You screwed up, and now you’re in a bind: Do you keep quiet or confess? It’s a complex dilemma without a one-size-fits-all solution.
“There are no universal rules about coming clean,” says Michele Weiner-Davis, M.S.W., a Colorado-based marriage therapist. “For some couples, the truth can help them begin to heal in an honest and open way.”
In other cases, though, it can lead to a painful breakup, she says.
Here, marriage counselors explain how to determine which course of action you should choose—and how to minimize the damage for both you and your partner.
When You Should Confess That You Cheated
A single moment of weakness is one thing. But a long-term affair—especially one where you develop feelings for the other person—needs to be discussed with your partner, says Weiner-Davis.
Ask yourself these three questions, suggests Tammy Nelson, Ph.D., sex and relationship therapist and author of The New Monogamy: Redefining Your Relationship After Infidelity.
Do you think about the woman all day and tell her everything that’s happened since the last time you saw her? Do you sneak around to call and text her? Do you have fantasies about leaving your partner for her?
If you answer yes to these questions, you’re probably in an emotional affair, Nelson says.
Confessing is crucial if you’re invested in someone other than your partner, she adds.
That’s because your affair could be a sign that some elements—say, sexual intimacy or other kinds of closeness—are missing from your current relationship, and you’ll need to address them if you want your union to survive.
You should also tell the truth if your partner senses something is up, and flat-out asks you about it.
Lying about it—and making her feel crazy for thinking it—is called gas lighting, Nelson says. And that’s especially harmful to her because she can start to doubt her own perception.
If you do this, you’re crossing a line that it may be difficult to come back from down the road, Nelson says.
The good news is, if you come clean, your relationship could actually benefit: Married individuals who admit their infidelity to their spouse are almost a third less likely to divorce than those who keep their infidelity a secret, found a recent study from UCLA and the University of Washington.
When You Shouldn’t Tell Your Partner You Cheated
There are some specific instances when it may be wise to keep your transgression to yourself, says Weiner-Davis.
Consider the scenario.
Was your infidelity an isolated incident? Did you use protection for the sex? Do you feel completely remorseful about it? Would you be able to control yourself if the same opportunity came up again?
If you answered yes to these questions, you may be better off keeping your mouth—and your pants—zipped.
In these cases, unloading the burden onto your partner may be more self-serving than considerate: You’ll feel better about spilling your secret, but your partner will be left to deal with the devastating knowledge of your betrayal, Weiner-Davis says.
Still, that doesn’t mean you can just bury your indiscretion and forget that it happened.
If you want your relationship to thrive, you need to address the reasons behind your unfaithfulness, so you’re not tempted to do it again.
A pattern of cheating and continually giving yourself passes for it can turn into a harmful cycle, Weiner-Davis says.
“You should still get help from a therapist to figure out why you chose to stray and what your triggers are,” she explains. “Maybe then you can process your decision and move forward without sharing the information.”
How to Tell Your Partner That You Cheated
If you’ve decided you should come clean, tell her in the least harmful way.
Rule number one: Focus on your mistakes, not hers.
“In the early stages of talking about it, anything you say that sounds like a justification for what you did will make her feel shame and anger,” says Jim Walkup, M.F.T., a therapist in New York City.
Avoid any accusatory statements like “You never make time to see me” or “We hardly ever have sex.”
Instead, approach the subject with statements like “I need to confess because I want to rebuild our trust,” or “I recognize that I have made a mistake,” he suggests.
Have the conversation at home, without any alcohol—that could just escalate both of your emotions, Walkup says.
Be prepared to share more information than you’d really like to.
“If she wants to know details that you think might be overly personal, ask her if she really wants to know,” Nelson says. “But respect her enough to tell her that she deserves the truth and that you aren’t going to hide anything from her.”
That doesn’t mean you have to give every little detail, warns Nelson—explaining how the other woman’s oral sex compared to hers, for instance, is just insensitive.
What’s more, don’t expect the hard part to be over once your indiscretion is out in the open.
The healing process for a couple can take up to two years, says Walkup.
During this time, patience is key: She may experience flashbacks where she’s reminded of your affair—say, she walks by a restaurant where she knows you and the other woman dined—and continue to bring it up even after you thought it was over.
Listen to her without getting angry, he says.
Counseling is vital, too: Making the commitment see a therapist with her rebuilds trust because it shows your commitment to her and to the two of you as a team, Walkup says.