Most likely if you are reading this you have been struggling with whether to tell your partner for a while. It’s natural to feel paralyzed, and unable to think deeply about your options. The issues involved can seem endlessly complicated; any route you take resulting in emotional upheaval for everyone involved. Revealing your affair will undoubtedly alter many important relationships in ways that you cannot predict or control. The situation is less difficult if you are clear that you want to leave your relationship for your new lover, but if you have now realized that in fact, you have made a mistake and want to save your primary relationship, or if you don’t yet know who you really want to be with, that is a different story and what I will be addressing here.
Peggy Vaughn found that when the secret comes out, and the unfaithful partner reveals everything and takes responsibility for their behavior, 88% of marriages were able to heal. However, when the unfaithful partner clams up, blames the affair on the marriage, or lover and does not take responsibility or answer questions there is only a 55% relationship success rate. Honesty appears to be the best policy most of the time, but I’ll also be addressing instances where this might not be true.
Let’s start with the long-standing affair that is not just about sex, but feels like a meaningful and intimate relationship. You may not be able to bear the thought of losing either your primary relationship, or your lover, one may represent security and the other an aliveness and emotional freedom that you have never known before.
Disclosure works best if you are ready to relinquish the lover for the sake of your primary relationship, but this is not always the case. Your outraged partner may react with an ultimatum that you give up your lover immediately. You may comply out of fear of losing your primary partner, but if you comply before you are really ready, you cannot genuinely participate in the healing process. Furthermore, the odds are that you will maintain contact with the other woman/man even though you have promised not to. The injury of disclosure is painful enough without your partner feeling jerked around on top of it. If you disclose the affair and tell you partner it is over, but continue seeing the lover secretly you are pouring gasoline on a fire; the worst part of an affair for many is feeling like a fool for having trusted their partner.
So the first part of the journey is coming to grips with what you want for yourself and the inevitable losses this will entail, no matter who you pick. It may be hard to admit what you know deep down; that neither your lover nor your primary partner can really help you with this decision.
Sometimes the situation demands that you disclose before you are ready to chose. It is important to be as honest as possible, to not promise anything that you aren’t sure you can deliver, and honor your own need to take time to sort things out. Try to stay honest; you may feel hopeless, but eventually you will achieve some clarity. And staying honest will slowly help you start to heal your own self esteem.
Once you have decided to relinquish the lover, healing will involve creating a new foundation that feels secure for both of you. Your partner needs a deep down, gut feeling that they can trust you, and more importantly, can trust their own experience of you. Once the affair is disclosed, this sense of security is shattered. The only chance it has of being put back together is if you are willing to make what has happened an open book, and remain present for the pain this will put your partner through, which means living with intense guilt and anxiety for a while. You can also expect to feel angry and resentful at times, and a wish to escape. It is during this process, however, over a period of time, that bits of trust will be experienced and hopefully eventually gather together into something solid. Once this occurs, relationship issues that predate and may have contributed to the affair can be addressed.
I have witnessed over and over again how going through this healing process creates a closeness that feels very new. There is no quick fix. How long the healing will take depends on the the quality of the affair in terms of length, depth, levels of deception, and the quality of the primary relationship before the affair.
So, you might feel like you are protecting your partner from pain by not disclosing, but as you can see, it’s not that simple.
One final thought; by not telling, you are denying your partner their right to know the truth and making his or her own decisions about how to deal with it. By disclosing and expressing your desire to stop the other relationship and repair the one you have, you have a chance to go through the stages of healing together in a deep and authentic way.
Is there another side to this? Yes. Living with someone for 10, 20 or more years brings innumerable stressors that couples respond to in the best way they can. The level of intimacy may have decreased over the years of struggling with bills, children, careers, home ownership, etc. The magic may be gone, but the relationship provides a sense of identity and safety. You know if you tell, this can be wiped out for your partner. In this part of thinking this through, you need to step back and take a good look at your partner, and their level of emotional fragility and dependency on you. It is true that some have their spirit broken when they find out, in ways that can never be repaired. Can you predict this? No. But you can consider factors such as your partner’s history. Did his or her parents have affairs? Was he or she abandoned by one or both because of it? Is your partner an incest survivor who never believed she could trust another man until you? Does he or she suffer from anxiety and depression that predates the affair? What kind of support system does the partner have? Considering these factors doesn’t mean you still might not opt to disclose, but making sure support systems such as friends, family, therapy, clergy, etc. are in place when you do so might be very important
There is the line of thought that says that disclosing the affair is selfish, relief is sought similar to going to confession, that true penance is living with the secret yourself, and rededicating yourself to making your relationship work. It is important to examine your motives for disclosing. Are you doing it to unburden yourself from guilt? If so I would suggest that you consider the fact that your partner is not the right person to help you with this. The only way you could be unburdened is to be completely forgiven. This would restore your sense of goodness and security. However, your partner will be in no position to forgive you for a long time. If you are forgiven right away, most likely your partner is terrified to let you know how devastated he or she is and is hoping to prevent you from leaving by not being difficult. True forgiveness can only come after a thorough working through of all of the feelings involved, in some ways like healing from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Hopefully, reading this has helped you to consider some of the issues involved in disclosure. I encourage you to give yourself time to prepare for this step, securing support for yourself beforehand. It will also be important to remember that although you may have behaved badly, you are not a bad person. It’s important to remember this because your partner might not agree and in their initial rage may do everything in their power to make you feel awful about yourself. This is a natural response. There is a fine line between taking responsibility for your actions and becoming self-destructive. Staying present for your partner’s reactions involves standing by yourself as well.
If all of this feels too difficult to do on your own, therapy can be a tremendous source of support and clarity, either for you individually, or with your partner.