Common knowledge has it that the more honest you are with your partner, the better your relationship will be. If you believe this, it might follow that you should tell your partner if you’ve cheated. But some experts say this isn’t necessarily the case. Some things are better kept to ourselves, and in certain situations, this might be one of them.
“More often than not, I usually advise against [clients] telling their partner if they’ve cheated, especially if this is something that will not be repeated,” psychotherapist Deborah Duley, MSW, LGSW tells Bustle. “Honesty is not always the best policy — at least not 100 percent honesty — and sometimes, I find that a revelation to a partner about a hurtful event is more about easing the client’s conscience and less about helping the relationship.”
Kevin Darné, author of My Cat Won’t Bark! (A Relationship Epiphany), agrees. “If your reason for telling is to rid yourself of the guilt you’re carrying around, then you are hurting them in order to selfishly feel better,” he tells Bustle. “If you’re no longer cheating nor plan to ever cheat again and your mate is highly unlikely to ever find out, then take it to your grave! Make amends going forward by being the absolute best mate or spouse you possibly can be.”
This doesn’t mean you should always keep your infidelity hidden either, though. Here’s what experts have to say about when you should and shouldn’t tell.
Should You Tell Your Partner If You Cheated?
If It’s A One-Time Mistake, Spare Them The Agony
One situation where Duley and Darné recommend keeping your mouth shut is if the cheating was a one-time or two-time thing that won’t happen again. In that case, telling your partner won’t accomplish anything other than potentially helping you feel less guilty. But you’ll probably just feel worse, because once you’ve told them, you’ve gone from doing something that doesn’t even affect them (unless STIs are involved) to directly hurting them.
It’s worth noting, though, that there are some people who want to know even in this case. Andy, 29, tells Bustle he’s glad his ex told him that she cheated, because it helped him end a relationship that wasn’t working anyway and led him to get over her faster. Sarah*, 23, doesn’t regret telling her ex girlfriend she cheated because it helped ease her conscience, and she was forgiven.
If You Plan To Stop, Spare Them The Agony
Duley would say the same thing if you’re having an affair or have had multiple hookups but you plan to stop, as long as you truly want to stay with your partner. “Sharing indiscretions is extremely damaging to hear about and work through. There is no value to the relationship in sharing events that will no longer be happening,” she says. “You’ve essentially passed the baton of pain to them when it’s not fair to do so. It’s very selfish, I feel, to burden your partner with this information, especially if you have no intention of continuing this behavior. It’s your burden so it’s up to you to work on it.”
The next step, then, is to find another way to fulfill the needs you were trying to fulfill by cheating, whether that’s by working on your relationship or doing some personal work on yourself.
If They Ask, Be Honest
If your partner has asked you if you’ve cheated, they’ve already solved this dilemma for you: They want to know. So, you’re not doing them a disservice by telling them. In fact, telling them that they’re imagining it could be considered a form of gaslighting. “If a person is confronted by their mate regarding cheating, they should confess rather than lie about it or attempt make him or her feel as though they’re being insecure or paranoid,” says Darné. “Being asked point blank and lying to their face makes it nearly impossible for them to ever trust you again.”
If You’re Leaving Them Over It, Be Honest
If you’re in love with another person and want to end your current relationship, your partner deserves the truth, says Darné. Otherwise, they’re going to be constantly wondering what they did wrong or what they could do to fix the relationship.
If They’re Going To Find Out Anyway, Tell Them First
If someone’s going to find out anyway, they’ll feel more betrayed if it comes from somebody else or from their own detective work, says Darné. Ally*, 27, tells Bustle that figuring out her husband cheated on her own made it far worse than if he would’ve told her, because it meant she was not only cheated on but also deceived.
If It’s A Pattern, End The Relationship
If you find yourself caving to temptation time and time again, the person you really need to be honest with is yourself, says Darné. If what you really want is to be exploring romantic and sexual connections with a bunch of people, stop trying to force yourself to be monogamous. Either pursue an open relationship, whether with your current partner or someone else, or spend some time single so you don’t have to worry about commitment at all.
Ask Your Partner How To Deal With This Situation
When it comes to whether they’d want to know about a partner’s infidelity, people’s preferences vary. So, when you and your partner become exclusive and talk about what cheating means to each of you, you can also discuss what you’d each want the other person to do if you cheated.
Ally* had this conversation with her husband. “If he cheats on me, I want to know. I have a much harder time with lying/deceiving/hiding information than I do anything else. If he cheats on me, comes home and tells me, it would be painful, but we could rebuild,” she tells Bustle. “But he is the opposite. He would rather NOT know. He’s very adamant about that. He doesn’t even really want to know about people I dated while we were apart, because he just doesn’t want to think about it.”
Asking “What should I do if I cheat on you?” may not make for the most romantic conversation, but it’s better than one day telling your partner you cheated when they’d rather you kept it to yourself, or vice versa.
We’d all like to think we and our partners couldn’t cheat, but around one in five Americans have cheated (and that’s just those who admit it), and they’re not all bad people. More of us are capable of infidelity than we like to admit, and the only way to be prepared for these situations is to admit that.