Disclosing an Affair
It’s not just cheaters and affair partners who find themselves struggling with disclosing an affair or not; friends, family, work colleagues, and even virtual strangers can find themselves in the uncomfortable position of knowing about an affair and not being sure what to do about it. Disclosing an affair to the faithful partner (not to be confused with an Affair Exposure strategy) can be a distressing undertaking for anyone, and it’s easy to see why so many take the decision to say nothing.
A quick internet search will produce results that give arguments both for and against disclosing an affair. It’s relatively easy to find the results that are advice for cheaters by cheaters, or advice for affair partners by affair partners, and you might be well advised to skip past them because they are often hideous examples of the deliberate and amused disregard for the rights and welfare of others.
However, most people are actually genuinely concerned about the upset and consequences for all involved in disclosing an affair – but is non-disclosure reasonable, harmless, and justified?
The Arguments Against Telling
We’ve probably all heard the usual arguments for saying nothing, particularly from third parties who are not directly involved in or affected by the affair:
- The faithful partner might not want to know.
- What they don’t know won’t hurt them.
- I wouldn’t want to know if it were happening to me.
- Maybe the couple have ‘an agreement’.
- It’s none of my business/place – it’s their life and ‘journey’ and it’s not my place to influence it.
- I’m not a snitch.
- My loyalty is to my friend/family member/colleague (i.e. the cheater or affair partner) not a stranger (i.e. the cheaters’ spouse or partner).
- I don’t want to be the cause of pain or be instrumental in the break-up a family.
- I don’t want my involvement to change my relationship with them/affect me.
- There’s no way they can’t know.
When you’re not directly affected by an affair, doing nothing is a tempting option that most people would probably understand. People generally prefer not to involve themselves in others’ relationships, especially when that involvement is uncomfortable and likely to cause pain and upset, so avoiding it completely can be a very attractive option indeed.
The Arguments Against Telling: the cheater
Even if we can understand a third party making those arguments to remain silent, it’s concerning how often the cheater is advised to keep their affair a secret, often using variations of the same arguments.
It’s actually really easy to find supporting opinion for non-disclosure and it isn’t all from fellow cheaters, either. You might be surprised to learn that some infidelity experts and therapists also advocate not disclosing an affair.
Why would a therapist or infidelity expert tell a cheater not to disclose their affair to their spouse? Well, it’s worth remembering two things:
- the therapist’s focus will be on the interests of their client, the cheater, not the interests of the faithful partner
- that everyone has an agenda
Society, religious counselors, marriage counselors, pro-marriage forums, pro-divorce forums, sex addiction proponents, family, friends … Everyone has an agenda.
Some view your marriage remaining intact as the primary goal post-infidelity. Others may have a personal stake in your relationship and perhaps a personal axe to grind with your cheater. People give advice based in their own version of an ideal outcome for you – and that outcome might not be in your sole or best interests.
So why would a therapist/expert advise a cheater to keep shtum about their infidelity? It’s actually a simple but wholly unpalatable answer: Because not disclosing the affair increases the likelihood of the marriage/relationship continuing, and a disturbing majority of therapists place greater value on an intact marriage than an ethical and respectful one.
Advice to keep the faithful partner in the dark about an affair is fully intended to help the cheater secure the faithful partner in the relationship, regardless of how the terms of that relationship have been violated or compromised.
This advice is frequently couched in terms of the cheater’s improper motivation (that it is inappropriate to disclose an affair to assuage the cheater’s guilt, for example), protecting the faithful partner from ‘unnecessary pain’, and stepping up to carry the burden of truth alone in order to avoid the psychological damage of betrayal.
In truth, advocacy of non-disclosure protects the cheater and the cheater’s interests while deeming what is ‘best’ for the faithful spouse, and then imposing that upon them.
To Tell or Not to Tell: the faithful partner and the affair partner
One group of people frequently put in the position of having to decide whether to disclose an affair to a spouse/partner is the faithful spouse themselves (it’s common for cheaters to cheat with other cheaters). This complication adds another layer of distress to an already devastating situation, and the decision to disclose the affair is further complicated by:
- feelings of personal injury by and anger toward the cheater and/or affair partner, and a desire to retaliate
- fears that angering the cheater will reduce the chances of the cheater returning to the marriage/relationship
- hopes that disclosure to the affair partner’s spouse will facilitate the end of an active affair
Understandably, the faithful partner can feel conflicted and confused, and their fear of further harming their own situation can actually result in their inaction. They frequently justify non-disclosure by employing the same arguments listed above. As incredible as it may sound that someone who has experienced the deceit of an affair will then choose their own complicity in its secrecy in someone else’s life, it happens often.
It might seem inappropriate to group together the faithful partner and the affair partner in this section. However, in truth there is a lot of common ground between the affair partner and the faithful spouse in the decision to disclose the affair or not, because the affair partner’s considerations often include:
- feelings of animosity and resentment toward the cheater and/or the cheater’s spouse/partner
- fears that angering the cheater will reduce the chances of the cheater choosing the affair partner over the cheater’s spouse/partner
- hopes that disclosing the affair to the cheater’s spouse will bring about the end of the marriage
The Case for Telling: informed consent
At its core, the case for telling comes down to one thing: informed consent.
I see no moral distinction between a cheater lying about an affair to hornswoggle their spouse into living a false reality, and slipping someone a roofie. In both situations it denies someone the ability to make their own informed choices.
In a free society we all have a right to make decisions about our lives informed by truth and reality. By hiding, withholding, or otherwise removing such information from someone else’s reach, however well-intentioned, you are active in denying them their right to informed consent about their relationship.
Maintaining the secrecy of an affair makes you complicit in denying the faithful spouse information that might lead to their choice to exit the relationship entirely. You become part of choosing a non-monogamous relationship for them without their knowledge. Your silence denies them information that might reasonably prompt them to get STI tested, or to discontinue having sex with their cheater, or to protect themselves from manipulation, or from being used for financial or other benefits. It becomes an issue of non-consensual participation in a non-monogamous relationship.
Infidelity causes real and consequential damage but, notwithstanding the obvious sexual health risks, the primary source of that damage is not the actual act of infidelity per se but the attendant conduct of the cheater and their mistreatment and manipulation of the faithful spouse. It is these things that affect and endanger the faithful spouse’s psyche in the long-term, even if they are not aware of their partner’s infidelity. Rather than securing the faithful partner’s well-being, non-disclosure fails to protect them from direct mistreatment.
The Case for Telling: children
Not everyone withholds their knowledge of an affair for altruistic reasons, of course. There are those who secretly think that the faithful spouse must have brought it upon themselves (they didn’t) so it’s their problem, some might even silently high-five the cheater for taking some small measure of fun and/or happiness by cheating, while others might feel a degree of satisfaction that the faithful partner is getting screwed over. The problem with this kind of thinking is that the faithful partner is not the only one affected by the cheater’s conduct: any children will also be affected by the parental dynamic.
We know that the environment created by a cheater in order to cheat is one filled with deceit, disrespect, and mistreatment. We also know that these behaviors are NOT solely contained in or to an affair. Your non-disclosure can, rather than protecting families or only affecting the adults, perpetuate children’s exposure to an unhealthy environment.
The post-affair relationship will be dysfunctional – I am willing to state that categorically, because damaging and unhealthy behaviors are inherent in both cheating and the knee-jerk post-discovery response. Dysfunction is inherent in a post-affair relationship and it can take years for it to resolve into something healthy, if it resolves at all. Staying for the kids exposes them to that dysfunction, it models an unhealthy dynamic, and tension and upset cascade down to them. Shit rolls down hill after all and kids have no independent ability to dodge out of the way.
The Case for Telling: being Truman
Truman Burbank lived a lie. He lived that lie without any understanding that it was, indeed, a lie, created by someone who directly benefited from creating and maintaining his false reality. The audience considered Truman’s life on The Truman Show good in many ways, and even happy; he wasn’t being directly harmed after all, and maybe the alternative real life of which he was deprived would have been significantly ‘worse’ than the one he was living.
Nevertheless, Truman was living a life where his own rights and agency were denied. The life he had was not authentic and the relationships he formed were founded in deceit. Truman was a puppet in his own life, living in a set of carefully crafted illusions for the advantage and gratification of someone else.
Mike Michaelson: Christof, let me ask you, why do you think that Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world until now?
Christof: We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.
Not disclosing an affair means that you are choosing for someone else. Yes, you might circumvent some ugliness that might otherwise result from giving the faithful partner access to information that you’re holding secret about their own life. Yet, in your attempt to circumvent it you are presuming to ‘fix’ their life in line with your view of what is ‘best’, without their knowledge or consent. That is a liberty you are taking with someone else’s life that you are not entitled to take.
Doing Good vs Doing Right
I’ve heard it argued many times when it comes to disclosing an affair: “There is a difference between doing good and doing right, and I’d rather do what’s good and protect the faithful partner and children by not telling.”
In brief and simple terms:
- Doing Good: this is a consequentialist argument that asserts that the potential negative effect can outweigh moral duty.
- Doing Right: this is a rules-based argument that asserts that the duty to moral conduct outweighs the potential negative effects.
It’s unsurprising that this is a knotty problem because there are many valid arguments and counter-arguments on the ethics of good vs right – ethical scholars continue to debate them. The ‘doing right’ position is often subordinated to the ‘doing good’ position because most prefer to avoid or mitigate emotional distress to ourselves and others; doing right ignores the consequences and is therefore unpalatable to many.
So, let’s use the popular argument for doing good and apply that to a decision on whether or not to disclose an affair. An argument based on not disclosing an affair as protection raises a few obvious issues:
- It evidences a very narrow view/understanding of the harms of infidelity
- It weights the supposed short-term advantages over the known long-term damage
- The assessment of what is ‘good’ for the faithful partner is subjective, based on one’s own worldview, mindset, and knowledge of infidelity
- It presumes to impose your own subjective worldview, mindset, and preferences on others
The consequentialist argument for non-disclosure ignores that the most egregious, deep-rooted, and longstanding harm comes from the faithful spouse’s experience of being manipulated, devalued, deceived, disrespected, and put at risk. Those violations are perpetuated by non-disclosure, not alleviated.
Having witnessed how faithful partners are severely traumatized by such maltreatment, it is difficult to see how not disclosing an affair can be either good or right.
It’s easy and comforting to tell yourself that you aren’t disclosing an affair because you’re protecting others. It’s altruistic, right? Let’s be brutally honest here: the only people really being protected are a) the cheater b) the affair partner and (if you’re not either), c) you. Being fooled into living a life that isn’t reality, designed to keep you in a situation that someone else engineers around you for their advantage? That is not harmless. Imposing that on others is an act of arrogance, oppression, and dismissal, and the harm that causes will far exceed any psychological damage caused by the infidelity itself.
If you’re not the cheater or the affair partner, then of course you’re not the only one holding this secret from the faithful spouse, but you are part of the group who is doing so – the affair partner, and the cheater. And that’s not great company to keep, in the circumstances.