needed.
Hey, [your partner’s name], can we talk for bit? I have something important to tell you. It’s kind of big. (Sit down together at the table, on the couch, etc.) This isn’t going to be easy. (Deep breath!) I screwed up bigtime and I need to tell you. I need to tell you – I’ve been having an affair. I’ve been having an affair with [person]. I am very sorry about it. I am sorry for what I’ve done. I hope this is something I’ll be able to repair. But I’m sorry.
(Now you wait for the response, which will probably be massively emotional, and you accept whatever they are feeling without trying to make them, or you, feel better in this moment.)
I wish you the best of luck in your endeavor. We are here to help if you need it, at whatever stage in the process you find yourself.