Should You Tell Your Spouse You Cheated?

Should You Tell Your Spouse You Cheated?

Anytime we make a decision that will impact the health and well-being of others, whether body, mind or spirit, we have to ask ourselves one simple question—“Whom does it serve?” Are you clearing your conscience, making amends, trying to escape or looking towards the future? How will your confession impact your partner? How will it impact your relationship? Do you have an agenda? None of these are simple questions, and none have simple answers. When it comes to confessing a betrayal of trust, like infidelity, it’s really a matter of considering your underlying motivations and their consequences.

Clearing your conscience

There are a lot of different reasons that partners have affairs. In fact, if you lump all the different kinds of affairs from one-night stands to long-standing secondary relationships together, the research suggests that, at some point or another, over 50% of partners step outside of their primary relationship. Then we have the added complication of emotional infidelity to consider. Is emotional infidelity really an affair in the strictest sense, or is it a distraction? That’s a very complex conversation for another post.

All that notwithstanding, the question becomes why do you feel the need to clear your conscience and, once again, whom does it serve. Chances are, it serves mostly you, and that doesn’t bode well for the consequences of your confession to your partner,because it would likely only further the cause of your own selfishness in his or her eyes. So, while not speaking up only perpetuates the deception, even if the affair has ended, there is probably a better motivation to be had.

Making amends

If you have the self-awareness to appreciate you’ve done something to compromise your relationship, then wanting to fix it is probably a much more reasonable motivation than simply wanting to get something off your chest. The consideration here is whether that self-awareness spills over into empathy and you have the ability to recognize the impact your revelation will have on your partner—good, bad or indifferent.

The exit affair

If you’re trying to get out of a relationship, but don’t have the wherewithal to simply leave and have stepped outside the relationship as a means to an end, that speaks more to character and moral compass than confession. That aside, in this case you’re operating with an agenda (to end the marriage), so it’s very likely you’ll get what you want in the end.

Traumatic growth

There is a possibility that, used correctly in therapy, the material from an affair can help a partnership not only survive, but thrive. There is some merit to the idea that people have affairs because something is wrong in their primary relationship with self and/ or other and they are trying to fill a void or close a gap, whether it is social, emotional, psychological or sexual. If your intention is to bring the revelation of your affair to your partner as a means to deconstruct your relationship in a healthy, progressive fashion and fix the broken bits that led to the affair in the first place, then confessing your transgression may lead you and your partner to an even better place. This kind of outcome is again dependent upon your empathetic awareness and understanding of how your partner may take what you say.

Impacting your partner

Throughout this conversation, we return again and again to the degree of social and emotional intelligence you are able to exercise when it comes to understanding your partner and his or her reaction to your disclosure. That’s not to say you should withhold the information in order to spare your partner’s feelings. That kind of avoidance would only further undermine an already compromised relationship and, while it might prevent immediate conflict, it sows the seeds of slow decay that will likely only fester as time goes on.

Impacting your relationship

This, like how your admission will impact your partner, is another place where it stops being about you. When there is conflict in a relationship, one of the primary considerations for the partner who is under duress is how much he or she is willing to tolerate. In other words, what are the limits? For instance, if you are in a relationship with someone who struggles with addiction, what are your tolerances for the possibility of relapse and what does that look like for you in the context of the relationship. In the case of infidelity, the questions become how deep is your resolve, how great is your ability to rebuild, or even further, the trust between you and your partner and what are his or her tolerances for accepting that trust.

Again, there are no simple answers and every situation is unique. That’s not dodging the question of whether or not you should tell your partner you cheated. It’s more an expression of the reality that people are more than marginally unpredictable and only you can gauge how your confession may be received, what your partner may do with it and what the end result may be.

The bottom line is that relationships are based on communication and transparency. Speak your truth. It could save your marriage.

Dr. Dori Gatter earned her Psy.D. from The Graduate Theological Foundation. She earned her M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Antioch University in New Hampshire and her BA in Psychology from Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a graduate of the Hartford Family Institute’s Body-Centered Gestalt Professional Training Program. She has additional training in Imago Relationship Therapy and has co-authored two books, including a children's book that teaches children how to relate to their emotions. Dori runs workshops and speaks about transformation and relationships. She has been interviewed on NBC Channel 30 News.

More by Dr. Dori Gatter

Conflict with Your Partner: Can It Be Positive?

Emotional Infidelity is Definitely Cheating