How to Confess Infidelity
Here's what to do if you crossed the line.
Posted November 4, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- When it comes to infidelity, a common fantasy is that there is a way to come clean that will cause minimal damage and anger.
- Forgiveness after infidelity can't be forced.
- After confessing, an unfaithful partner needs to be able to listen to and empathize with their partner's feelings.
You messed up. You broke an agreement. You put the relationship at risk.
You might be vacillating between shame, asking yourself, “How could I have been so stupid?” and defensiveness, thinking, “Well, if they hadn’t been so (insert frustrating behavior), this never would have happened!”
And now you must confess. You know you’re acting touchy and anxious. You sense that your partner knows, or at least suspects, that something is up.
When we hear “infidelity,” most of us picture having sex outside of our relationships. But there are many ways to cheat. For example, in my couples therapy practice, financial infidelity (lying about spending, hiding money owed, dishonesty about assets) and emotional affairs arise at least as often as sexual infidelity. Infidelity and cheating of any kind mean lying, being secretive, and breaking explicit or implicit agreements.
While sexual infidelity is usually fairly clear, in both financial and emotional fidelity, it can be murky to see when exactly you crossed the line. You always minimized your overspending, but now it's gone from splurging on a meal or household purchase to online gambling. You've always engaged in harmless flirting, but now you're sharing text messages and confidences with a sexy coworker. Is that just flirting or emotional infidelity? Instead of pointing to specific acts that might be right or wrong, it’s more helpful to ask yourself this question: Am I keeping secrets? If so, it sounds like you have some confessing to do.
Step 1: Come clean
It’s common to have a fantasy that there is a way to come clean that will cause minimal damage and anger. Often people procrastinate when it comes to telling an uncomfortable truth because they’re trying to come up with the perfect way to come clean.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect way. You have broken a contract and caused pain. Your best option is to be direct, concise, and apologetic. Don’t make excuses or provide endless context. If your partner has questions, answer them, and if they need space, give them space.
You may feel desperate for an instant resolution or to be immediately forgiven. You might think you are in unbearable pain and unable to contain your emotions. Get a hold of yourself. Your job is to stay attuned to your partner and try to meet their needs, not your own.
If they are raging at you or you feel unsafe, however, by all means, remove yourself. But outside of that, stay engaged and focus on your partner.
Step 2: Take your medicine
Allowing your partner to have their feelings. Being on the receiving end of shock, anger, and disbelief, answering painful questions, and having your character challenged is basically your penance for lying.
Now isn’t the time to bring up the issues you feel led to the betrayal. Instead, sit, listen, answer questions, and apologize.
You will be tempted to try to rush your partner through this process. You will feel like you’re having the same conversations over and over. You might feel unfairly maligned, defensive, or shamed. But to have any chance of repairing the relationship, you’ll need to be able to stick with your partner, listening and empathizing with their feelings, for a lot longer than you want to. Your partner will want to see that you really “get” how much pain you’ve caused them. Meaningful understanding is going to take multiple conversations.
Whether the affair is emotional, sexual, or financial, some partners won’t want to talk about the specifics of the infidelity at all, while others will want to hear every detail. With sexual affairs, how much to share can be a minefield. You need to be open and transparent, but at the same time, you don’t want to infect your partner with disturbing images they can’t get out of their head. If you are unsure whether you have good judgment about what should be shared and what shouldn’t, or if you fear your partner is asking for details that will torture them later, bring in a couple’s therapist.
Step 3: Make amends
You and your partner should collaborate on a plan that will help your partner feel secure and cared for. For example, they might ask for total transparency in financial matters, improved communication about your whereabouts, and a full-disclosure policy regarding electronic passwords.
In addition, your partner might want to discuss other problems in the partnership now that the relationship is already disrupted. For example, they might wish to reprioritize time together, rejigger your expectations of each other, or ask for more emotional or sexual intimacy. When a relationship is broken down, and you and your partner are contemplating whether to stay together, you have the opportunity to create the relationship you both want.
If these requests feel intrusive to you—if you bristle at your partner’s request for transparency or change—you need to be honest with yourself about whether you want to stay in this relationship. It makes sense not to want to be monitored closely forever, and your partner probably doesn’t want that either. See if you can negotiate guidelines to rebuild trust.
Step 4: Move forward
First and foremost: If you want to break up, just break up. Sometimes an affair is an escape hatch from an unsatisfying relationship. Staying together because you feel guilty is the worst option—dragging your partner along in a relationship you’ll ultimately leave (or stay in out of obligation) prolongs the agony for both of you. You aren’t doing your partner any favors by staying with them if you’re unhappy. Instead, you’re keeping them from finding a better relationship. The grenade has been detonated. If you want to walk away, walk away now. It’ll be better for your partner to be angry and grieve the relationship than to spend years working on a doomed one.
I’ve also seen situations where one partner is mistreated or even abused and has an affair. Then, because they’ve lost the moral high ground in the relationship, they feel even more trapped and unable to make a break. If this is you, allow yourself to save yourself. Yes, you didn’t handle the situation ideally. But don’t punish yourself by staying out of guilt or penance. You can leave even if you’ve made a mistake.
Even if you throw yourself into working on the relationship for your partner, it might be broken beyond repair. You can’t force someone to forgive you, no matter how sorry you are. Your betrayal might provide them with the escape hatch they need. Be graceful and let them go. Not all relationships last forever. Use this loss to become a better person in your next relationship.
But if you want to stay together, and your partner is willing to give you another chance, take heart – many relationships survive infidelity. According to a summary of the literature and research on infidelity by Ofer Zur, Ph.D. of the Zur Research Institute, most marriages survive all types of infidelity, and many couples report that their relationships emerged stronger than before the betrayal.
Relational breaking points are an excellent opportunity to learn about yourself. You could find a therapist, start journaling, or go on a retreat. Take this time to work to understand what drives you. What underlying beliefs drive your financial decisions if you lied about money? If you engaged in an emotional affair, what is it that you need and aren’t getting from your partner? If you cheated sexually, was it a one-time thing or a pattern? What are you seeking? Is it excitement, novelty, or affection? Are you violating your values by acting out this way?
Just because you did a bad thing doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. You can take responsibility for your action without descending into a shame spiral. In fact, having a little compassion for yourself will help you be more present for your partner. Curiosity and compassion always lead to a better place than judgment and self-flagellation.
Trying to forget about the affair and move forward with business as usual is a waste of a crisis. Whether or not the relationship survives, take this opportunity to start anew and move forward in your life with intention and self-awareness.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Zur, Ofer Ph.D. "Infidelity & Affairs: Facts & Myths and What Works." Zur Institute, https://www.zurinstitute.com/resources/infidelity/. Accessed Nov. 4, 2022