Well, bud, you really did it this time. You cheated on someone you care about and don’t want to lose. Now you have to decide whether to tell them and how, exactly, you can even start that conversation. This won’t be easy, but at least we can make it a little easier.
Think about why you did it
You might be feeling pretty bad about what you did, whether it was a drunken one-time hookup or a more sustained affair, but try to calm down and think clearly. Human beings are wired to seek connection, both mentally and at the groin, but that’s not a good enough explanation. You need to spend sufficient time thinking about why you did it, enough that you understand. Before you rush into telling your partner about your dalliance, make sure you have the facts straight yourself.
As dating coach Hayley Quinn told Lifehacker, “There are lots of reasons why people cheat: some will cheat because they don’t feel valued at home, others to feel young again, [and] some just because an opportunity arises.”
What was your reasoning? How have you been feeling in your primary relationship? Your partner is going to ask you those questions and plenty more, so you need to have honest answers on deck, both for their benefit and yours.
All that being said, don’t make so many excuses that you appear to regard what happened as no big deal. Look at the situation from your partner’s point of view. You might see a one-night-stand or online chats as “meaningless,” but would they?
“Just because an affair doesn’t become physical doesn’t mean it’s less important to disclose,” warned Quinn. “Did you meet someone for a series of dates, but then end it before you ended up in the bedroom? Some people may actually find the emotional infidelity here harder to accept than a one-off drunken fling. Whilst you may choose not to disclose that time you set up a dating app profile ‘just to see what’s out there,’ if your affair has made it into the real world, then you need to have the conversation.”
Make sure you want to have the conversation
We’re not telling you to obfuscate anything here, but every relationship is different. Only you know the details of your arrangement and what kind of impact this is likely to have on your significant other. Then again, you should have thought of that sooner. (Sorry, but truth hurts.)
Of course, if you do decide to withhold this information and they find out down the line, you’ll not only be in the hot seat for cheating, but for being dishonest about it.
Amie Leadingham, a master certified dating coach, noted, “I think it is important to know your motivation before telling your partner. Are you telling them out of guilt? Are you telling them because you want a divorce? Or are you telling because you want to work out your problems and save the marriage?”
She mentioned that she’s heard of other relationship coaches advising against divulging one-time incidents, but maintained that “honesty is the best policy” and you should ‘fess up, especially if your goal is to continue the partnership.
Keep in mind, too, that if you choose not to tell them, you’re gambling that they won’t otherwise find out. Do you want to be constantly anxious you might have left your computer open when you ran to the store, and that your partner is reading your texts while you’re waiting in a never-ending checkout line? Can you guarantee the person you cheated with won’t get jealous or righteous and tell on you?
“I had someone cheat on me and, unfortunately, I had to hear it from the person he cheated with, not him,” said Nivine Jay, host of the “Swipe Left” dating podcast. “Mistakes happen and I think that relationship could’ve been salvaged if I’d heard the news from him. It’s really important, I think, to be open with the person you’re with, not just when it’s good but even when it’s bad. Hearing something straight from your person might make you angry, but hearing it from someone else just adds more fuel to the fire, like feeling embarrassed.”
If you’re hesitating here, ask yourself if you really want to save the relationship in the first place. If you cheated because you’re not feeling cared for, nurtured, or sexually satisfied, you need to figure out if staying in this situation is even good for you.
Have the talk
After you’ve calmed down, examined the facts, played out all the possible scenarios in your mind, and decided to move forward with the conversation, you need to be careful and direct.
Leadingham suggested, “First make sure you both are in a safe space that will allow vulnerable conversations with each other. It is important to focus on the facts [and] be specific. Don’t try to dance around the topic or lie.”
Quinn added that it’s important to get all the particulars out during the admission, saying, “Your partner will lose more and more faith in you if more details come out as the weeks go by. Instead hold your hands up, be honest, apologise.”
Leadingham, Quinn, and Jay all mentioned one major, key piece of advice: Don’t shift blame to your partner, even if you were feeling unsatisfied when you sought out your side action. That’s not to say you can’t or won’t ever address the underlying problems; it’s just to say the initial conversation about your cheating isn’t the right time. This discussion is about what you did, not whatever your partner has or hasn’t done. Give them time to ask questions and be mad before you make them even more defensive.
“Later down the line when your partner has expressed some of their anger, you can look to repairing the areas of your relationship that had left you feeling unfulfilled,” said Quinn.
Plan for the future
Admitting what happened is the first step, but working together with your partner to strengthen the relationship — providing they don’t immediately dump you, which we cannot guarantee — is equally important.
After that initial conversation, feel out the best time to keep the dialogue going. Get on the same page. Go over how you have been feeling, whether it’s under-appreciated or undersexed, and find out whether there’s a compromise the two of you can make. (Be aware that your partner might be icy toward you and may not feel particularly inclined to work with you for a while, though. Tough it out!)
Somewhere along the line, something got lost in translation, whether it was your needs or your individual understandings of acceptable behaviour. After some time has passed, why not set a few ground rules? Ask if your partner considers sending flirty DMs on Instagram to be cheating, for instance, or if little ways of blowing off steam like that are ok. Ask if they’ve ever wanted to cheat or break up, too. It might hurt to find out, but if you’re feeling like the relationship isn’t enough for you, they probably are, too, and to make it work, you both need to be honest. We have a guide on how to open up an existing monogamous relationship here, too, if you think that could work.
“Explain why you won’t break their trust in the future,” said Jay, who isn’t completely convinced you’re about to get dumped. “You messed up. Just take responsibility and hopefully the person will also want to work it out with you.”