Should You Tell If You Cheated?

I just binge-watched Big Little Lies, and holy crap is it as good as everyone said it was. I was a little bit of a snot about it since I'd read the book years ago, and screen adaptations of books tend to leave a devoted reader feeling less than satisfied, but in this case, the tv series blew the book out of the water.

(Warning: spoiler ahead)

Watching it, I was on the edge of my seat when Maddie is about to tell Ed about her affair with the less-than-memorable theatre dude, and it brings to light a super-important question a reader recently submitted: 

"I cheated on my husband. It wasn't a one-time thing, but it's over now. I'm wracked with guilt, but I also know that if I tell my husband, it will destroy him. But I also feel like I should be honest and like I'm keeping a terrible secret, even though I actually feel closer to him now than ever. What should I do?"

This is certainly a complicated issue many of us have faced, and I think exactly what Maddie was struggling with in Big Little Lies. There's a spark of attraction with someone new. Things haven't been quite "right" in your marriage for a long time, and you get swept away in a moment. Or two, or three... You share some unbridled passion, and then it's over. 

And now you're left with the question: should you tell your husband?

Here's my take on this, shared by the always awesome Dan Savage, and I'll warn you, it's a bit controversial, and not a perspective shared by everyone: 

If you cheated because the sex and spark has diminished in your marriage, everything else is pretty much fine, and seeking sexual solace outside the marriage has actually supported your marriage (in that you're now satisfied and no longer resentful), keep it to yourself and move on.

If you cheated because you were seeking something other than sexual gratification (emotional), and it's an indicator of other more serious problems in your marriage, address those, not the cheating.

At the end of the day, affairs are nothing more than symptoms of greater underlying issues in a marriage, and if the issue is serious enough, we should be dealing with that issue directly, not what it led to. 

In fact, if you do tell your husband, you could derail your chances of dealing with the important underlying issue, as your focus will be on healing from your indiscretion, not what led you there.

Often we want to tell people things we've done in order to assuage our own feelings of guilt. That usually makes us feel better, while shifting the burden of pain onto the other person. It's like we took a big shit, and while we feel great and relieved, the other person is standing there covered in our feces. (Gross, I know. But apt.)

So, should you tell if you're ending the marriage? 

Even then, I can't think of a good reason to do it. 

I'm fairly sure my husband cheated on me throughout our marriage. It wasn't until 2 years into my divorce that the lightbulb went off and all the pieces clicked into place.

But even then, I didn't want to know for sure.

I sent him a text: "I don't want to know for sure; I don't want you to confirm this, but I want you to know that I know." He didn't deny it, and true to my wishes, he didn't confirm it, and for that I'm grateful.

I would rather assume what I know to be true and move on than have those images in my head — and that's really what it's about: putting some of the most painful images possible into your husband's head. 

I can't think of a good reason to do that, no matter what.

So, when Maddie was about to tell Ed at the end of Big Little Lies, I was practically screaming at the television for her to shut the hell up. (I know I read the book, but it was a long time ago, and I have a terrible memory, and motherhood, so don't judge me. Honestly, I'm not sure that part is even in the book.)

The bottom line is this:

Our indiscretions are our crosses to bear, and our guilt to carry. Don't put that on someone else, even (and especially) out of spite.

Kate Anthony

Kate Anthony, CPCC is a certified life coach who specializes in co-parenting, separation and divorce. Kate's expertise lies in the areas of parenting, supporting children through divorce, creating co-parenting plans, and helping couples create a healthy split that keeps children at the center, not in the middle.