Infidelity + Dishonesty = Kindness?
When I first encountered this idea online I was shocked. Multiple people put forth their belief that if one were to be sexually unfaithful to one’s spouse, the best thing to do would be to end the situation and then “resolve” it by moving on without saying anything to one’s spouse. They asserted that apologizing to one’s spouse requires informing one’s spouse, and that the wronged spouse would only be more hurt by knowing about what had happened.
This seemed, well, disgusting counsel to me. So I did what any reasonable person would do and asked the Twitter world what they thought. I was even more surprised to find that about half of those who responded passionately insisted that admitting wrongdoing to anyone other than God was “selfish” and would turn the guilty party into the victim.
Their reasoning was that if one does not confess then one bears the burden of one’s crime alone while the wronged spouse is able to go on with life as normal. But, if one confesses then the wronged spouse must live with the knowledge of what has happened and that will only make his or her life worse.
While the personal pain behind these comments helped me to understand this view more, I cannot understand how it is supposed to work in real life. We are, after all, assuming very intimate relationships of a sexual nature.
1. STIs are real. It takes 3 months to have 97% reliability when testing for HIV, and six months to get almost 100% accuracy. Exposing one’s unknowing spouse to infection is morally reprehensible, and how exactly is one supposed to quietly go about repairing one’s marriage while abstaining for six months without providing an explanation to one’s spouse?
2. The cheating spouse is clearly weaker than she or he imagines. Something about the guilty party, and likely the marriage as well, opened the way for infidelity. If nothing changes, then nothing will change. It seems incredibly presumptuous to imagine that the cheating spouse is somehow magically strong enough to repair everything by him/herself. It only takes one to destroy a marriage, but it takes two to rebuild it.
3. When one is sexually unfaithful, one loses one’s right to a normal marriage. Under civil law infidelity is grounds for divorce, even without no-fault divorce. Under Church law infidelity is grounds for separation, though not divorce. Thus, by deceiving one’s spouse, one is depriving the victim of his or her right to decide that he or she does not wish to continue living with the unfaithful spouse.
It is simply untrue to say that by confessing one is transferring the burden and requiring the victim to forgive. Yes, the victim will need to forgive in a general sense in order to not be eaten away by bitterness, but the victim is not required to forgive in the sense of forgoing all punishment. While the dissolution of married life is an inferior option and will likely hurt the victim as much as the cheater, it is the victim’s choice to make.
I know that other people have different values, and different life experiences, but I doubt I will change my mind on this issue.
What do you think? Is it selfish to confess infidelity?
- Skin and the Sun
Why do we hold up happiness as the end-all-be-all? If my husband had an affair and told me about it, yes, I would be less happy than I am now. But would I still rather know? Yes. It would change everything, but honesty is what marriages are built around. It’s a value as important, if not more important, than happiness.
My college roommate’s dad had an affair. She found out about it, and her mom found out that she knew because she read her diary. So her mom confronted her dad. Her dad said that she (the daughter) was mistaken. Neither of them ever said anything to her. Years later my roommate realized that her dad never told her mother, and that both her parents knew that she (rightly) thought her dad had an affair and never said anything about it to her.
Honesty is WAY better than that.
I agree with the points you put forth here. If infidelity occurs, it needs to be confessed to the spouse in order for the rebuilding to take place and for both parties to make an informed decision to continue the marriage in the first place.
I really don’t think withholding the information of the affair is all that selfless…it simply allows the cheater room for more infidelity in the end because they haven’t dealt with what led to infidelity in the first place. I have cause to think of the immature boys in high school who seemed to have the motto: “It never happened if you don’t get caught.”
Very good point. I don’t have the link, but I remember a study about how spouses who don’t face negative consequences are more likely to repeat “bad” behavior ranging from cheating to abuse. Which is rather obvious in one sense, but apparently does not seem clear to everyone.
I’m of two minds. The first is that, after STI testing, if it was a once only thing, and everything else is good, confession may not be the best, especially if everything else is happy. I honestly am more concerned about emotional infidelity than sexual infidelity.
It does take two to repair the damage done by an affair. It’s a long road, but you can end up with a stronger marriage if everyone can get past it. Thank you for posting about this.
The most important step to change is admitting your mistake. So a spouse who ends an affair (admirable) but does not confess it to their spouse is not facing the truth of what they have done. Lying about it to “save their spouse’s feelings” is nothing more than cowardice and self-preservation masked with “good intentions.” They will only cheat again.
Well thought-out piece and you have clearly explored the issue from all sides. For me the take home is that infidelity is the relationship version of cancer and needs aggressive treatment. Thank you for sticking to this topic and enlightening all of us.
I was one of the people who participated in the Twitter discussion.
insisted that admitting wrongdoing to anyone other than God was “selfish” and would turn the guilty party into the victim.
That’s close to what I said but it’s distorted. What I said was that if the victimized spouse had not found out, then confessing to the victimized spouse would only hurt her twice. I said nothing about the guilty party being the victim. Instead, I said it would victimize her twice.
If the cheater ends the affair and moves forward, he can work hard to renew his commitment to the marriage and talk to the victimized spouse about the issues in the marriage and his unhappiness within the marriage without saying “Oh, and by the way, you know Suzie at the office…?”
Unless the cheater needs help to avoid temptation or needs to explain why he’s changing jobs to get away from the OW, there is no benefit to the victimized spouse to know what happened. She doesn’t need to have those images in her head. She doesn’t need her trust shattered.
In effect, the only reason for the cheater to confess to his spouse is to make himself feel better. And that is selfish.
As for STIs — he’s already exposed her. I doubt he said to the victimized spouse at the start of the affair, “So honey, let’s practice abstinence for the indefinite future!” Should the cheater get tested? Yes. But if those tests come back negative — no new information to report.
The cheater may have lost his right to a normal marriage by violating those vows, but the victimized spouse should not also lose hers. Infidelity crushes the spirit out of the victimized spouse. Let her have her dignity.
If there is no compelling reason for her to find out, other than the cheater feels the need to worship at the altar of Unburdening Himself, then who benefits? The cheater gets to have someone else to carry his guilt. The cheater gets the victim to voice his own pain. Most of all, the cheater gets to create drama, which may have been the cheater’s entire thrust in the first place. THe drama of the affair, the drama of ending the affair, the drama of confessing, the drama of comforting the victimized spouse, the drama of endless fights and mistrust afterward, and finally the drama of the cheater framing himself as the injured party because “the victim just won’t move on.”
Again: if the cheater needs spousal support for ending the affair, that’s one thing. But the idea that the cheater feels guilty and is looking for spousal absolution? Take it to God. Leave the victim in peace.
I too was involved in the Twitter conversation. I also said that the concept of doing even more harm to the spouse needed to be considered and that in some circumstances, like Jane eloquently described, the cheater gets it “off his/her chest” and gets to be relieved and righteous, after all, there was complete honesty which seems to trump pouring salt into a wound in the marriage THAT IS MADE VISIBLE by the cheating. I am probably looking at this in the abstract and I do NOT condone keeping it secret in any but the most specific cases but I think an honest assessmet does need to take into account the degree of turning away from the sin, recommitment to the marriage and willingness to admit to the self and confessor the degree and depth of the fault that may, sometimes, result in not causing further harm. In twelve steps, one of the steps involves making amends to those harmed to the degree possible and without causing further harm in the process. Somewhere in there is a degree of discernment and not an absolute.
“the cheater gets it “off his/her chest” and gets to be relieved and righteous, after all, there was complete honesty which seems to trump pouring salt into a wound in the marriage THAT IS MADE VISIBLE by the cheating”
Then this is a situation which requires counseling for all parties. If the victim has decided to forgive and remain in the marriage, s/he will need help to actually DO that rather than holding on to the pain. If the victim has decided not to forgive, then the cheater does not get to feel righteous for being honest any more than the victim gets to feel righteous for contributing to the ruin of the the marriage.
At least then the victim gets to decide what they want rather than having the decision made for them by well-meaning outsiders!
“there is no benefit to the victimized spouse to know what happened.” “She doesn’t need her trust shattered.”
How can you decide that? The spouse has a right to know, and then it is up to them to decide how they react. You say to leave the victim in peace…the victim is NOT at peace. They are ignorant. How can there be trust when there is no truth? Who are you to decide what the victim needs?
When you keep infidelity a secret, you are not preventing further harm at all. You are perpetuating the harm because you haven’t given the victim the opportunity to 1. learn the truth about the person they are married to (which is fraud, plain and simple) or 2. grow in the way God wants for them (either by making the choice to leave the marriage or opting for forgiveness.) In essence, you are robbing the victim of the chance to MOVE PAST BEING A VICTIM by withholding from them the power to react to the situation.
I would ask the same of you: who are YOU to decide that the victimized spouse needs to have her self esteem destroyed, needs to question her attractiveness, needs to visualize what her husband did with another woman, needs to ask herself a thousand times a day what SHE did wrong?
I am also not going to crawl into the mind of God Almighty and say that it’s part of His Ineffable Plan that every victimized spouse have her self-esteem pulverized. How many people walk away from their faith, or even the chance at faith, because their outwardly church-going spouse had an affair? And if the mystery of marriage is supposed to emulate the mystery of Christ and His Church, how many victimized spouses walk away from the whole thing, feeling betrayed? Or saying, “The church says not to divorce, so they don’t truly understand what I’m going through”?
I’m not sure of the source of your anger, but you sound very angry. I did see the fallout of infidelity in one particular marriage of a person I was close to. That marriage was already on the rocks, and the infidelity was NOT the final straw, or wouldn’t have been had the offender been willing to end the affair. But I saw what it did to a woman I was close to, to feel second-best in her own life, to constantly question herself. Why do that to someone?
Just think about how that conversation would even start: “Honey, there’s something I need to tell you.”
I assure you that cheaters who confess aren’t thinking, “Well, she needs to have a chance to grow in the way God wants.” And they’re not thinking, ‘Well, my spouse ought to have the right to exercise her informed decision making capabilities.” No, they’re thinking, “I feel crappy about this and I want someone to make me feel better.”
Bad motive. Bad situation. Bad results are sure to follow. Before confessing, the cheater needs to consider why on earth he’d do that. If it’s just to unburden himself, he needs to find a therapist or a confessor.
I think I might get a bit of the confusion here: you’re thinking of a very particular situation with a man who has completely given up on his marriage. I was thinking of a general rule of right behavior for someone who actually cares about doing the right thing, regardless of how much he or she has previously failed.
And again, someone who cares about doing the right thing will have to ask himself WHY he wants to hurt his spouse.
If the answer is “Because I feel guilty and she deserves to know,” that’s not good enough. I cannot imagine anyone who confesses infidelity to his spouse is thinking, “Well, I need to uplift her so she can be transformed by this pain into the person God intended her to become.” If the cheater is still primarily thinking of himself, his impulses and his feelings, then he needs to STOP and find someone else to confess to.
The right thing is the right thing, regardless of how much one contaminates it with the wrong motive.
Yes, in reality someone who cares little enough about his or her spouse to cheat does need outside help in finding the appropriate way to confess it, but that does not mean that they are right to withhold the truth.
Hurting someone is WRONG. I don’t see in here that the victimized spouse in any way benefits from being confessed to. Bad motive, bad action, bad consequences. Who benefits when the cheater confesses? Only the cheater.
But they have ALREADY hurt them! That’s the whole point!
There is no going back and erasing the affair. What they have done has affected not only themselves but their spouse, whether the spouse knows about it or not the damage is done. So on top of infidelity you’re now counseling them to build a better marriage with a lie at the heart of it!
The spouse has a right to know. Period. That’s not my opinion. It’s simple fact. It has nothing to do with what the cheater wants. It’s what the spouse has a right to.
Yeah, this stuff makes me angry. The devil is the Father of Lies. Anytime you’re maintaining a lie, you are not doing God’s work. God is Truth. Truth is ALWAYS the right choice, no matter the fallout.
Tienne, you raise an interesting point. I think I know what a lie is, it is telling an untruth as if it were true. But is witholding information always a lie? Is there ever a time in these very complicated and hurtful things where just not saying anything is an acceptable option. No lie is spoken. I get that “living a lie” is wrong somehow but the marriage covenant doesn’t require us to disclose everything to each other. So when is it required to speak?
“That’s close to what I said but it’s distorted”
Oh, sorry to not be clear. This post wasn’t about our conversation in particular. I had *many* people respond and I was synthesizing the best of their points.
Two different men responded with similar views, one saying “Putting conscience and burden of guilt on the other person. Makes the perpetrator a false victim” and “my ultimate concern: in confessing the perpetrator cannot become the victim, passing off their sin on the spouse’s charity.”
I think that you have a very specific instance in mind here, so it simply isn’t going to work to make general truths out of it. Many women I know have only ever had sex with one man whom they rely on to only have ever had sex with them. There are very serious health ramifications for them being mistaken in that view, etc. etc.
I am very much talking in general. I did witness one marriage destroyed after infidelity, but the woman would have taken him back and worked on the marriage.
If a man has picked up STDs from his affair partner, then his spouse already has them by the time the man thinks to confess and break off the affair. I presume you’re not talking about a single one-night stand on Tuesday that the cheater decides to confess to on Thursday. IF it’s gone on long-term, the partner has been exposed to any STDs the cheater picked up, and the cheater needs to get tested. If the cheater is clean, then the partner doesn’t have STDs.
Confessing to the victimized spouse put the burden of the cheater’s guilt on the victim so that when the victim expresses her pain, she’s giving voice to the cheater’s guilt. This is something Harriet Lerner talks about in The Dance of Anger. As long as someone can get someone else to voice his negative feelings, he is LESS likely to change because he doesn’t have to bear his negative feelings himself. It’s only when a person has to bear the full burden of his or her own negative feelings that he will fully face them and bear them on his own.
By dumping those feelings of guilt into the lap of the victimized spouse, the cheater gains a little relief because the victim then will voice the horror and disbelief, and the cheater no longer has to do so himself. The cheater then loses any impetus to change his behavior and the true negative consequences of his actions (his bearing of guilt, his understanding of himself as someone who would ruin his own family) have been alleviated. Now when he feels sad, it’s the victimized spouse who cries, and the cheater can comfort himself by comforting her.
It’s actually going to ensure that the person cheats again because the fallout from confessing is going to prevent him from feeling his own pain. And I say, let the cheater feel his own pain.
And do read The Dance Of Anger by Harriet Lerner. It’s a very good book.
Extremely well explained and put forth – both Rae’s comment and Jane’s response.
Ultimately, I imagine this is one of those issues that unless you’ve walked through it, it’s easy to say what you ‘would’ do, but when faced with it in reality, your actions may be very different. While I’ve not faced this experience in my marriage, we have faced some issues that it was very clear how I would respond ‘if’, but when ‘if’ became a reality, my reactions were very different.
Oh, I was trying to keep my personal feelings out of this. This isn’t at all about what I am saying I *would* do. It is about what I believe is the *right* thing to do.
Rebecca’s right–thank God most of us have only theories and not experience. I have some knowledge of the reality, however, and I think Rae’s point #2 is critical, and needs a bit of expansion. I may get my head bit off for this, but infidelity is not a one-sided marital problem. One person may cheat, and it is *possible* that that person bears the entire blame–but it’s highly unlikely. The victimized spouse almost certainly has faults that contributed to the guilty party straying. This doesn’t make it the victimized spouse’s fault–far from it–but all marital difficulties have two sides, no matter how lopsided, and the only way to fix them is by dealing with both. This is why honesty is so important. Yes, it’s going to hurt the victim. But the most painful times in life open us up to growth in ways we never imagined.
Please God, my theories will always remain untested by reality!
Very well said.
I congratulate Rae and all the commentors for the passionate but respectful way this conversation occurred. While the topic is a painful, serious, and complicated one, the participants were respectful and that is a sigh of real hope and joy. Thank you all.
Great article, I side with you on the issue, I dont think there is ever a justification and honesty is always the best policy but you did an incredible job explaining both sides! I have subscribed to your blog and look forward to your future posts
I’ve only done just a bit of couple’s counseling (as the therapist) and from what I’ve learned thus far, an affair is a symptom of a problem – not the problem itself. And a marriage having problems always involves two people, and it takes both of them to repair it. The person being cheated on almost always “knows.” They may be devastated, but aren’t necessarily surprised by the admission. So often the spouse “admitting” the cheating isn’t much of an admission, it is confirming the spouses suspicions. I think it may be healthier for a spouse to wrestle with the emotional consequences of being cheated on (am I attractive enough, etc. that others mentioned above) and then move on to seeing both the act of cheating and the consequences as symptoms and start addressing the problem with their spouse. The non-cheating partner may be displaying a lot of other symptoms as well that are also very harmful to the relationship such as withdrawing, searching for the negatives, etc. So my vote is to share the transgression. Many couples will wait until they are in therapy and feel safer to share the transgression – and that is fine, but I have a hard time imaging a relationship that is fulfilling for anyone with the affair kept a secret. When my partner is suffering, I suffer too. Whether it is suffering from work stress or affair guilt – it is going to negatively effect the non-cheating spouse regardless of whether or not they are told.
Excellent thoughts, Erin. Ironically enough, you’ve provided the most beautifully accurate description of the Catholic view of marriage, even though I think you’re one of the few non-Christians chiming in here! Wisely stated.
When a friend told me about her infidelity, but hadn’t told her husband yet, I of course talked to mine about it.
HIs opinion? He said that if he could be kept form ever finding out about it he would rather not know.
I was surprised.
But I think I can see his point now. He would rather not have to do the hard work of forgiving and getting past it and just keep seeing his wife the same.
That friend did tell her husband in the end and they appear to have weathered it together.
I don’t know what I would prefer, honestly. I think if I found out about infidelity after the fact I would fell like a total fool, but it if was far enough in the past I might be able to let it go.
Really, I hope I never have to deal with this.
“Really, I hope I never have to deal with this.” Indeed.
Anything less than total honesty is a betrayal of self and significant other. Any contention to the contrary is simply an attempt to evade facing personal guilt.
I had responded to Tienne above and I’ll pose a similar question here. What is your definition of “total honesty”? I mean, I know what honesty is, I think, it means not lying and being truthful and I know what total means, it means without exception, completely. Yet are you saying in the case of cheating and not in other cases. Are we called to be totally honest with our spouses in all things? I submit to you that I have some trouble viewing honesty that way. where is the moral line where one spouse is required to confess to the other something they have done? I will submit to you that in my marriage there is little to nothing that one of us does or doesnt do that has no effect on the other of us. My personal sins affect my mood, my spirituality, my ability to be there for her at times. Am I supposed to confess these to her as well as in confession. I ask this with humility and in all seriousness. A lot of what is posted here in all the comments uses words like total and complete. Yet is that what a pastor would always counsel? Is that what one spouse would say to the other: I want to know everything always? Like I said earlier, I am having some trouble with absolutes.
Absolutes are always dangerous since some people will have marriages which involve severe mental illness etc. etc. and will demand exceptions.
But I think that there is a fairly clear ideal for openness as required for unity in marriage. It is very helpful for me to reread Gaudium Et Spes and Humanae Vitae with an eye toward what they say about the whole of marriage rather than just sex and birth control.
In my marriage I don’t see it as “confessing” to Josh, but rather as being honest with him even as I seek to be honest with myself.
But I don’t pretend to know nearly as much about the reality of marriage as many (including you!) who comment here. I’m just hashing out what I think we should hold as the ideal.
I think that no matter what, in a mutually loving relationship, and especially one with holy vows, the truth needs to be aired. There are a few reasons I feel this way
1. If the cheater does not tell the spouse, they are living a lie. At some point, they either agreed to be faithful and/or truthful, and by withholding the information that they’ve cheated they are going against both of those promises.
2. The one who has been cheated on deserves to be told so they can decide what they want to do. If I was cheated on I would want to be part of the decision – do we stay together to make this work, do we get counseling, do I walk away?
3. When someone is covering something up, it seems like a step down the road of deception. Sooner or later, the lies get found out and then the cheater is in even further trouble because they cheated, then hid it from their partner and then lied about it. Why not just step up and deal with it all from the beginning?
As for the cheater hurting their spouse by telling them they cheated, I’m sorry but that seems selfish. The cheater already decided to cheat. They have the opportunity to have an open and honest dialogue with someone they should be very close to about what happened. If the cheater chooses to lie, I feel they are only furthering the dishonesty they started. When the spouse eventually finds out, they will be hurt twice, first by infidelity, then by lying.
So very well said.
I think honesty is best. The unspoken burden on the cheating spouse would impact their relationship in other ways. Maybe I’m in a weird marriage, but we tell each other everything. (At the risk of being TMI, like if we ran into porn on the internet, masturbated while separated, etc. ) We talk about it all, not saying it’s easy to do, it’s scary to be vulnerable, especially about our faults. But it helps us grow stronger in our marriage and commitment to each other. I am pretty sure I would know if my husband was cheating, and I’m positive I couldn’t hide it from him. How is that even possible?
I hope we never find out!
I must say it is a surreal experience to be advancing a point of view that I find distasteful, that of considering whether a cheater’s measured silence concerning unfaithfulness could be a proper choice in some circumstances. The consolation is, I suppose, that somehow in all that might be, the cheater and the victim are beloved children of a loving Father who stands ready to help each do the rigjt thing for the unique situation they find themselves in. I must also say how gratified and enriched I am by the intelligent yet respectful discussions. I know I have grown thanks to all of you.
I tried to comment on this originally from my phone, but then dropped it on my face and it deleted my comment.
its my belief that these things rarely stay a secret. I’d much rather find out from my husband about what happen than hear it from someone else, either someone who was breaking the bad news to me, or someone who just assumed I had already found out. even if it happened to pop up in conversation 10 years later with someone else who didn’t even realise the magnitude behind it.
I know a couple of situations where people have found out accidentally when the cheating party thought their secret was safe and no one would ever know. I’d much rather to have honesty and be able to work through the issues together.
For myself, I would rather have the truth and be hurt, than be happy and be ignorant.
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ok I read a lot of what is here and agree with a lot of it as well. Question: What about if both parties cheated? In other words, the wife had one long term emotional/love/physical relationship with the husband’s best friend, and after the husband found out, he confessed that he had about 6 ongoing physical affairs and some invloving while hanging out with the best friend throughout the marriage. Is there any hope there?