Dear Belladonna Rogers,
I love my wife but I’ve committed adultery. I know it’s wrong, morally, religiously, spiritually and in every way. Reading your column last week on apologizing, I’m writing to ask if I should apologize for my infidelity even though my wife is unaware of it. What should I do if my wife suspects and confronts me? Should I confirm her suspicions, make a clean breast of it and apologize? I know I’d feel better.
Sinner in Salt Lake City
Adultery is the one thing to which you should never admit unless your wife discovers you in the act. The line, “Honey, this isn’t what it looks like” will be of no avail. It is exactly what it looks like. Assuming she hasn’t found you in flagrante delicto, here’s my advice:
CONFESSING ADULTERY TO AN UNAWARE SPOUSE IS CRUEL AND UNWISE
An adulterer’s need to confess and “make a clean breast of it” is both supremely selfish and monumentally unwise. If the urge to “confess” is overwhelming, then make your confession to a professional — religious or secular. With a minister, therapist, or counselor you can give free vent to your impulse to disclose your adultery and discuss your feelings about it in complete confidentiality without being brutally cruel to the person you love.
Having made one crummy decision, your two options of what to do next are similarly crummy. Bad actions beget bad options. The lesser of the two evils that I favor involves treating your wife with kindness by omitting to tell her what you did. The one I oppose involves confessing your infidelity to her, thus inflicting needless pain while not undoing your error. Nothing will ever undo your error, including confessing it to your wife and apologizing for it.
A confession will irreparably destroy trust, the indispensable foundation of all relationships.
Under no circumstances — no matter how drunk, how angry, how deliriously high on any substance you may be, and regardless of how sorely tempted you may feel in a moment of guilt or intimacy to reveal “everything” about yourself and “get it off your chest,” and “make a clean breast of it” — does it make sense to reveal adultery to your spouse. Even on your deathbed, the urge to “bare all” before drawing your final breath should be suppressed: this is an unconscionably cruel way to say goodbye.
HOW CONFESSING ADULTERY ONLY MAKES A BAD SITUATION WORSE
(1) By disclosing your adultery, you’ll be hurting the one person you love more than anyone else in the world. Your urge to confess and beg forgiveness does not outweigh your responsibility to be kind, considerate, and to avoid inflicting pain and suffering. Confessing is cruel.
(2) It will inevitably lead to your spouse telling your children, if you have any. If they are young, this will have long-term negative effects on their behavior when they’re married. Children learn by the example set by their parents far more than by what their parents tell them is right or what their religious training teaches them is right or wrong.
(3) Revealing your adultery, especially soon after it has occurred, will increase the chances that your wife will do the same to you, motivated by a number of impulses, including:
(A) Reassurance: There’s nothing quite like adultery to make a person feel abandoned, unloved, unlovable, and unattractive. One way many spouses of adulterers cope with feelings of rejection is by seeking comfort — as well as confirmation that they’re still emotionally and physically appealing — with a partner outside the marriage.
(B) Retaliation: to let the errant spouse know exactly how it feels to be cheated on. To show him or her that “two can play this game.”
(C) Punishment: a powerful desire to inflict emotional pain on the spouse who cheated first, a desire that never would have existed if the originally errant spouse hadn’t blurted out, in a foolishly self-destructive moment of candor or weakness, that he or she committed adultery.
ADMITTING ADULTERY LEADS TO A SPIRAL OF MISERY
The original disclosure of adultery is thus likely to set in motion a spiral of misery that can lead to divorce even when the couple is no longer in the bloom of youth. While examples abound, here’s a recent one to contemplate as you ponder whether to confess, courtesy of The Telegraph in December 2011 (emphasis added):
99-Year-old Divorces Wife After He Discovered 1940s Affair
An Italian couple are to become the world’s oldest divorcees, after the 99-year-old husband found that his 96-year-old wife had an affair in the 1940s
The Italian man, identified by lawyers in the case only as Antonio C, was rifling through an old chest of drawers when he made the discovery a few days before Christmas. Notwithstanding the time that had elapsed since the betrayal, he was so upset that he immediately confronted his wife of 77 years, named as Rosa C, and demanded a divorce. Guilt-stricken, she reportedly confessed everything but was unable to persuade her husband to reconsider his decision. She wrote the letters to her lover during a secret affair in the 1940s, according to court papers released in Rome this week. The couple are now preparing to split, despite the ties they forged over nearly eight decades – they have five children, a dozen grandchildren and one great-grand child.
WHY THINKING YOU’LL “FEEL BETTER” AFTER CONFESSING ADULTERY TO AN UNSUSPECTING SPOUSE IS A PATHETIC, DELUSIONAL FANTASY
Like the guilt-stricken “Rosa C.,” many a cheating or formerly cheating spouse will experience guilt followed by an overwhelming impulse to “tell the truth.”
This overwhelming impulse must itself be overcome by a far more constructive resolve to understand the devastation confession will wreak, even if accompanied by tearful, abject, heartfelt apologies and a promise never to stray again. The choice of confession is nothing but a pure, unmitigated self-centered mistake.
It’s likely that the confessing spouse will, in fact, “feel better” after baring his or her soul. But that feeling will be more fleeting than the light of a firefly. A husband surely won’t feel better when, a week later, he receives a text from his wife saying that the dentist kept her waiting…until midnight… to fill that cavity. What cavity? That cavity.
DEALING WITH A SUSPICIOUS SPOUSE
What if a spouse suspects and confronts the delinquent spouse?
Suspicion is part of life and therefore of marriage. Suspicion is a subdivision of thinking. If we have minds, we think. If we think, we wonder. Only spouses afflicted with deeply flawed thinking seize the opportunity afforded by a spouse’s inquiry to reply, “Well, you’ve pretty much guessed, anyway, so I may as well tell you that that person I work with — the one who calls here all the time? –well, he’s (or she’s) got the hots for me. One night we were the last people in the office, and the next thing we knew we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. I don’t know what got into us.”
Bad idea! If the worried spouse expresses a hunch or a suspicion, the other spouse reassures. He or she does not leap at the chance to blurt out the truth. A loving husband or wife reassures rather than blurts.
Never ever, ever, ever, ever give in to the temptation to tell the truth if adultery (even once) is the truth. With adultery, once is the same as 100 times. It’s the infidelity, the unfaithfulness, not the precise number of times or partners. “Only” doesn’t modify “once” when it comes to adultery. Confessing to having had even a single one-night stand will cast a long, dark, irreversible shadow over all the days of your marriage.
“SHUT UP,” SHE EXPLAINED
If your infidelity is a result of an inherent problem in your marriage, or a personal problem of yours, you might find it helpful to address that problem in counseling or therapy with either a religious or secular professional. Flinging an act of infidelity at your wife is no way to deal with an intrinsic difficulty in your marriage or in yourself.
Making your spouse miserable is not an appropriate cure for your feelings of guilt. The cure is to end the affair and to keep your error locked in your heart forever.
My advice is at odds with the mantra of the Oprah-and-Dr.-Phil-besotted, revelation-obsessed swampland in which we dwell. Although admitting one’s intimate transgressions on national TV makes for high Nielsen ratings, such a confession does nothing to strengthen a marriage.
To paraphrase the writer Ring Lardner in his 1920 book The Young Immigrants, “‘Shut up,’ she explained.”
Discretion — not confession — is the better part of valor.