OK, you cheated, you feel badly about it, and you’re wondering what you should do next. Most likely, you’ve not told your partner what you did, and you’ve come up with all sorts of reasons to stay silent, such as:
- What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.
- If I tell him, he might leave me.
- The cheating didn’t mean anything, so she doesn’t need to know about it.
- We have kids, and I don’t want to lose them.
- If I tell her, our relationship will never be the same.
If you’re like most people who cheat, whether it’s once or repeatedly, the justifications above probably sound like perfectly rational reasons for not telling your significant other you were unfaithful. Before you buy into these defenses, however, you should know that there are equally valid reasons to come clean.
For starters, healthy relationships are built on a foundation of trust. When you tell your significant other everything that’s important in your life, even when you don’t want to, you become vulnerable in ways that create intimacy. Even if your partner gets angry with you, your honesty will be acknowledged and appreciated, and true emotional connection can be achieved.
This might not sound like a great reason to tell the truth about your cheating, but it is. And here’s why. Healthy long-term relationships work and are enjoyable because there is mutual trust. It isn’t money or kids or a house that keeps a couple together, it’s a belief in the other person. When you know that your partner is telling you the truth and has your back at all times, and that you’re giving the same in return, you both will feel safe, loved, appreciated, and worthwhile.
When you lie and keep secrets, however, those warm and fuzzy feelings disappear.
Let’s consider the definition of cheating I developed for my recently published book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating:
Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you deliberately keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner.
Please notice that this definition does not talk about porn, strip clubs, casual sex, affairs, or any other type of sexual or romantic behavior. Instead, it hits at the heart of cheating as the betrayed partner typically perceives it – the loss of relationship trust. For your cheated-on partner, it’s usually not any specific sexual or romantic act that causes the most pain; instead, it’s the lying and secrets. Your partner wants and needs to trust you. Without that, the intimate connection in your relationship is compromised.
Still, you might be pointing to the justifications given above and thinking, “Yes, but if my partner doesn’t know and never finds out, where is the harm? Shouldn’t I just stay quiet?”
Here is the problem with that thinking: Even though your betrayed partner may have no idea you’ve cheated, he or she will still feel a degree of emotional distance. Your significant other will sense that something is wrong, and that the problem, whatever it might be, is negatively impacting the intimacy and emotional connection in your relationship. Worse still, because your partner wants and needs to believe in you and your relationship, he or she may internalize blame for this distancing, wondering what he or she has done to create this rift.
Is that the sort of thing you can live with? Is that the type of relationship you want to have?
Still, plenty of cheating men and women do choose to keep secrets and tell lies to cover up their infidelity, regardless of how that impacts their spouse and their relationship. And it’s not my job to judge them for this. I will, however, state that infidelity is usually a sign of deeper problems within a relationship, and silence will not make those problems go away. In other words, “getting away with it” will not fix the problems in your relationship. What it will do is drive a further wedge between you and your partner.
So, if you love your spouse and value your relationship, you need to seriously consider the truth and the benefits it can (eventually) provide. Yes, when you come clean you risk making things worse before they get better. In fact, you likely will. Telling your significant other that you cheated might even end your relationship. Usually, though, if there are enough good elements to your partnership, your significant other will be willing to work with you in ways that keep you together and help you rebuild relationship trust.
The key to fixing your damaged relationship is not keeping secrets and continuing to tell lies, it’s getting honest about what you’ve done. This creates an opportunity for you and your partner to work on your relationship issues together, and for you to restore relationship trust. Getting honest in this way is neither fun nor easy. You won’t enjoy it. Your significant other will not enjoy it. But if you truly love your spouse and want to save your relationship, this is the way to make that happen. If you feel badly about your infidelity and can be honest about what you did, then your relationship can not only survive, it can thrive.
Please note, disclosure of infidelity best occurs in a therapist’s office, where you and your partner can healthfully process the information, so please don’t just read this article and run off to tell your spouse what you’ve done. Get help from a professional first.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions – in particular sex, porn, and love addiction. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing mental health and drug rehab programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.