Should you tell your partner about the affair you’ve had?

If you ask a philosophy professor they will likely give you an ethical decision making theory like in this article from Psychology Today. But philosophers work in theory, they don’t work with people in crisis.

On the other hand, if you ask 100 couples therapists, “Should your client tell their partner about an infidelity or affair?” you might just get 100 different answers.

These answers will range from, “Definitely, you can’t have a healthy relationship on a foundation of a lie” to “Telling your partner who does not know is more about assuaging your own guilt then it is about doing good for your relationship.” The latter clinician basically implying, “You need to suffer in isolation and work to become a more faithful spouse. It’s the least you can do for your partner at this point.”

Here are two examples that illustrate the logic behind each position.

Example One – Tell: You’ve had a one night stand six months ago and now your lover tells you he/she was just diagnosed with HIV and your wife recently discovered she’s pregnant. You MUST tell your partner. You absolutely DO NOT have a choice. She needs to be tested immediately in case prophylactic medications are needed to protect her and the baby.

Example Two – Don’t Tell: On the other hand, say your spouse is dying of cancer and you tell them on their death bed about an infidelity that happened while you were on a military deployment 20 years ago. Why? Most people would probably wonder who the heck are you doing that for.

“Those examples are too obvious” you’re thinking” it’s all the muck in the middle that’s tricky” and you’re right. Most therapists would agree. Their opinions falling somewhere in the middle. Their nuanced position ultimately being “It depends.” I think that’s reasonable. As an affair ambivalence and recovery therapist I could write a book about all the possible situational permutations, ethical philosophies, and theoretical frameworks you might use to come to your decision.

In short, confessing to an infidelity that your partner is “blissfully” unaware of is a complicated issue without a one-size-fits-all answer. (Read more on this question here) That’s not what I will be exploring here today. What I want to address today is a more narrow question that has a much simpler answer based on my experience working with dozens of wayward spouses and their hurt partners. That question is, “Do you admit to an affair your partner is explicitly asking you about?” I believe this question does have a “right” answer.

If you partner asks you about the affair or infidelity you should acknowledge what has happened.

That might seem obvious at first but it’s not. Most people who have betrayed their spouse by a one night stand, a tryst, a liaison, an emotional affair, or an extramarital something or other, will panic when confronted and reflexively lie. By lying in response to the first inquiry you set the stage for your partner to distrust anything you share later, chalking it up to partial truths at best.

Partners who can’t trust what you to tell them become insecure, mistrustful, and paranoid. As a result they either leave the relationship or begrudgingly stay, falling into a state of needy requests for reassurance, emotional despondence, and anxious detective-like measures of data mining from your computer, cell phones, e-mail, social media accounts, and you cars GPS history.

In this scenario both partners are resentful and generally miserable. The recovery process is at best delayed and often permanently derailed. The wayward partner develops compassion fatigue for the hurt partner’s inability to heal and move forward, and the hurt partner looses hope that things can ever really get better.

If you are reading this and realize it sounds all too familiar, ask yourself how much you want to keep your relationship or marriage together and how hard you are willing to work. Ask yourself how much pain you can witness and repeatedly acknowledge, how much anger you can tolerate, and what scarifies you are willing to make in this effort. Because to be honest, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Find an affair recovery therapist immediately and be careful who you choose. Therapy is critical at this point but the wrong clinician can make things worse, sometimes much worse.

On the other hand, if you are not yet in that situation. If you’re currently in, or have been in, an affair, but your partner does not know, be prepared to face this question one day. Be prepared to tell the truth. Lying to protect yourself, your partner’s feelings, or the relationship is a BIG mistake. It’s poison to the relationship. If your partner asks you about another man or woman, he or she VERY LIKELY already knows the answer and chances are high they already have the proof of it too.

They are asking you to see if you are willing to be honest with them! Yes, in a way it’s a test. A test to see if they can EVER trust you again.

Will you pass the test?

I’m Dr. Elizabeth Carr, Affair Ambivalence and Recovery Specialist at Kentlands Psychotherapy. Do you need to sort some things out? Call me, perhaps I can help. I offer in-office counseling for individuals and couples, as well as virtual therapy sessions for individuals who are looking for support and guidance around their infidelity.  I can also be reached via encrypted text messaging programs such as Dust, Signal, and Confide at 301-356-4505. If you’re calling please use the office number, 240-252-3349 ext. 801, the cell is just for texting.

P.S. If you have already made the mistake of lying on the first pass at your partners questioning. Consider circling back IMMEDIATELY to fix this. Don’t procrastinate! If you’ve gone through round two, or three, or eighteen of the confrontations, hoping the issue will eventually subside, you need to know.  It won’t. The worst thing you can do at this point is let the information trickle out drip by drip as your partner finds additional clues and information and confronts you again and again. If you’re honest with yourself you probably know it’s not working. Honesty can be scary, maybe even terrifying, but usually clinging to the lie is worse.