The couple came into the marital counselor's office exhibiting some of the problems that landed them there. They argued. He made jokes bordering on criticism. She didn't talk about her feelings until halfway through therapy, when she dropped a bomb: She was having an affair.
Her husband was devastated. But as they discussed her confession, the couple began to talk more openly than they had in years. In fact, the wife's revelation, say marital researchers, may have saved the marriage.
Couples who are grappling with infidelity may benefit more from marital therapy than other couples -- provided that the cheating partner comes clean either before or during therapy. In a recent study of marital therapy, men and women who had had affairs and kept the fact from their spouse -- but disclosed it to researchers in anonymous questionnaires -- failed to make much progress after several months of counseling. The outcomes were "lousy," says David Atkins, professor at the Fuller School of Psychology in California.
In such cases, the therapy probably fails because one partner is not committed to the process. Even when the affair is over, secrecy indicates a continuing lack of trust and openness.
At least 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women have had an affair, data suggest. Although Atkins's study, published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, was too small to draw large conclusions, it is one of the first to quantify the value of confession. And it fans the flames of a long-standing debate among therapists: Is coming clean the only way to save a marriage?
Atlanta psychiatrist Frank Pittman, author of Private Lies, takes an adamant pro-disclosure stance. "It's exceedingly difficult to salvage a marriage when one person is trying to protect the guy under the bed," he says. A cheater can't participate fully in a relationship when guarding information that he or she believes is dangerous.
Pittman finds few exceptions to the spill-the-beans rule. A cheating wife "confronted at night by a drunk husband with a machine gun might do well to lie," he notes. He's skeptical of people who feel that they might prefer not to know about a spouse's transgression. Sure, they might spare themselves pain, but they lose out on the closeness that open discussion can bring.
Psychologist Janis A. Spring, author of After the Affair, contends that some people are actually better off not knowing whether a spouse has cheated in the past. For instance, a disclosure might trigger insecurities in a spouse with a history of emotional problems.
The benefit of coming clean varies from couple to couple, says Spring, who knows happy couples in which one spouse hasn't disclosed a liaison. "What is most important is that the unfaithful partner address why he or she had the affair," says Spring. If a cheating husband enjoyed being open and vulnerable with his lover, for example, then he should try to bring those qualities into his marriage.
Of course, a secret can always be found out. Some therapists, such as the late psychologist Shirley Glass, a pioneer of infidelity research, hold that marriages fare better after a voluntary confession than after an unwanted discovery. In some cases there's a medical issue -- a hidden affair may put a partner at risk for sexually transmitted diseases.
If and when an unfaithful partner chooses to tell, he or she must decide how. Experts suggest a candid, detailed discussion that steers clear of X-rated minutiae.