Should I Tell My Partner about My Affair?
On the ethics of confessing to an affair
Posted Jul 12, 2012
Utilitarianism would guide you to tell your partner about the affair only if you would create more happiness (or less unhappiness) for everybody involved in the situation than you would by keeping the affair a secret. As simple as this may seem, this process is crucially dependent on countless factors, some of them based on the persons involved and others on how the decision will play out over time (which is anyone’s guess). If you tell your partner, how will he or she take it? How will your partner’s appreciation of your honesty compare to his or her disappointment and anger at what happened? Confession may make you feel better (or not), but does this justify hurting your spouse (above and beyond the implicit harm of the affair)—and should your happiness be considered at all given what you’ve done?
If that weren't enough, utilitarianism asks you to consider all the people affected by your decision. So, what about other people in your personal sphere, such as friends, family, and possibly children—how will they be affected? And what will happen to everybody involved over time as the revelation plays out? And if you don’t confess, what ramifications will that have—assuming the affair isn’t revealed eventually by someone else?
Utilitarianism is great for simple, back-of-the-envelope comparisons of good and bad, and it has the benefit of including the harm imposed on everyone affected. But for complicated moral problems dealing with many people, uncertain emotional reactions, and unpredictable ramifications, it often raises more questions than it answers. So onto the next school of ethics...
Deontology would ask you to assess the intrinsic morality of secrecy and confession themselves rather than their consequences. This has the benefit of sidestepping all the contingencies involved in the utilitarian approach, such as how your partner would take it and what would happen to your relationship going forward. But it actually doesn’t simplify things much overall, because the morality of truth-telling is not as clear-cut as it might seem. While lying is considered wrong in general deontological terms, there is no corresponding duty or obligation to tell the truth rather than keeping quiet, and any such requirement would depend on the particular situation. Certainly, if your partner asks you directly whether you had an affair, you would have an obligation to tell the truth—your partner reasonably expects as much. But if he or she suspects nothing and never asks about an affair, it is difficult to argue that spontaneous revelation is morally required (without resorting to utilitarian arguments like those above).
Deontology seems to offer a simple black-and-white solution to moral dilemmas that avoids the comparisons of hard-to-determine costs and benefits. But when you really delve into matters of right and wrong, they end up being almost as complicated—and just as deeply rooted in the specifics of the situation—as utilitarianism. (I could say that instead of black-and-white, we end up with fifty shades of grey, but that would be shameless Google pandering. Oh well... call me maybe!)
Virtue ethics abstracts from actions to focus on character, and in this way it presents itself as a long-term approach to moral behavior, investing in sound decision-making rather than evaluating one choice at a time. But without a strong foundation of what counts as a virtue—on which our greatest virtue ethicists disagree—it is hard to get a direct answer on what the virtuous person would do in the situation you’re in.
So what should you do when faced with the decision whether to tell your partner about your affair? The three basic schools of ethics don’t seem to be much help. They all concluded that adultery itself is generally immoral, but they seem much more ambiguous on the issue of confessing an affair.
Here's what I suggest. Ask yourself: what kind of relationship do you want? Chances are that you want a relationship built on trust, from which secure emotional and physical intimacy can develop. This doesn’t mean that each of you can’t have some secrets or that you have to tell each other everything that pops into your head. But you need to tell each other the important things, the things you both expect to know, the things that are relevant to the foundations of your relationship and that have the potential to affect it—in other words, the things on which the trust essential to your relationship is based. And what has more potential effect on your relationship and the trust holding it together than an affair?
Sure, it’s hard to tell your partner about an affair. It’s hard because it will hurt him or her. it’s hard because it may potentially destroy your relationship. And it’s hard because you are revealing a personal failing, something you are ashamed of and something that may make your partner think less of you. But look at it this way: you already betrayed your partner and compromised your relationship by having the affair. These facts will never go away, regardless of whether or not you tell your partner. But confessing your affair is the first step towards repairing the harm you’ve done by having it.
You may think you can bury the secret, resolve never to cheat again, and focus on making your relationship the best it can be from now on. But it will still be a relationship based on a cracked foundation, even if only you can see the cracks. Out of respect for your partner, you need to let him or her see the cracks too, because only then can you try to heal the relationship together.
So my advice is to tell your partner about the affair, primarily out of respect for him or her—and your relationship. Your turn, readers, what do you think?