Okay, so you blew it. You stepped outside your relationship and had an affair. And you feel terrible about it.
Do you tell your partner what happened? Move on and hope they never find out?
It’s not an easy question. It would be nice to have an easy line like “honesty is the best policy” to fall back on and assume everything will work out for the best. But you worry that your partner might leave you if they find out. It’s a valid fear. Some people do leave after being cheated on.
On the other hand, many people don’t! Research has shown that although most people say they would leave a spouse who cheated on them, most couples actually stay together after infidelity. (It’s one thing to say it; it’s very different when you’re actually faced with the situation yourself.) And your conscience may be urging you to come clean.
What’s the best course of action?
Unfortunately, there is no one answer that works for everyone. Every relationship, every situation is different. There are many factors to consider in thinking about the ramifications of a disclosure like this – your partner’s temperament, your past history, community norms, religious beliefs, whether kids are involved, etc.
Let’s look at some of the points to keep in mind as you think this through.
Your partner’s temperament
You know your partner better than anyone. How are they likely to react? Do they have an anger problem you are afraid to trigger? Have they been verbally or physically abusive in the past? Or are they more likely to react with sadness and tears than anger and yelling?
Not that you should avoid telling your partner simply because they’ll be angry – that’s an expected reaction. But if the anger will become dangerous, or so explosive that the anger itself will destroy your relationship, that is important to take into account.
The quality of your relationship
How solid is this relationship? You need to think about whether it will be able to survive this disclosure. Do you feel generally close and connected? (Contrary to what many people think, affairs can and do happen even in happy relationships.)
Or would this be the nail in the coffin? Have you been able to communicate about difficult issues before? If so, it’s not impossible that you will be able to talk through this one as well. (Getting help from a professional is a good idea.) If your communication isn’t on track to begin with, you may have to consider that you won’t be able to communicate about this massive issue well enough to save the relationship.
Likelihood your partner will find out anyway
If your partner is going to find out anyway, it is definitely better to tell them yourself. Of course, whether that’s going to happen is not always clear-cut, unless your affair partner (or their significant other) has told you they’re going to notify your partner.
What about other ways this could come to light? Who else knows about the affair that may spill the beans (intentionally or unintentionally)? Is there evidence your partner is likely to stumble on – social media posts, leftover items of clothing, an arrest (for example, in the case of a visit to a prostitute)? 100% certainty about the safety of this secret is not easy to come by, but if it’s close to certain that you can keep the secret, that makes the choice not to tell much more viable. The risk of the secret being discovered is a big one to take.
Have you cheated before? Has your partner? If you are a repeat offender, another affair could mean the end of the relationship. (If your partner doesn’t know about any of them and you are considering coming clean about multiple affairs, I strongly recommend you speak to a counselor before going ahead with it to determine how best to handle things.)
On the other hand, if your partner has cheated in the past, that’s usually a mitigating factor. It’s no guarantee that they’ll be as understanding as you were in the past (at least insofar as you didn’t leave them), but the odds are better that they’ll be able to handle your mistake if you handled theirs in the past.
What does your religion say about issues of infidelity, sexuality, forgiveness? Some people find that they simply cannot stay with a person who has committed a serious sin like adultery. Others are able to draw on religious tenets of forgiveness and compassion to get through it. What is the belief system in your household and your community, and how is that liable to affect the outcome?
If a pregnancy has resulted from your affair, the stakes are obviously much higher. You or the affair partner may be able to have an abortion, and then perhaps it’s possible to get away without having to confess, if that’s your choice. However, if that is not the route chosen, and a child is going to be born as a result of this, it is not possible to conceal what happened and still maintain a legitimate relationship with your partner.
To be clear, it’s not that it’s not possible to hide it – many people have done so – but what is not possible is to hide it and have a real, ongoing relationship with your partner; it will necessarily remain an arm’s-length relationship for the rest of your life if you are carrying such a secret. If you are the mother of the child and you raise the child as if it is the child of your current partner, you will for the rest of your life be sitting on a lie that is in front of your face every single day. It is a rare (and likely unhealthy) person who is able to do this without being torn apart emotionally.
And if you’re the father of the child and will have any involvement with the child or the other parent (whether you currently intend to or not), again it will be impossible to maintain an emotional connection to your partner and keep up an ongoing lie (such as money being sent for child support or time away to visit the “other family”).
All things being equal, it is generally better to be honest with your partner than to hide things. Honesty and vulnerability are important components of an intimate relationship. It is very difficult to build true intimacy if you are hiding important things from your partner. And if you are carrying guilt around with you, that can corrode a relationship pretty badly too. So there are good reasons for coming clean about what you’ve done.
You probably want to clear your conscience, apologize, repent, and try to do better. You want to know you’re forgiven and be able to rebuild your relationship, rather than trying to bury the secret and avoid looking back (or, worse, maintain a web of lies around it for the rest of your life). You want to fix your mistake and feel good about yourself again.
Yet that does need to be weighed against the potential consequences of revealing what’s happened. There is a risk of losing your partner, and possibly your family – if you have kids, a divorce will mean far less time with them (especially if you are the father, most likely), and a lot of hardship for everyone. The reality is, you stand to lose a lot if your partner refuses to stay with you. And if you truly feel bad about what you’ve done, have ended the affair, and believe you won’t do it again, perhaps you can be okay with moving on and putting your all into making this relationship the best it can be. Or perhaps you wish to have a clear conscience even at the risk of losing the relationship; that is a valid choice as well.
As I said earlier, there’s no easy answer here. It can certainly help to talk this out with a therapist, and to plan to seek couples counseling if you do decide to disclose in order to help you deal with the fallout. (You can also read more about how to do it here.) If you find yourself in this difficult situation, reach out to us today for judgment-free help in navigating it effectively.