Unfaithful and Feeling Guilty: Now What?

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/56/Pashtun_Couple.jpg/256px-Pashtun_Couple.jpg

Infidelity happens. I’m not condoning it, but humans are known for mistakes, and this is simply another example of our fallibility. Still, what should you do if you have realized the error and broken off the affair? Assuming that your spouse or significant other doesn’t already know what happened, should you confess?

Let’s add two more conditions to the hypothetical situation that I’m describing: first, that you feel guilty; and second, that you have no intention of ever violating your partner’s trust again. Let us further assume that it is unlikely that your spouse will find out about the affair from someone else.

This, in other words, is one of those moments between you and your conscience. I’ve counseled people who felt so guilty that they believed they had no choice but to confess. I’ve also treated people who didn’t tell, believing that they would injure the spouse unnecessarily.

Sometimes these affairs are very old. I remember the first patient who reported a situation such as this to me. The infidelity had actually happened years before. It had gone on for a few months, then ended. The man had been faithful ever since and, it was clear, had every intention of being faithful from then until the end of time. But he felt terrible about what he had done and couldn’t shake the feeling despite the passage of time.

One consideration that such a person needs to take into account is that, for the spouse, the event is new when it is uncovered, even if it happened years ago. The wound happens at the moment of discovery or confession and doesn’t exist until that time (assuming that no STD has been communicated). But once the indiscretion is revealed, the emotions of anger and sadness are triggered, as is the sense of betrayal, and the lack of trust. Even if the infidelity is 100 years old, it typically feels to the injured party as if it happened today. And the long climb back to marital accord now begins, with no guarantee that the summit will be reached and good relations will be reestablished.

So, what if you don’t tell your spouse? Will your guilt last forever, undiminished? That depends on an enormous number of factors, including your religion (if any), your anxiety that your husband or wife will eventually find out (no matter how unlikely that might be in reality), your need for forgiveness/absolution, your ability to rationalize mistakes, your own capacity to forgive yourself, and so forth. If you need absolution and have a religious background, confessing to a priest, or fasting and prayer on the Jewish “Day of Atonement” might be helpful, depending on your particular faith. Therapists sometimes also serve the role of unofficial confessor.

If you were hoping that I would give you a clear answer, a “right” way to handle this situation, I undoubtedly have disappointed you. I frankly don’t think there is a right or wrong way in this type of case, at least not in the abstract. There are only ways that work better or worse; well, less well, or poorly; and it will depend not only on your own psychology, but the psychological makeup of your spouse. Thus, a solution that might be effective or useful for one couple, might be awful for another and lead to the end of the marriage.

Best, of course, not ever to be unfaithful. But, as I said at the start, these things do happen and, when they do, can have an overwhelming emotional wallop on all concerned. How you handle it shouldn’t be automatic. Much depends on your decision.

Choose wisely. As carpenters like to say, “Measure twice, cut once.” And know that the news will “cut.”

The above image is called Pashtun Couple by Arsalan Khan, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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