Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Should a Partner Always Confess Their Affair?

Whose needs will be met by disclosing the affair?

Tim (not his real name) came to therapy because of the guilt he was feeling about the number of affairs he’d had. He and his college friends had an annual reunion in New Orleans, and in addition to the drinking and partying, they often “picked up girls” for a night or two. Wrestling with guilt now, he wondered if he would feel better if he told his wife and asked for her forgiveness.

Another client, Emily, had fallen in love with a co-worker. They began an affair that lasted almost a year, and Emily was stuck. She wasn't sure whether she wanted to leave her marriage, to be with Phil, and didn’t know whether to disclose her affair to her husband. Phil was pressuring her to decide on her marriage, and this increased her anxiety.

Whether or not to disclose an affair depends on several factors

Will the relationship be discovered by someone else? Tim worried that if one of his friends’ wives learned of the antics in New Orleans, she would contact all the other wives to let them know. Would you rather come forward with the “confession” or risk your partner confronting you after discovering your infidelity?

Do you want to stay in your marriage? If the affair is causing strain, your spouse may begin to suspect something. Once they suspect something, they may begin to snoop, going through your phone or credit card charges. Since relationships are built on trust, honesty, and open communication, you’ll need to consider whether disclosure (and committing to marital therapy) will help keep your marriage intact.

Will you end your affair? Emily had been unhappy in her marriage and turned to a coworker for emotional support. The emotional affair turned into a physical relationship and now she feels emotionally dependent on it. Tim, however, doesn’t want his marriage to end. He describes himself as a sex addict but is willing to work on this with therapy.

How will disclosure affect your marriage or relationship? A significant number of divorces occur after an infidelity. For some people, an affair is the deal-breaker that leads to divorce. Statistics vary but most agree that infidelity is a leading cause of divorce. Expect many difficult conversations, even interrogations, tears and anger, emotional turmoil, and perhaps many months of work to heal the betrayal. If you and your partner want to stay together you should consider professional help to heal and strengthen your relationship. One client told me that she'd had an affair "to make my husband jealous so he'd spend more time with me." This backfired badly, and the divorce was painful for the entire family.

That said, for some marriages an affair serves to increase the motivation of both partners to work through the issues, if there is a strong commitment to the marriage, healthy communication skills, and emotional resilience. Clients have told me that their marriages were strengthened by weathering the crisis of an affair. It may take months or years to rebuild the trust, but it can be done.

As you consider whether or not to disclose an affair, ask yourself what you are hoping to accomplish. Are you seeking forgiveness, hoping to jump-start improvement work on your marriage, or wanting to divorce? Ask yourself, whose needs will be met by disclosing your affair?

After considering these factors, you may decide to withhold the infidelity. Tim concluded that disclosing his affairs would hurt his wife so much that he couldn’t bear to do it. Instead, he got tested for sexually transmitted diseases and decided that he would not go on these annual trips with his college buddies unless they planned something else. “Something without so much drinking,” he said. He proposed a dude ranch in Colorado for the next get-together, and his friends agreed.

If you decide to tell your partner about an affair, pick a time when neither of you is emotionally activated. Find a time that is conducive to honest and heart-felt dialog. You may decide to have the conversation in a therapist’s office. Be prepared to talk about your plan, whether that is to end your affair or leave the marriage.

Emily decided to tell her husband about the new relationship because she worried he might hear about it from someone else. She opened the conversation by saying that she wanted a divorce. To her surprise, her husband, although upset, asked her to reconsider. He asked her why she’d gone outside the marriage without allowing him the opportunity to fix the issues that caused her to look elsewhere. He told her he could forgive her if she would end the relationship, leave her job, and work openly with him to repair their marriage. Emily thought about how a divorce would affect their children and decided to give marital counseling a six-month trial. She said, “I ended my affair with Phil which was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I left my job so that Phil and I wouldn't see each other. But my husband really came through for us. He stopped working nights and spent more time with our family. He also quit using cocaine.”

In the end, disclosure is not an easy decision. For some, it is the first step in repairing the marriage, and others may choose to keep it private. Whatever you decide, recognize that if you are cheating on your spouse, your marriage is probably in trouble. It would be helpful to discuss your unique situation with a therapist so that you can make an informed decision about your affair, whether or not to disclose it, and the future of your marriage.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2024.

Facebook image: - Yuri A/Shutterstock

More from Ann Gold Buscho Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today