Infidelity — To Tell Or Not To Tell Your Spouse?

An unhappy couple looking away from each other.

We've all heard the catchphrase "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas!" The logic behind this cultural quote implies that whatever misdeed happened away from home won't impact the "here and now" of your marriage — so your spouse doesn't need to know. Keep the memories to yourself and move on with your life.

This idea may work well for the Las Vegas tourism board, but is this notion ever good for a marriage when one partner has been unfaithful?

I'll never forget the conversation I had with a close friend when he revealed that he'd been involved in an affair with a woman several years ago. My friend was the last person I'd thought would ever be capable of cheating. Needless to say, I was stunned.

But nothing could have prepared me for his next revelation: "And I've never told my wife."

"Why not?" I asked.

"I don't see the benefit," he explained. "I ended the affair and I sought forgiveness from the Lord. At this point, telling my wife would only bring about needless pain and sorrow. I don't want to put her through that level of hurt to simply relieve my guilty conscience. Besides, what if she divorces me? How could destroying my family be worth telling her about an affair that's been over for years? Especially since I've been faithful ever since, and our marriage has never been better."

After our conversation, I couldn't shake the sick feeling I had about what my friend shared with me. On one hand, I agreed that I didn't want to see his marriage end because of a mistake that he'd made years ago. But still, something didn't seem right about his rationale for keeping this secret from his wife.

This issue in marriage — to tell or not to tell — is extremely divisive. Is it better to be honest and hurt your spouse and risk your marriage? Or is it better to be discrete, suffering the anguish of your infidelity privately and working to become a faithful spouse? Clearly, there is no simple answer.

However, after years of studying this issue and having spent thousands of hours counseling couples that have dealt with infidelity, I want to offer some perspective. I believe that when adultery has taken place, you should always tell your spouse. I would advocate for only one exception and that's if you are concerned about your physical safety. If you believe that your revelation could lead to violence toward you or the person that you had the affair with, then I recommend you find a Christian counselor. He or she can help you think through the ramifications of confessing to someone who has been (or could be) physically abusive or life threatening. Call Focus on the Family (800-232-6459) and ask to talk with one of our counselors.

Outside of the threat of physical violence, I feel strongly that infidelity should never be kept a secret. In response to common excuses, here are 10 reasons why you should tell your spouse if you've been unfaithful. I encourage you to think these through and then pray that God will reveal His truth about what you should do.

1. "Why should I tell my spouse about something that I've made right with the Lord?"

Certainly, you need to confess your sin to the Lord and seek forgiveness, but infidelity isn't just between you and God. We're reassured of God's forgiveness in 1 John 1:9, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness," so restoring your relationship with the Lord is a great place to start. However, infidelity is also a marriage issue. You violated your marriage vows, and your spouse has a right to know.

2. "I don't want to devastate my spouse simply to relieve my guilty conscience."

I don't follow the logic that telling your spouse is about trying to alleviate your guilt. How does having one of the most difficult conversations you could ever have with your spouse "relieve" anything? This conversation will be extremely difficult for both of you. The key here is to check your motivation for telling your spouse. If it's merely because you feel guilty, then you are still focused on you and it's a self-centered motivation. A selfless motivation is about restoring your marriage relationship. And the only way you can truly rebuild your relationship is to create a foundation of honesty.

3. "What she doesn't know won't hurt her."

This is one of the biggest lies! You've already deeply wounded your spouse and hurt your marriage — your spouse just doesn't realize it yet. You can't simply put an affair in a box and bury it in some dark recess of your mind and heart. You don't work that way — not without consequences. Think about all the energy you've expended covering your tracks and the things you've done to hide your secret: the lies, the misinformation, the sleepless nights, the deleted messages, the hidden phone numbers, the worry, the fear that the other person will expose you, the erasing of credit card receipts and other incriminating financial information, and so on. All of these efforts have already hurt your spouse because you've had to close off parts of your heart to compartmentalize the infidelity. You haven't been fully available to your spouse, so he or she has already paid an enormous price for the affair.

4. "My spouse will leave me and our family will be destroyed."

It may be scary to imagine the possibility that your spouse will leave you, but there is a real chance that this might happen. Jesus talked about divorce as the result of sexual unfaithfulness in marriage (Matthew 19:9). Although God made provision for divorce when one spouse has committed adultery, I don't believe that divorce is ever God's desire. God is passionate about lifelong marriages: "'I hate divorce,' says the Lord, the God of Israel" (Malachi 2:16, NASB). I know that you are scared about losing your spouse, but take heart; the God of this universe will always be in your corner rooting for your marriage.

Trying to save your marriage by keeping infidelity a secret will never be a plan that honors your spouse or your marriage. In a July 12, 2012 article posted on PsychologyToday.com, Dr. Mark White explains it this way:

Don't keep your affair a secret just to save the relationship — that isn't fair to your partner, and only serves to preserve a relationship with cracks that will inevitably spread. You owe it to your partner to let him or her make that decision with all the information you can provide. You don't want the relationship to end, but neither do you want your partner to stay with you out of ignorance, mistakenly believing that you've been loyal. The fact is, you haven't — and your partner deserves to know that so he or she can decide whether to give you another chance.

5. "But if my spouse suspects nothing and never asks about an affair, is it really wrong not to tell him?"

Continuing to lie will never be good for your marriage. Building on his previous statement, Dr. White explains that even if you think you can bury your secret, your relationship will still be based on a cracked foundation. He believes that your partner needs to understand there are cracks if there's any possibility of healing the relationship together.

6. "She doesn't really want to know that I've cheated," or "He won't be able to handle the truth."

Maybe. But, you have no right to decide what your spouse can or cannot handle or would or wouldn't want to know. Only your spouse has the right to decide if he or she is going to stay in the marriage — you have no way of knowing what will be done with your confession. When my friend ultimately came clean with his wife, she initially resented the fact that he decided for her what she couldn't handle. Yes, your spouse may leave based on your infidelity, but if he or she wants out, there will be plenty of other excuses to leave.

7. "It was a one-time thing, and it will never happen again."

This sounds good, but one lie breeds other lies. Where will the rationalization end? You are establishing a very dangerous pattern of deceit, control and manipulation.

8. "I think I can rebuild my marriage without telling my spouse."

You have to consider the relational impact on your marriage if you harbor a lie of this magnitude. If you don't tell your spouse and attempt to rebuild your marriage after an affair, understand that from this point forward, whatever is being rebuilt in terms of the marriage is being built on a lie or partial truth (omission). It is impossible for you to have a fully open and truthful marriage if you're harboring a secret like an affair. Regarding trust in marriage, here's one last thought from Dr. White's PsychologyToday.com article: "You need to tell each other the important things, the things you both expect to know, the things that are relevant to the foundations of your relationship and that have the potential to affect it. . . . And what has more potential effect on your relationship and the trust holding it together than an affair?" The bottom line is, don't accept a marriage based on dishonesty and deceit.

9. "I'm better off going forward as if the affair never happened."

You have to consider the personal impact of harboring a lie of this magnitude. The negative impact will be on your heart. You will have to spend an enormous amount of energy and personal resources hiding and covering this up. This negatively impacts you as an individual as well as your marriage.

10. "My spouse will never find out."

Perhaps, but you have to live with the fear that the "other" person will share your secret at some point. Sin has a way of coming out. "But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out" (Numbers 32:23). What would be your spouse's reaction to finding out years down the road? Everything you've done to rebuild your marriage since the affair would be completely undone.

Marriage is all about walking in light and honesty. Infidelity is something that requires darkness and secrecy. It's sin, and that's why someone hiding an affair wants it to stay hidden. The book of Job explains it this way: "The eye of the adulterer also waits for the twilight, saying, 'No eye will see me.' . . . For deep darkness is morning to all of them; for they are friends with the terrors of deep darkness" (Job 24: 15,17).

I encourage you to break this pattern. Instead of hiding your sin, bring it into the light where everything can be made visible. The apostle Paul exhorts: "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you" (Ephesians 5:14). By being honest and revealing your secret, you have an amazing opportunity for freedom (John 8:32).

Bringing your secret into the light will not only create freedom, but it's an opportunity to rebuild, restore and renew your marriage. Infidelity doesn't necessarily mean your marriage is over, although that is a possibility. But I've personally witnessed countless couples that have a stronger marriage now because they worked through the pain of an affair together. When my friend told his wife about his unfaithfulness, it was an extremely painful season, but they persevered. Now they have an amazing marriage.

You will never fully understand God's strength working in you or the resiliency of your marriage until it's called upon. I'll end with The Message paraphrase of Romans 10:12-13 that reads: "Scripture reassures us, 'No one who trusts God like this — heart and soul — will ever regret it.' It's exactly the same no matter what a person's religious background may be: the same God for all of us, acting the same incredibly generous way to everyone who calls out for help. 'Everyone who calls, "Help, God!" gets help.'"

Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family and the general editor of Ready to Wed.

 

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