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'Fessing Up to Infidelity: Yes or No?

If someone cheats on their partner (boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife) should they tell their partner? I have had this debate with many friends and we can never come to an agreement. Some say the right thing to do is to be honest and fess up. Others use the argument "ignorance is bliss" and that as long as they never repeat the offense the damage is better left untold. What do you think?

One way of approaching this question is to gauge how the partner would feel if he or she found out about the offense. As we've noted previously, researchers have identified at least four possible ways that a person can learn he or she was cheated on:1 (a) unsolicited partner discovery, in which the cheater ‘fesses up’; (b) solicited discovery refers to a situation in which the partner who was cheated on confronts the cheater (“whose panties are these?”); (c) unsolicited third party discovery in which someone (e.g., a friend, or, in some cases, a random stranger) tells a person that they’ve been cheated on; or (d) ‘red-handed’ discovery – which is exactly what you think it is (see video, below).


Which method of discovery hurts a relationship most? You guessed it-- both unsolicited third party discovery and being caught red-handed damages how the ‘cheatee’ feels about a partner and relationship. For what it’s worth, a person is more likely to forgive a cheating partner when caught red-handed versus when learning about the incident from someone else. Importantly, fessing up results in the smallest declines in relationship quality (a decline is inevitable regardless of how a partner finds out) and the greatest likelihood of being forgiven; solicited discovery falls in between unsolicited partner discovery and the other two for both outcomes. 

Putting it all together, both pieces of advice in your question have some validity. If there’s any chance a partner will find out about infidelity, better ‘fess up. But, if what happens in Vegas really stays in Vegas (and there are no more trips planned to Vegas), ignorance (on the part of the cheatee) may be bliss. The cheater, however, is probably best served doing a little soul-searching to make sure he or she knows exactly why the cheating happened, and how to make sure it never happens again.

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1Afifi, W. A., Falato (Nichols), W. L., & Weiner, J. L. (2001). Identity concerns following a severe relational transgression: The role of discovery method for the relational outcomes of infidelity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 18, 291-308.

Dr. Tim Loving Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Loving's research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role of friends and family during these transitions. He is an Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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Reader Comments (2)

If you spend any time in support groups for betrayed spouses, you soon find that the duration of the lie matters a lot to people. That is, if you cheat but do not fess up, but the truth comes out eventually anyway, that feels like a much bigger betrayal. "He lied to me for X number of years. Everything in that time feels like a lie" is a very common feeling among betrayed partners. I would thus add to the advice: If there is any chance your partner will ever find out, confess as soon as possible.

May 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGP

Expanding on the above comment; another issue that is so damaging and hurtful is that the longer the period of deception, the more opportunities the cheater had to stop what they were doing, come to their senses and remedy whatever was wrong in their lives and/or relationship that caused them to have the affair. A "one night stand", where alcohol, drugs or momentary loss of self control were likely to be the driving factors, is probably a lot easier to understand and forgive. An ongoing affair, where there were many encounters, phone calls, emails, etc. says, " I would rather spend my time with the affair partner than with my spouse." Going out of their way to deceive the spouse just to hookup with their lover is a slap in the face, over and over and over. This for many faithful spouses is too much to forgive.

February 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKim Vincent
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