Should you tell your spouse of your affair after it’s over?

Interesting question was put to me by another blogger whose affair is over, but whose spouse does not know.  And that is:  Do I tell my spouse about the affair?

Well, what a hard question to answer and there is evidence on both sides.   I guess it comes down to this — it depends!  I saw opinions all over the place.  I have distilled several opinions here.  These are generally not my words.  My take comes at the end.

The Case for Not Telling:

Obviously, if you have a spouse whom has been violent in the past or you believe that violence will likely result by confessing an affair, you don’t do it. Period.

But that aside, the other arguments for not telling are well-known: Why should my mate be hurt because of my bad behavior?  What they don’t know won’t hurt them. They’ll never be able to handle the truth. It would be the end of my marriage.  How could I do that to the other party and their marriage?  Why should I dump my stuff on them just to get rid of my guilt?  But how does it make a person less guilty to inflict terrible pain on someone?  Which is exactly what the confession does.  It puts the other person in a permanent state of hurt and grief and loss of trust and an inability to feel safe, and it doesn’t alleviate your guilt.  Your relationship is dealt a potentially devastating blow. Honesty is great, but it’s an abstract moral principle…. The higher moral principle, I believe, is not hurting people.

And when you confess to having an affair, you are hurting someone more than you can ever imagine.  If you care that much about honesty, figure out who you want to be with, commit to that relationship and devote the rest of your life to making it the most honest relationship you can . But confessing your affair is the kind of honesty that is unnecessarily destructive.

The Case for Telling:

There are two huge exceptions to not telling: if you’re having an affair and you haven’t practiced safe sex, even if it’s only one time, you have to tell.  Again, the moral principle is minimizing the hurt. But this time, the greatest risk of hurt comes from inflicting a sexually transmitted disease, and I’ve never seen a relationship recover from that. You also have to tell if discovery is imminent or likely.  If you’re going to be found out, then it’s better for you to be the one to make the confession first.

In reality, most arguments against disclosure after an affair are self-serving and don’t address the best interest of one’s mate or the best interest of recovery.  Maybe a better question would be, “Would my mate want to know?”  The vast majority of the time, the primary motivation for not telling is fear.  We’re afraid of what would happen if our mate were to find out. How will they react? What will it cost ME? Disclosure is all about surrendering a secret life, as well as choosing truth instead of deceitful lies, and health over pathology.  It is about surrender not control, about letting go rather than hanging on.

Recovery after an affair is not about maintaining the status quo, and it is not about business as usual. Rather, it is about a changed life, a new beginning, and true intimacy. . Intimacy is allowing another person to really know you and a willingness to know them.  Infidelity is the keeping of secrets and for that very reason robs couples of intimacy. . Recovery is about new beginnings and the old baggage needs to be discarded. To do that, the truth has to be removed from its hiding places and exposed to the light.

The most disturbing aspect about not sharing the truth, with our mate is control and manipulation. Information is control and the unwillingness to share the truth robs one’s mate of being able to make an informed decision. It ruins the betrayer’s opportunity to truly be chosen. You can never be loved unconditionally if you only conditionally allow your mate to know who you are.

Decisions regarding “telling” don’t need to be based upon what a spouse has stated regarding what they will do if their mate betrays them. No one knows how their spouse will respond in the short term or long term.   In the majority of cases, the betrayed spouse has previously made the threat that if their mate ever cheats on them, then they’re gone; but they can never know how they’re going to react before they actually find themselves in that situation.   Our experience shows that the betrayed spouse may well give the relationship a chance as long as their mate is broken and grieved over what they’ve done to their spouse.

To keep them in the dark is almost always in your short-term best interest, and almost never in theirs.

In many ways, the most important issue of recovery after an affair isn’t about the behavior.  If all we try to do is stop bad and hurtful behavior, then all we will have done is swept cobwebs.  In my mind, we need to kill the spider and that sort of work can never be done in secret.. It’s learning how to embrace what I’ve done and to take personal responsibility so I can begin to address the problem. This sort of work can never be done for one’s mate only- it can only be done out of my own passionate desperation to get help and healing. It’s about taking responsibility for what I’ve done rather than avoiding the consequences by keeping my behavior secret. In short friends, it’s about growing up and facing the darkness of the situation. Only then can we find hope and only then can we find true and lasting recovery after an affair.

My take:   Everything is easier said than done, isn’t it?  I didn’t take my own advice when I was faced with this choice.   If my ex-OW and I had parted on at least fairly quiet terms and gone our separate ways, and I skulked back to my marriage, I very much doubt I would’ve told my wife what was going on, and even denied it if she asked me straight up (which she had near the end anyway).  Why?  Because I did not trust her to handle information like this appropriately. I did not want to face her rage and my own sins so directly, and lose control of the agenda in my marriage.  I would’ve said nothing and hoped that it would’ve blown over.

But to be honest, I think it would’ve left me even more jaded and damaged, and even emboldened. I probably would by now be in some other extra-marital situation because I’d still be wildly unhappy at home.  Maybe even more so.

And the cycle would’ve continued until I was caught, I’m guessing.

My wife and I didn’t have the kind of communication where this type of discussion was even conceivable to me.  Disclosure would carry too many unknowns and dangers to me and my family.  And that would’ve been wrong. Without D-Day — the disclosure of my affair by someone else to my wife (and it was the OW who did it, despite her denials), I don’t think we ever would’ve had the jolt to break down our marriage to expose the cancer that was there and embark on trying to remake and fix it.   I’m pretty sure I’d either would be caught at a future date or I just would’ve at some point walked out the door. By D-Day, she knew for the first time how unhappy I was, but didn’t realize that I had concocted a back-up plan to replace her in my life.  And that’s bad.

So I guess in the end, I didn’t have the courage or the motivation to come clean.  I would never want to relive D-day, but the truth is what we needed and without D-day, it might have never occurred or would’ve occurred after more wasted years in a moribund marriage.

So while I don’t think that devastating someone on purpose is a laudable goal by telling of an affair, I tend to agree more with the “Tell” camp on this one.  It’s what’s needed. You stand no chance in fixing your marriage if you don’t.  You might as well walk out the door anyway.

I know this.  This last year dealing with the aftermath of discovery of my affair has been incredibly difficult, painful and stressful.  And it’s forced me to really confront myself.  However, the burden of carrying these horrible secrets I had was worse.  The stress of living a double life was killing me.  It was corroding my soul and my self-image.  Getting it all out in the open was absolutely LIBERATING, even if it was painful and horrid too.

I’d rather have my marriage fail and have been honest than to have it stumble along for years and having to live a lie.  Truly.

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2 thoughts on “Should you tell your spouse of your affair after it’s over?

  1. Even if you didn’t get caught in an affair, it’s only fair to tell your partner about it so they can decide whether they want to forgive you and continue the relationship or not.

    Wouldn’t you want that from your partner? Don’t you want to know if your partner has been cheating on you? It wouldn’t be fair to let them think you have been 100% faithful and honest because you probably cheated for a reason. Maybe it was a problem you were facing in your relationship or maybe it was something else, but if you don’t address the situation with your partner, you will never resolve the problem that is leading you to cheating and having affairs. And the behavior will just continue.

    If you plan on breaking up with your partner anyway though, then maybe you should just keep it to yourself. When you break up with your partner be sure to tell them WHY you are breaking up so they can at least try to better themselves for the next person that comes along.

    Great thought-provoking post!!

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