You Cheated on Your Partner… Should You Tell Them?

Well, you don’t HAVE to do anything

Marie Murphy, Ph.D.
Jan 3 · 10 min read
The affair is over… do you have to confess? (Photo: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock)

If you cheated on your spouse or your partner and you’re trying to figure out whether you should tell them what happened or not, I have good news and bad news:

You don’t HAVE to do anything. You get to CHOOSE whether or not you tell them you cheated.

I know there are plenty of relationship experts out there who will tell you that you SHOULD tell your partner you cheated, or that you HAVE to tell them — and why you’re a terrible person if you don’t, or why your relationship will be doomed to fail if you don’t confess. (To be fair, I think this sort of this advice is well-intentioned, but I also take issue with a lot of it, for reasons too numerous to list here.)

To make things even more complicated, there’s also a fairly prevalent line of advice which holds that you actually SHOULDN’T tell your partner you cheated, under certain circumstances — if you had a drunken one-night stand, for instance.

All of this prescriptive advice can be pretty overwhelming, and kind of oppressive.

Here’s my take:

YOU HAVE A CHOICE. PERIOD. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO TELL YOUR PARTNER YOU CHEATED. YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING.

This is important to remember in any situation in life, whether you ever cheat on a partner or not. There will be consequences to your actions no matter what you do or don’t do, but that never means you HAVE to take any particular action.

The better question to ask yourself if you’ve cheated on your partner is why you might CHOOSE to tell them — or not tell them. Framing the issue as a matter of choice is so much more empowering than looking at it from the perspective of what you “should” do or “have” to do.

If you have cheated on your partner, HOW exactly do you decide whether or not you’re going to tell them?

I’m going to offer you guidance on how to make a decision, but here are two things I want you to consider first:

ONE: NO MATTER WHAT YOU CHOOSE TO DO, YOU’RE PROBABLY GOING TO EXPERIENCE SOME DISCOMFORT. MAYBE EVEN A LOT OF DISCOMFORT.

If you choose not to tell your partner you cheated, bearing the burden of your secret might be hard. You may feel guilty about the infidelity and the deception, and that may weigh heavily on you. You might be concerned that somehow, some way, they’ll find out you cheated… and the possibility that they’ll discover your infidelity at some unpredictable moment in the future might fill you with dread.

On the other hand, if you choose to tell your partner, the experience of actually doing so may be extremely uncomfortable for you, in addition to having to deal with their reaction to your disclosure.The future of your relationship may suddenly become uncertain, and that might be upsetting.

I want to make it absolutely clear that discomfort isn’t inherently bad, and it’s an inevitable part of human existence.

The problem, however, is that so many of us aren’t great at tolerating difficulty and discomfort, so we go to great lengths to avoid it. We often make choices based on what we think will ensure an easier, less-uncomfortable path forward — sometimes without even realizing that this is our motivation. And while this is completely understandable, attempting to avoid discomfort usually isn’t a great strategy for getting what we want in the long term — in addition to being futile.

In other words, there probably isn’t an “easy option” in your situation. Unless you have absolutely no qualms about cheating, of course… but if that’s the case, you probably aren’t reading this article.

TWO: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PERFECT DECISION

As much as we might like for it to be otherwise, sometimes it’s really hard to figure out what the “right thing” to do is when we’re faced with a tough decision.

Let’s say, for instance, that you’re married, and you’ve cheated on your spouse. You had what was, for an extended moment there, a very intense, very passionate affair with Someone New and Amazing. And for a hot minute, you were pretty sure you were ready to divorce your spouse, run off with your affair partner, and start a new life.

Then… things with Someone New and Amazing kind of fizzled out. And you realized how much you value your relationship with your spouse, and how checked out of that relationship you’d been for ages, and how badly you want to recommit to your spouse and start anew.

And you’ve already begun doing that, and it feels great. You feel like all is right in your world again.

But the question of whether or not you should tell your spouse you cheated keeps you up at night. On the one hand, you’re pretty sure they suspected something was going on, and you think there might be great value in letting them know they aren’t crazy, they weren’t imagining things, and their instincts were correct. If they already know you’ve been deceitful, surely it’s better to come clean… isn’t it?

You aren’t sure, because there was that time a million years ago when your spouse looked you in the eye and told you that if you ever cheated on them, they never wanted to know about it. And you believed them at the time, and you really want to honor their wishes. You know that they truly might prefer to just let this sleeping dog lie. You know they might be hoping like hell you never make them actively acknowledge your affair.

Ah, life and its endless swaths of grey area.

Here’s the deal: it’s entirely possible that you will never know with absolute certainty whether or not your spouse/partner would want to know if you cheated on them — regardless of what they may have said in the past, and regardless of what you think they know or suspect about your current actions. You may be able to make a pretty good guess, but you can’t predict the future. Any choice you make may bring about unintended consequences, which you might or might not like.

So what’s a tormented soul to do in a situation like this? You can make a choice that’s right for you, based on what you know and think and want, right now. HERE’S HOW…

ET REALLY CLEAR ON WHY YOU MIGHT CHOOSE TO TELL YOUR PARTNER YOU CHEATED. MAKE A LIST OF YOUR REASONS, AND MAKE IT EXHAUSTIVE.

Really, make a list and write it down! You can always burn the paper or delete the document later, but getting your thoughts out of your head and onto some external medium has great value.

Get as clear as you can on all of the reasons why you might choose to tell your partner you cheated on them. The reasons can be selfish or selfless, grand or mundane, highly plausible or only barely worth considering. Just make the list, and make it as exhaustive as possible.

If you are tempted to wiggle your way out of this assignment, do not let yourself do it! You will probably try to come up with a million excuses why you cannot complete this task. You may tell yourself that you “don’t know” why you might choose to tell your partner you cheated. You might tell yourself that none of your reasons seem like “good reasons.” All of this sort of resistance is normal, but it is definitely not HELPFUL. Compel yourself to finish this task (or find yourself a coach who can help you do this!).

OW, GET REALLY CLEAR ON WHY YOU MIGHT CHOOSE NOT TO TELL YOUR PARTNER YOU CHEATED. MAKE A COMPREHENSIVE LIST OF THESE REASONS, TOO.

Same thing: write it all down. Make a list of all of the reasons why you might NOT choose to tell your partner you cheated. Try not to edit yourself or censor yourself. The point of making these lists is to get clear on what you’re thinking. You do not need to evaluate your reasons just yet — for now, just get all of the thoughts out of your head and onto the page.

ECISION TIME: TAKE A LOOK AT BOTH OF YOUR LISTS. WHICH SET OF REASONS DO YOU LIKE BETTER?

This is how you make a decision — or begin to, anyway. Which set of reasons do you like better? Which set of reasons feels more “right” to you? Which set of reasons seems more in line with who you are and how you want to life your life?

Surely it can’t be that easy to make a decision, you say? Surely it can! Sometimes we make things a lot more complicated than they need to be, and that is often a form of procrastination.

Sometimes a very clear, very obvious decision emerges from making two simple lists. Why would we choose to do something? And why would we choose not to do it?

But sometimes we do need to dig deeper, and take a closer look at our reasons. If that’s the case for you, here are two important, additional questions to ask yourself:

ONE: WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO GET OR ACCOMPLISH BY TELLING YOUR PARTNER YOU CHEATED?

For instance, some people want to tell their partner they cheated on them so that they can stop feeling guilty for cheating. Additionally, some people expect that not only will telling their partner about their affair absolve them of their guilt, but they’ll gain their partner’s forgiveness for what they’ve done, AND win their partner’s respect for being honest.

But this isn’t fair, and it isn’t necessarily realistic. Once you tell your partner you’ve cheated, they’re entitled to feel however they may feel about your admission. And their feelings may not be positive, and they may not be all that thrilled with you for your noble disclosure.

It’s not your partner’s job to make you feel better about what you did. If you feel terrible about cheating on them, that’s for you to resolve — whether you tell them or not. Even if your partner is very kind and understanding and forgiving, that doesn’t relieve you of your responsibility to both be accountable to yourself and forgive yourself.

Here’s another red flag to look out for: Some people tell their partner they cheated in an attempt to make their partner jealous, in the hope that their cheating will make their partner want them more, treat them differently, shower them with more attention and affection, etc. Wanting more attention or affection from your partner may be completely reasonable. But telling them you cheated on them in an attempt to leverage more of the behavior you desire from them is not likely to get you the results you want. Not in the long term, anyway.

In summary, if you’re planning to tell your partner you’ve cheated on them in an attempt to get something from them or to make yourself feel better, that’s worth thinking twice about.

TWO: WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO AVOID BY NOT TELLING THEM?

Telling the truth is complicated. We tend to valorize — or even fetishize — honesty, but “telling the truth” is so much less straightforward than we usually acknowledge. What counts as telling the truth? If you don’t share a key piece of information, is that the same thing as lying about it if asked? If you fudge a few details that seem minor to you, does that matter? If you tell most of the story, but leave a few things out, is that telling the truth? And who gets to decide???

In addition, there are many good questions to be asked about whether or when telling the truth is doing someone a favor. In some times and places, avoiding cold hard truths has been or still is considered a kindness. In some contexts, it’s considered much more compassionate to avoid or omit the truth — or, effectively, to lie — than to throw down a truth bomb that might devastate someone. And even here in the context in which I’m writing — the USA, in 2021 — there are some things some of us would simply prefer not to know.

HOWEVER. There’s a difference between choosing not to tell a truth because you honestly don’t see what good it would do (and you’re willing to live with the consequences of that decision), and choosing not to tell the truth because you’re scared to take responsibility for your actions, and you don’t want to face your fears.

So if you’ve cheated on your partner and you’re considering not telling them, ask yourself what you might be hoping to avoid by not telling them about your cheating. And be honest with yourself! Even if you come to recognize that you’re terrified of telling your partner the truth and you’re going to choose not to tell them you’ve cheated because you’re afraid, at least you know this about yourself. We’re all just doing the best we can, and sometimes the best we can do is far from perfect. And that’s part of being human.

FINAL POINTS TO KEEP IN MIND:

Every relationship is different, ever affair (or incidence of cheating) is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all way to deal with infidelity.

You’re entitled to guidance that respects the fullness of your humanity and the complexity of your situation — you don’t have to accept anyone’s prescriptive advice about what you “should” do or “have” to do.Cheating does not make you a terrible person. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Even if you’ve done something you don’t feel great about, you can take responsibility for your actions without relinquishing your self-worth.

As strange as it might sound, cheating on someone you care about can turn into a tremendous opportunity for clarifying what you want and what’s right for you — in your romantic relationship(s), and in your life as a whole. It’s an opportunity to clarify your desires and preferences, and your ethics and values, and to behave differently in the future. And that’s a beautiful thing!

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The Scarlett Letter

All things adultery. Sex out of network. We are terrible and human. So are you.

Marie Murphy, Ph.D.

Written by

Relationship coach, specializing in helping people who are having affairs decide what they want to do. No judgements. www.mariemurphyphd.com

The Scarlett Letter

All things adultery. Sex out of network. We are terrible and human. So are you.

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