Affairs: To tell or not to tell?

It wasn’t that long ago that therapists specializing in relationship issues when treating someone who had had an affair, would strongly advise that they disclose the affair to their partner. A major assumption spurring this recommended action was that secrets act as a wedge between people and that emotional intimacy would be seriously compromised if the affair was not shared and put into the light of day. Therapists, however, have grown in their wisdom and understanding over time and are always learning from their clients. Not surprisingly, more and more, working with people teaches the lesson that there are few absolutes when it comes to what is the best thing to do in a given situation. Therapists are not interested in what is right from a morality point of view. Rather, they are foremost concerned with implications and outcomes and in this case, what action will best serve the mental health of participants and the future well being of the relationship. One of the unfortunate negative consequences of the view that one should always tell was that too many spouses disclosed prematurely in an effort to off load their guilt. In other words, disclosure became the way to try to solve the problem rather than the end of a long road of striving for self understanding and taking responsibility.

It is not that we found out as therapists that telling one’s partner was the wrong thing to do but rather that therapists realized that to emphasize this was putting the cart before the horse. What we came to understand was that far more important than disclosure was that the individual who had the affair face and understand their own behavior. After all, if there is no true understanding of what caused the affair in the first place then what would prevent the same thing from happening again? Furthermore, of equal or greater importance was that the individual take responsibility for their actions. Here, what was meant was that the individual do some serious soul searching and be willing to take ownership of their own behavior and any of the implications this might have for them and for their partner. Few people enter a committed, primary relationship planning to break the promise of monogamy. For many, having an affair is a major breach of their value system and understanding what caused the rupture is critical to reclaiming their integrity. For those who are religious or spiritual, one might say that an affair needs to be seen primarily as between that person and God or their higher power and only secondarily between them and their partner. Interestingly, the partner invariably is on board with this emphasis. Most often, the person who has been betrayed is very invested in their partner digging deeply to understand their own behavior as this is far more reassuring than any apology could ever be.

Relationship therapists view an affair as either being a result of dissatisfaction with one’s relationship, unhappiness with oneself, or both. If the primary problem that has caused going outside the primary relationship is couple dissatisfaction then it is vital to do some work on the couple relationship, ideally with both parties participating. Unfortunately, an affair often creates a primary crisis and until that crisis is dealt with, it is often impossible to begin to probe couple problems that have typically been around for a long time. As any couple therapist knows, there are few events in life that can lead to such deeply felt injury than knowing that one’s partner has slept with someone else or even worse, formed an intimate bond with them and it takes much longer than most people think to heal from such an act of betrayal. This is a major reason why the spouse who has had the affair needs to take responsibility for their actions. If they have not, then they easily become frustrated and fail to have the patience necessary to provide the understanding and support required for their spouse to be able to work through all the powerful feelings of betrayal, mistrust, anger and disappointment that an affair so often activates.

It would appear that most of us want to know that we are the most important person in another’s life. Experimentation with “open marriage” in the early 70’s did not last long. Too many people thought they could cope with their partner having sexual relationships with multiple other people only to find out down the road that they were not immune to feelings of jealousy, hurt and anger. The more recent appeal of being polyamorous (i.e., being able to love many partners at one time) will be interesting to observe as it unfolds. While on one level, it makes sense that one should be able to love more than one person at one time, will this trend also be a passing experiment that dies out because it fails to meet people’s deepest needs?

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  • Merika Skirko

    This article is needed, and excellent as usual. However, I see two very different issues. The issue of whether to tell or not to tell and when is one issue. Loving several people at the same time is an article in itself. I sincerely hope that your writings will one day fill a book!

  • Dr. Lillian Esses

    Thank you, as always, for your feedback and support.


    Very well written and a lot of food for thought. I love your Blog.

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