You don’t have to look far to find a slew of sites that advocate the necessity and success of affair exposure, where the faithful spouse is advised to ‘out’ their cheater’s affair as a strategy to protect the marriage and bring about the demise of the affair relationship.
It was highlighted to me recently that IHG doesn’t have any articles on this subject and, while it’s probably clear what the IHG position will be, it’s a topic that does bear some discussion.
Exposing a cheater’s affair isn’t without risk - understanding the degrees of exposure, motivations, and potential consequences can help you make an informed decision about whether affair exposure is the way forward or not.
What is Affair Exposure?
Exposure is the deliberate, comprehensive, and systematic disclosure of the affair to third parties, including but not limited to family, children, friends, the cheater’s workplace, clergy, and the affair partner’s network, including their spouse, family and workplace.
Proponents of affair exposure claim that exposure is necessary in order to:
- marshal forces to end the affair
- build a support network
- fight for your marriage
Affair exposure is often claimed to be 100% necessary to bring about the end of the affair (that is incorrect), and 100% necessary for the cheater to feel the effects of their bad choices if the affair is to end (also incorrect). It presupposes that those to whom you expose the affair will disapprove and censure the cheater, decry the affair, and be part of pressuring your cheater into returning to the marriage.
Degrees of Exposure
1. Zero Exposure
This might be better termed, ‘keeping the secret’. Many faithful spouses feel that they must keep their cheater’s affair secret. They often balance the risk of their cheater’s wrath coupled with the shame/embarrassment against the benefits of exposure (however one views the benefits), and choose to say nothing instead.
You do not have to be complicit with keeping your cheater’s affair secret by your silence.
2. Targeted Exposure
Targeted exposure can take two forms - 1) confiding in someone for personal support 2) an intent to interfere with the affair.
- Confiding in a trusted and close friend(s) or family member(s) about the affair can be invaluable because it is important that you do have a support network to help you get through some of the worst of it all. Attempting to navigate an affair without help can be incredibly isolating, so a confidante can be an excellent source of practical and emotional support.
- Telling others in an attempt to interfere with the affair or to help bring it to an end is an entirely different matter. Firstly, not everyone is going to share your outrage at the affair, or about infidelity in general. Secondly, family and the cheater’s friends rarely side against the cheater, and though they might (often reluctantly) express their concern the relationship generally continues as normal.
As part of a strategy to facilitate the demise of the affair it is advised by many that you specifically expose to ‘friends of the marriage’ i.e. those who will side with you against the cheater and the affair. The idea is that you ask for ‘their help’ and request that they:
- tell the cheater to stop the affair
- reinforce how wrong it is and the importance of marriage
- convey their disappointment and changed view of the cheater
- withdraw their friendship/support until the cheater comes back in line by returning to the marriage.
2a. Affair Partner’s Spouse
It’s quite possible that your cheater’s affair partner is also married, leaving you with the dilemma of whether to contact them or not. It’s difficult to contact the spouse of the affair partner but they have a right to information that materially affects their lives. Telling them might satisfy a sense of vengeance and a satisfaction in making life difficult for the affair partner, even if you dress it up as ‘information’. If you are not truly motivated by compassion and a genuine concern for their well-being, you are not the best person to deliver the message - and you could perhaps consider if you could find someone better placed to make contact with the spouse.
3. Nuclear Exposure
Telling an employer can be problematic. Company policies and employment legislation are not globally similar, and what is in place for a privately owned company in the USA will not be the same for a similar company in the UK, for example. Not all HR teams will take a positive view of a faithful spouse calling to disclose the details of an employee’s private life (and many will refuse to discuss the spouse-employee with you at all) unless it directly affects company policy (e.g. a non-fraternization policy), local legislation, or exposes them to potential litigation/business detriment.
Assuming that you encounter a company that is receptive to your agenda, it is still sensible to consider the potential fall out if the employer takes a punitive stance towards the disclosure. Transfers, demotions and associated pay cuts, and job losses (which can and do happen) can have a significant impact on the family’s current finances and the cheater’s future employment or progression opportunities. In the event of a divorce this could affect a financial support order for the spouse and/or children.
The issue of children is also complex. Weaponizing your children against your cheater is unacceptable - they are not pawns to help manipulate or guilt your cheater into ending their affair, and are not there to take on or share the burden of your upset. However, lying to them can create even more distrust and uncertainty in an already difficult situation, and could damage their relationship with you. Children can be told an age-appropriate version of the truth (which might be as simple as Mommy and Daddy need to go their separate ways) but the faithful spouse should guard against burdening children unnecessarily with details, commentary and censure of the cheater. Similarly you should ensure that you are not guilty of parental alienation and be aware of the legal consequences of such issues.
4. Authentic Circumstantial Disclosure
If we were to recommend any particular course of action in terms of ‘exposure’ outside of your few trusted confidantes, it would be this:
- Do the affair partner’s spouse the courtesy of informing them of the affair (but avoid becoming part of their support network).
- Respond to organically occurring enquiries honestly and authentically, but without salacious details, moralizing, or unnecessary commentary.
You do not need to avoid questions about the affair but can instead quite clinically and factually state the situation where it’s relevant. This response is a composed, dignified, and honest way to impart appropriate information when you need to, without drawing others unnecessarily (and often reluctantly) into your personal drama.
Control Freakery Gone Wild?
‘Fighting for the marriage’ is dressed-up language for a righteous indignation that the cheater has the temerity to make choices of which the faithful spouse does not approve. ‘Fighting for the marriage’ basically means that the faithful spouse wants a return to life in the confines of the marriage, and presumes to impose that as ‘best’ upon the cheater.
No, infidelity is not ethical, but ultimately people DO have a right to cheat or to exit a relationship in which they no longer want to be part. It is obvious that deliberate affair exposure has a masked undertone of not just vindictiveness and punitive retaliation, but the presumption that the faithful spouse’s wishes, desires and beliefs are somehow superior, more desirable, and ultimately correct.
It is an arrogant trick of the ego to hold that the faithful spouse’s wishes are more valid than the wishes of the cheater, and to assume a ‘right by injury’ to manipulate and engineer a desired outcome with impunity. It’s worth noting that one particularly manipulative and self-serving tactic in this approach is to claim that keeping the family intact is ‘best for the kids’ (regardless of the quality of the relationship, past, present or future).
In truth, the faithful spouse is working from a position where they presume to know what’s best for the cheater, and sets about working towards the ‘optimal’ state of the cheater returning to the marriage, corrected, faithful, and contrite. Unfortunately they are rarely challenged with the questions:
- Optimal for whom?
- Optimal for what?
The answers are perhaps most honestly a) for the faithful spouse and b) to achieve the faithful spouse’s unilateral agenda. Fundamentally, working to interfere with the affair to bring about its demise and return the cheater to the marriage, is an issue of control.
But it Works …
Some will claim that exposure ‘worked for them’. It’s worth asking the question: How do you define ‘worked’?
- Is it possible that the faithful spouse got a sense of satisfaction from exposing the affair? Yes - and if that was their goal and how they defined it as ‘working’, then it worked, regardless of the consequences.
- Could carpet bombing or targeted exposure apply so much pressure to a cheater that they get back in line? Maybe. But in line with what? With the faithful spouse’s idea of what’s ‘best’?
‘It works’ (exposure causing the cheater’s return/end of the affair) doesn’t make room for the impact of disregarding the differences in desires and values between the cheater and the faithful spouse. It doesn’t make room for the likelihood of the cheater taking their doubts, reservations, and resentments underground, potentially poisoning your future relationship with them.
‘It works’ in this context means, ‘I was able to manipulate the return of my spouse/end of the affair’ - it doesn’t address the faithful spouse’s issues of control, manipulation, and sense of entitlement any more than it addresses the same issues in the cheater. Upon what foundation is the resulting relationship built?
Manipulating someone into a life they don’t want, under threat of divorce, financial ruin, loss of the kids etc, is like shackling them to the wall. Forcing someone to live by your values and standards, denying them their right to choose differently, isn’t a loving relationship. It is not your job, your place, nor in your own interest to engineer, force or coerce a cheater into a life with you in the way that you want it, when it’s not something they want for themselves.
If the faithful spouse wants a relationship based on mutual respect, ethical behavior, equality, and shared values, they cannot then complain about how lacking their marriage is when it is the coerced result of their own manipulations.
When it doesn’t ‘work’ and the cheater didn’t come to heel after exposure, you are often left managing a divorce avoidance plan/separation/divorce process with a vindictive and difficult spouse and a severely fractured and dysfunctional network of family and friends - and it’s quite possible that exposure contributed to that.
If we feel entitled to manipulate, threaten, blackmail, or otherwise attempt to control another for our own ends, then perhaps we deserve nothing more than living with a cheater who feels exactly the same way.
Manipulation: Eyes Wide Open
Cheaters are not the only people who get a buzz from the drama of it all; faithful spouses get their fair share of buzz from their own power plays in the drama. It’s common for us to see self-congratulation, glee, and ‘power giddiness’ in a faithful spouse who has upset the affair apple cart somewhat, or who has infuriated their cheater with exposure. It’s understandable - it’s empowering to stand up for yourself and what you believe in, and to feel the freedom of making your own decisions and expressing yourself - sometimes even despite the consequences.
Whilst I would advise that you actually stay well out of the affair dramarama, I would not censure a faithful spouse who did deliberately interfere with an affair for revenge or spite; I understand it as a normal, valid, and emotional response to hurt and upset - it’s a counter-punch. However, dressing it up as some noble form of fighting for the marriage is dishonest and repugnant. If you’re going to deliberately expose the affair so that your cheater suffers the ‘wrath’ of consequences for their choices by the hands of others, at least admit what it is in truth:
- presumptuous (that you know what’s ‘best’ for all involved)
We all have a right to a reasonable expectation of privacy. Before you write that tell-all book exposing the details of how hideously your spouse behaved and the details of their life from your perspective, reflect for a moment on whether you would think it acceptable for your cheater to write their own tell-all book exposing your secrets, flaws and wrong-doings, and how hideous YOU were in their life, from their perspective.
“When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.”
~ David Brin
Affair exposure is often framed as a ‘brave fight’ for your relationship that attempts to paint you as courageous and strong. It is uglier and less palatable to acknowledge it as an attempt to manipulate and control, especially since we find it reprehensible when cheaters engage in manipulative and controlling behavior towards the faithful spouse (and we most certainly don’t praise them for being courageous or strong for doing so!). If we consider that the cheater’s manipulations of the faithful spouse are unethical, indefensible, lacking in character, and selfish, it’s reasonable to find manipulations by the faithful spouse equally reprehensible.
You do not have to take an affair lying down. You don’t have to mewl like a kicked kitten and lap at the feet of your cheater, trying to please or placate them. You don’t have to keep their affair secret, or offer another soft spot for them to kick. You don’t have to ‘be the bigger person’ in a settlement, or give them a second chance, or manage their relationship with the children. You don’t have to help them by agreeing to a quick divorce, or filing joint tax returns, or signing away your assets, entitlements, or interests in any way. You do not have to ease their path away from you.
However, before hotly defending your right to expose the affair and therefore make it as difficult as possible for your cheater to leave you, pause and ask yourself some questions:
- Why fight to stay with someone who doesn’t want to be with only you?
- Why beg friends and family to pressure your cheater to stay with only you, when you have been unsuccessful in that same venture?
- Why potentially risk your financial future by smashing your relationship into their workplace?
- How is holding tighter to the known more brave than letting go and facing a different future?
- Are you truly incapable of providing stability, protection, support, care, love, and life skills to your kids, as a single parent?
- Do you really want to be in a relationship where you coerced someone into it?
- Are you more outraged at the rejection and replacement of you than you are at how they have behaved towards you?
- If you were leaving them, would you agree that them spitefully telling the details of your marriage, your behavior, and your faults to all and sundry to keep you from leaving was okay?
Instead of manipulating the cheater ‘back’ to you, why not instead choose a life free of the uglier aspects of them? Don’t take an affair sitting down - stand up, make a bee line for your own life (or a divorce lawyer), and begin to forge your way without them. Put aside your fears and ego - if a cheater is walking away from you, believe them and wave them a cheery goodbye (and yes, it’s okay for that to be in the form of an extended middle finger!).