There are few relationship questions more hotly debated than whether or not you should confess to cheating in a monogamous relationship. The main arguments for fessing up is that honesty is always the best policy, and your partner deserves to choose for themselves whether or not to stay in the relationship. Secret-keeping proponents counter that confessing only serves to lessen your guilt by putting the weight on your partner’s shoulders—it’s selfish in a different kind of way. So who’s right? And is one approach or the other always right?
Of course, there are no black and white answers, especially with a topic as complex as infidelity. While honesty may seem like the best policy, this is a more nuanced issue than people think. Ultimately, you’re the only person who can decide what feels right for your relationship. That being said, it can be hard to even know up from down after you’ve cheated, so here are some factors to consider in deciding whether or not to confess.
If it was a one-time mistake. There’s no excuse for cheating, but there’s a big difference between making a one-night mistake and carrying on a months-long secret affair. If you made a mistake once and deeply regret it, deal with your guilt on your own and don’t burden your partner.
If you want to stay together. If you’re absolutely positive that you want to stay in the relationship—and absolutely confident that you can compartmentalize the affair—process the affair on your own and move forward.
If your only goal is to cause the other person pain. Relationships can be messy, and sometimes we can feel the temptation to hurt the person we once loved. This is an extreme situation, but I’ve seen it come up with revenge cheating (where you cheated only because your partner cheated on you first). If you can feel yourself wanting to hurt or punish your partner with the news of your affair, keep it to yourself.
If you want to break up. If you’re certain you’re done with the relationship, there’s no point in hurting your partner further with news of what you’ve done.
If your partner already suspects something. People can get a funny sixth senses about these things. If your partner already fears the worst, fess up. You’ll cause them way more psychological anguish by denying that it happened. There’s nothing more tormenting that knowing something in your gut, but having your lover repeatedly deny it. There’s also the chance that your partner has snooped or found evidence that you were cheating, and might be testing your honesty.
If everyone else knows. Similarly, if a number of people in your social circle are already clued in, it’s time to confess. Spare your partner the indignity of being the last one to know.
If the other person in this love triangle is threatening to tell. Another extreme situation here, but if you think there’s any risk of your partner finding out directly from the Other Woman or Other Man, make sure you tell your partner first.
If you had unprotected sex. If there’s any chance your partner could get a sexually transmitted infection thanks to your dalliance, you owe it to them to tell the truth. If you just made out or got handsy, there’s limited risk of transmitting something, but anything beyond that is obviously quite risky. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that condoms aren’t 100 percent effective at preventing sexually transmitted infections, so we get into even more of a gray area here.
You suspect (or know) it will happen again. If you cheated on your partner, it’s time to be brutally honest with yourself about why. If the affair has been ongoing, if you’ve developed feelings for the other person, or if you find yourself wondering if monogamy is the right relationship model for you, you’ve got to have some tough conversations with your partner.
If the cheating was a sign. Sometimes people cheat because their relationship is damaged beyond repair or already over. Hooking up with someone new and exciting is much easier than having to confront the reality that you need to break up. Similarly, sometimes people cheat because they’re not willing or ready to acknowledge that monogamy isn’t right for them. Again, the bottom line is that you have to take the time to be completely honest with yourself about what your cheating means.
Almost all of us have experience with either being cheated on or cheating on a partner, so this is obviously a topic that people feel passionately about. Fire off in the comments and let us know what you think.
Vanessa Marin is a sex therapist and licensed psychotherapist based in San Francisco.
Art by Jim Cooke.