Extramarital Affair: Should You Tell Your Spouse You Cheated? Expert Weighs In
By Ashley Reich (edited)
You’ve had an affair. Does that mean your marriage is over?
Not necessarily, according to Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of “The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity.” In fact, according to the author, “many people will say that working through the affair made the marriage stronger than before.”
“Once an affair happens you realize, ‘Hey, my marriage can’t run on auto-pilot,’” Haltzman told HuffPost Divorce via e-mail. “Succeeding at marriage after infidelity is akin to surviving a trauma; you often never realize your strength or resiliency until it is called on. And that’s worth something!”
But there are several large hurdles between the affair and post-infidelity marital bliss, beginning with telling your spouse about your indiscretions [aka your extramarital affair].
We asked Haltzman about whether or not it’s important to cop to the infidelity, and how to go about having that emotional conversation. Below, he shares his answers.
Huffington Post Divorce: Should you tell your spouse if you’ve had an affair? Why or why not?
Dr. Scott Haltzman: In most cases, you should tell your spouse you had an affair. It goes without saying that marriages are based on openness, and affairs are based on secrets. Choosing openness is a potent step toward honoring your wedding vows.
Usually by the time you’re thinking of revealing all, your mate has already begun to figure out something is wrong. By telling your partner the truth, you free him or her up from the constant wondering, “what’s going on with you?” For the person having an affair, verbalizing your actions makes the impact more real, and moves you from “what will I do when my spouse finds out,” to “what’s the next step toward resolution”?
HP: Is there ever a time where you shouldn’t tell your spouse that you cheated?
Haltzman: If the infidelity was in the remote past, it has no impact on your current marriage, you’ve done the emotional “work” to make sense of what led to it and took the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again, then it’s not clear that the marriage will benefit from telling the truth.
If there’s a good likelihood the the revelation will lead to domestic violence, or threaten the life of the person you had an affair with, then it is not a good idea to be entirely truthful, although you must commit to working individually to get the marriage back on track.
HP: If you’ve decided to tell your spouse, how should you go about telling him or her? How many details of the affair should you reveal? Should you be completely honest?
Haltzman: Your mate is about to find out that his or her world is turned inside out. Is there any right way to do it? In a word, no. But you can try. When possible, revealing an affair should take place in a home, not a park, restaurant or other public place. It’s more than likely that you will unfurl a litany of emotions; your spouse should not feel constrained to control emotions by the environment.
You should be direct; no matter how you phrase it, it’s going to hurt. Once you’ve revealed your news, it may take a long time to sink in. Be prepared to answer as many questions as your partner has.
Once you have come clean about the affair, the general policy is “do ask, do tell.” Let your spouse decide what he or she wants to hear. Many people try to protect their spouse (and themselves) from the harsh realities by holding back hurtful details. Don’t do that. Once an affair has been revealed, the most important element in rebuilding a marriage is establishing trust. Trust is built on complete honesty.
HP: If your spouse reacts badly, how should you respond?
Haltzman: There’s no predictable reaction to finding out your spouse had an affair, and, with the exception of physical violence, no right or wrong way to react. A partner who has had an affair must be prepared for any kind of reaction when the truth is told. Your partner’s pain must be recognized and prioritized. It is important to not try to minimize your spouse’s feelings by saying such things as, “It’s not that big a deal” or, “It happened only once,” or by comparing feelings (“I didn’t get that upset when you told me about your affair”) or invalidating the feeling (“You shouldn’t feel that way.”) Remember that all feelings are valid because they are real within your mate. Your role is to listen, try to understand, be as strong as you can be — although it’s OK to break down if it is in sympathy with your mate. At some point the dust will settle, and then you will need to be there to help pick up the pieces.
HP: What’s the most important thing to remember before having this conversation?
Haltzman: The most important thing to remember about having this conversation is that it is a beginning, not an end. Revealing the truth about an affair is a necessary first step toward moving the marriage back on track.