I’m going to say this up front: I am not a fan of lying and keeping secrets in an intimate relationship. If you are looking for someone to tell you that after you cheat you should probably just keep things quiet for the sake of your relationship and your partner’s well-being, because learning that you cheated would be painful for her/him, look elsewhere. Before you do, though, you should know that the glue that holds healthy and enjoyable long-term relationships together is not sex, money, or even the kids. It’s trust. When you violate your partner’s trust, you violate your relationship — even if you’re just keeping secrets as opposed to actually lying (although in my opinion, keeping secrets is just another form of lying).
Consider the definition of infidelity that I use in my recently published book, Out of the Doghouse: A Step-by-Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating:
"Infidelity (cheating) is the breaking of trust that occurs when you deliberately keep intimate, meaningful secrets from your primary romantic partner."
Please notice that this definition does not talk specifically about affairs, porn, strip clubs, hookup apps, or any other specific sexual or romantic act, either real or virtual. Instead it focuses on what matters most to a betrayed partner — the loss of relationship trust. Usually, for a cheated-on spouse it’s not the specific sexual or romantic act that causes the most pain; it’s the lying, the secret keeping, the lies of omission, the manipulation, and the fact that they can no longer trust anything their cheating partner says or does.
The Internal Justification for Secrecy
Usually, cheaters who decide to keep their infidelity under wraps justify their decision with the thought, “What my partner doesn’t know can’t hurt her (or him).” Almost every cheater engages in some form of this very specific denial, and they’re almost always able to convince themselves that their thinking is correct and valid.
In truth, even though betrayed spouses may have no idea that their partner is sleeping around, they nearly always feel and experience some degree of emotional and even physical distancing by their partner. Sadly, they often blame themselves for this, wondering what they’ve done to create such a rift and to provoke the cheater’s defensiveness and anger if and when questions are asked about the perceived (and, as it happens, very real) distancing.
Still, cheaters tend to think that the immediate, best course of action is to continue lying and keeping secrets. And in the right circumstances, this tactic can work — for a while.
Getting Away With It Versus Fixing It
If keeping secrets about cheating is working for you, have at it. It’s not my job to judge what you can and cannot live with. I will, however, tell you that your relationship problems are most definitely not solved by “getting away with it.” Even if your significant other chooses to believe your lies and not ask about your blatant secrets, he or she will still feel your emotional distance and unavailability, which is not good for your partner or your relationship. Plus, getting away with infidelity makes you more likely to cheat again in the future, which will cause your relationship to deteriorate even further.
If, on the other hand, you value your relationship and want to hang onto it, you will probably need to — and eventually want to – come clean.
At that point, you will probably ask yourself, “Am I willing to risk losing my relationship as a way of saving it and potentially making it better?” And there really is a risk: Your betrayed spouse might learn about the infidelity and immediately decide to call it quits. But usually that is not what happens. Yes, cheated-on partners get angry when they learn the truth, and they often threaten separation and divorce. However, if you truly feel remorse about your acts, if you are completely honest, and if you are willing to do the work of rebuilding trust, your relationship can heal to the point at which it not only survives but thrives.
The key to bettering your damaged relationship is not keeping what you did a secret; it’s restoring trust. Of course, relationship trust is not automatically repaired just because you've stopped cheating and manage to stay faithful for a certain period of time. Instead, trust is rebuilt over time through the consistent and sometimes painful action of telling the truth. This means you will need to tell the truth about absolutely everything, all the time, no matter what, even when you know it might upset your partner. If your partner would want to know about it, then you have to be honest about it. Period.
Needless to say, rigorous honesty can be difficult. You won’t always enjoy it, and your betrayed partner won’t, either. However, if you truly love your significant other, and want to save your relationship, it's a necessary part of healing.
There are a few things you should consider before you tell your partner about everything you’ve done:
You Might Need Professional Assistance.
If you have a lengthy history of cheating, rather than just a single, isolated incident, you should not disclose that without professional assistance, preferably from an experienced couples counselor. This advice holds even if/when your partner demands to know absolutely everything right this instant. If you’ve got a lot to tell, and your spouse is demanding to know everything now, stand your ground, temporarily. Instead of just spouting all of your dirty secrets on demand, assure your significant other that you will answer every question, but you want to do it properly and in a controlled setting, where a professional can help both of you process and understand the revelations and the feelings that will likely ensue. Then, with your spouse, you can make an appointment to see a couples counselor, making sure the therapist knows up front that you’ve engaged in infidelity, your spouse wants to know the facts, and you both want to heal your relationship.
There May Be Legitimate Reasons to Not Disclose.
A few reasons to not disclose are:
Since you’re still reading, I’ll assume the first reason is not in play. As for the next two, if your significant other would rather not know what you did or refuses to work with a counselor, that’s a pretty strong indication that he or she is not entirely vested in continuing your relationship. If your partner doesn’t want full disclosure or professional help with disclosure, but does want to stay together, the reasons are probably centered on finances, social standing, and/or your kids rather than an emotional and sexual attachment to you. Normally, if your spouse loves you and cares about the state of your relationship, he or she will insist on disclosure and will be happy to accept professional help with this process.
So Honesty Really Helps?
Again, if you want to save your relationship, you need to tell your partner about your cheating, preferably with therapeutic assistance. The most precious element of your relationship is trust, and that is violated not just when you cheat, but when you lie and keep secrets about the cheating. Sure, this type of painful honesty can lead to a rough breakup. But usually that only occurs in relationships that were not on solid footing anyway. In relationships in which there is real love and true connection, the truth is more likely to precipitate a process of healing.
When you embark on this path of honesty, things don’t automatically (or ever) go back to the way they were before the infidelity. It’s just not possible. Betrayed partners are generally able to forgive, but unable to forget. But do you want your relationship to be exactly as it was, anyway? If you think about it, you probably don’t. Because if your relationship was perfect, then you wouldn’t have cheated.
Rigorous honesty makes your relationship not the same as it once was, but better. When you change your behavior by becoming accountable and rigorously honest, you learn to share your feelings rather than hide them. As a result, you and your partner can, over time, become more emotionally (and, eventually, sexually) intimate than ever.
For more information about disclosing and healing from cheating, I suggest reading my book, Out of the Doghouse, followed by Jennifer Schneider and Deborah Corley’s book, Disclosing Secrets. To locate a therapist who is fully qualified to help you with the process of disclosure, use the International Institute of Trauma and Addiction Professionals therapist finder link, or the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists therapist finder link.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is a digital-age intimacy and relationships expert specializing in infidelity and addictions. He is the author of several highly regarded books. Currently, he is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, creating and overseeing addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities. For more information please visit his website, robertweissmsw.com, or follow him on Twitter, @RobWeissMSW.