Infidelity, Guilt and Honesty: Should I Tell?

When cheating ruptures a relationship, sexually and/or emotionally, any semblance of trust is shattered. There is a breakdown of trust, intimacy, and security accompanied by rage, guilt, dishonesty and paranoia. It takes a long time down a very difficult road to reestablish this trust.

Perhaps the most difficult question a cheating partner must ask him/herself is “Should I tell my partner?” While on the surface the answer to this dilemma may seem obvious, it is vital to asses what motivates the impulse to make this disclosure.

A cheating partner is assaulted with guilt, dishonesty and anxiety while his/her partner will feel rejected, insecure, and paranoid. Someone who seeks intimacy outside his/her relationship will immediately be confronted with the decision of whether to disclose the breech. Rationalization is almost always present: “My partner has let him/herself go” or “My partner doesn’t want to have as much sex as I do.” While such justifications may indeed represent the truth, acting out by cheating is, of course, dishonest and ethically unsound. In a monogamous relationship, cheating only exacerbates the original problems that motivated the cheating in the first place.

To keep communication open and healthy, each partner must be honest. However, I disagree with the assumption, often made, that secrets between partners constitutes dishonesty. It’s essential to respect and understand that everyone has private thoughts that they want to keep to themselves. This is not inherently dishonest. But when the essential structure of a monogamous relationship is breeched and the breech hidden, the intimacy so vial to a healthy relationship is poisoned.

To admit infidelity is to be fraught with guilt, fear, and regret. Congruent with these feelings is the desire to be honest and ethical. It’s important to explore the motivation behind admitting an infidelity and to examine what such condor will accomplish. Is such honest intended to assuage guilt? Is it to ensure that such infidelity won’t happen again? Or is it a passive-aggressive attack on the partner, designed to elicit certain feelings?

When I work with individuals struggling with this decision, I find that most want to tell their partner because “it’s the right thing to do.” On further exploration, however, it often turns out that the real reason motivating such an admission is to assuage one’s own guilt. This may help the individual who cheats but it does nothing to help the relationship. In fact, admitting infidelity under these circumstances can be fatal.

For many years I have been working with a man who has struggled with pornography and sex addiction throughout his adult life. As he acts out his addictions, he is wracked with guilt and shame. His sense of self-worth is shattered. Fortunately, as he has been in treatment with me, he has been able to address his addictions and avoid falling prey to his compulsions. During our work together, my patient has gotten married and has had a child. His wife knew nothing of his past struggle as he feared she wouldn’t understand and would feel rejected. As his treatment progressed, he was able to forgive himself for his behavior and resist his impulses; his level of shame diminished remarkably. We successfully terminated treatment after a decade.

Two years later, my patient contacted me and told me he wanted to come back into therapy. During this period he had succumbed again to his addictions and, while away on business trips, spent hours on the computer looking at pornography or in chat rooms looking for women to hook up with and had a number of brief affairs. When he returned to treatment, he was overwhelmed with shame and desperate to stop. After recommencing treatment, he did manage to stop and in the last year has had another child.

My patient and I have often explored whether he should avow his addiction to his wife. After much work, he was able to see through his shame and guilt and realize that it was best for his relationship not to disclose his addiction and past infidelities. His marriage is now strong and his family sound. We continue our work to avoid future triggers to his addiction.

I’m working with a couple who have a child and have been together many years. One partner discovered e-mails and text messages revealing that her partner had been having an affair. We continue to work together to understand what happened and to heal the broken trust.

When I see a couple for the first time, I recommend having individual sessions with each partner before our second session as a couple. When I met with the partner who was cheating, she revealed a history of another affair. While this history of infidelity was not something she wanted to admit to her partner, she was committed to working on her relationship and to reestablishing trust. I was willing to allow to keep this past from her partner as long as she honored her commitment and remained monogamous. Had I insisted she reveal all to her partner, the relationship would probably not have survived.

If a couple wants to stay together and work on their relationship, complete honesty may not always be helpful. It is often clear that sharing an infidelity can cause irrevocable damage to a relationship and that disclosing the behavior may not be in a couple’s best interests. If, however, a couple does manage to address such a rupture and build trust and honesty, admitting such lapses may strengthen the couple’s bond with a new-found intimacy based on understanding and respect.