I had an affair with another man on and off throughout my marriage. I have finally stopped, went to catholic confession, and will soon seek counseling. My husband doesn't know. Our marriage is strangely good. I am having trouble with the guilt. Should I tell him?
This is a question that comes up often in my therapy practice. Cheating on a marriage partner is not at all rare--the best statistics say that around half of all married men, and more than a third of married women cheat at least occasionally--so this question about whether or not to spill the beans does arise, and I imagine that my reply will be of interest to a number of my visitors.
Before replying, however, I would like to apologize to the many people who have sent questions and still are waiting to hear from me. When I began this website in 2004, my intention was to provide useful advice on mental/emotional/physical healing, psychotherapy, philosophical awareness, self-understanding, and spiritual unfoldment for those who otherwise might not have access to my training and point of view, that of an experienced clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. I am happy to say that the site has been successful. In these past years I have received thousands of questions from all over the planet, and have replied to hundreds of them--some here on the site, and many others privately. Due to its popularity, the site comes up in first place in a google search for "ask psychologist," and the site receives many hundreds of visitors daily.
Unfortunately, the very success of this website means that more and more questions must go unaddressed. My inbox is simply jammed with letters to "Dr. Robert"--so jammed in fact that I cannot even read all of them fully, much less reply. Even if I did not have my psychotherapy practice and other work to attend to, I still would not be able to deal fully with this volume of mail. Evidently a significant number of people from all over the world want and need psychological advice and are finding it here. But I can do only what time allows, and so I will never be able fully to address the needs of everyone who visits this site. For that I am sorry.
By the way, if you are thinking of sending me a question, it will stand a much better chance of being read and answered if you keep your letter short and to the point (as the writer of this question about marital fidelity has done so well), leaving out unnecessary background, and simply asking what it is you most want to ask. Honestly, when I open an email and find many hundreds of rambling words about minor details staring me in the face, I often just move on to the next letter. Not that I don't care--for I do feel and understand the pain and worry which underlies most of the letters I receive--but my time is limited, and I am forced to choose. I am doing the best I can to keep up, so please help by paring down your words to the minimum, and leaving out unnecessary detail. Thanks.
Now to the question about whether or not to confess marital infidelity which has already ended. The answer is that it depends. If your husband is likely sooner or later to find out about your lover, you simply must tell him. If you did not tell him, and then he found out in some other way, the damage to your marriage probably would be worse, perhaps much worse, than if you simply confessed now and asked to be forgiven. This does not mean that confessing now would assure you that the marriage would continue in a good way. Far from it. Your husband might be so angry and so hurt that he would decide not to continue with you. Since your infidelity was not a one time mistake, but an ongoing, deliberate deception, he might very well conclude that you cannot be trusted even if you claim to be sorry, or he might feel so hurt--so threatened in his manhood and sexuality--that he might feel incapable of continuing with you. That is the risk you took when you gave your body to the other man, and lied to your husband while continue to have sexual relations with both men. But at least confessing before being found out gives you the argument that you recognize your error, are sorry, and know you need his forgiveness. If he were to find out on his own at some later time, you would not even have that argument to offer.
But what if the situation is that he would never find out unless you told him? Then you must ask yourself why you want to confess. If the chief reason is that you cannot imagine forever bearing the guilt which now burdens your mind, I would advise you not to tell him, but to learn to grow emotionally until you can manage your guilt alone, while promising yourself--not him--that this kind of infidelity and breaking of your marriage vows will never happen again. I say manage your guilt, not be relieved of it, because you have cheated, broken a promise, and lied to your mate who trusted you, so your guilt, in my opinion, is a reasonable and proper feeling which you should keep, value, and learn to use to improve your approach to being married.
However, if your main motive for wanting to tell him is not simply to be relieved of your own suffering, but rather a genuine feeling that your love for your husband requires sharing your failing with him, so that he would know you more deeply--know your flaws as well as your strengths--and still love you, along with the belief that you have the ability to make this mess right somehow--that you love him enough to suffer this hurt and shame with him--then you might choose to tell him, and go to counseling together instead of alone, in a spirit of wanting to make your marriage an honest partnership. That is what you, not I, must decide. Be warned, however, that the image of ones wife cavorting with another man is not the kind of picture that most men want in their minds, and not one easily dismissed either. I have worked with many couples on this very issue, and the therapy is usually protracted, tearful, painful, and difficult. And, sometimes the therapy leads to divorce, so there is that risk. However, in some cases marriages do end up better, more honest, closer, and more satisfying than before the infidelity. All of this depends partly on the skill of the therapist, obviously, but also on the willingness of the aggrieved partner to bear the trauma, live with the disturbing mental images, and to forgive.
Personally, I cannot see how Catholic confession can help except to allow you to atone for your mistake by reciting some formulaic words, which to me seems rather a weak method of dealing with guilt, particularly since, in my view, this is a guilt which you deserve, and should feel. After all, you cheated. Since you say that you intend to seek counseling, let me suggest that you find your counselor outside of any religious organization, And I do hope things work out for you and you husband.
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