You’re in a committed relationship but you made one of the biggest mistakes possible. You had an affair with someone else and it’s killing you inside. You know you should be honest and own up to what you did, but you don’t know how to break the news. Here’s how to tell your partner you cheated and hopefully salvage your relationship.
Should you tell your partner if you were unfaithful?
While honesty is generally always the best policy, deciding to tell your partner you cheated is potentially life-changing. You may wonder if it’s even necessary. For instance, if it happened a long time ago or was truly a one-time mistake that happened while on holiday or under specific circumstances, you might think it’s better off forgotten.
As relationship coach and sexologist for pleasure product brand Biird, Suzannah Weiss, tells Bolde, it may be better to keep your affair to yourself in certain circumstances. “Before doing so, think about what there is to gain for you and for your partner from you confessing. If you are doing it just to get the weight of the secret off your shoulders, but there is no benefit for your partner, you should reconsider confessing,” she advises.
However, she adds that in many situations, it’s better to be honest about the betrayal because your partner deserves to know.
“There are some situations where it’s better to tell, such as if you don’t see yourself being able to be monogamous and want to talk about opening the relationship (even then, there are ways to do that without saying you cheated),” Weiss explains.
“Some people think it’s always the best choice to tell your partner you cheated because then they can make an informed decision about whether to stay in the relationship. It’s really a personal choice, but you should consider what information will hurt your partner vs. help them.”
How to tell your partner you cheated
- Pick the right time. Let your partner know that you need to have a serious conversation. However, don’t spring this on them when they’re stressed or busy. Instead, pick a time when you can truly sit down and chat without time limitations or other distractions.
- Be honest and candid. This is not the time to play down what you’ve done or try to make it less serious than it is. You have to be honest and direct. “The only thing worse than the infidelity is more cover-up about it once you start sharing. If you minimize, they will keep pulling for more. And every bit you give more will make them push for more,” DePompo says. “They can become traumatized that they cannot trust they have it all. They likely need it all to understand and start healing.”
- Be prepared for the worst. “Being prepared for the worst case and having a plan for it will help bring that anxiety down,” says California-based clinical psychologist Dr. Paul DePompo. “Remember you can cope regardless of your fear of losing them. There are no free rides (literally or figuratively) and your anxiety or pain about hurting them is part of the deal. If you can accept this and own this, it will increase your credibility that you are remorseful.”
Things not to do when breaking this news
- Avoid playing the blame game. Maybe you felt neglected in the relationship, or perhaps you suspected your partner of being unfaithful. This is not an excuse for your behavior, and it’s not your partner’s fault. “There is never a good reason to cheat from your partner’s perspective. You may have felt lonely, misunderstood, and angry. Maybe you have a mental health diagnosis that increases your impulsivity. Nevertheless, you could have controlled it and made other choices,” DePompo says. “So state this. For example, ‘I was hurt, but that does not mean I should have done____.’ Part of the healing will be your partner seeing their small contribution and making some small changes that influenced you to you going outside the relationship, but this was never their fault, and it is a conversation for a later time. “
- Don’t go into too much detail. While you should be honest and straightforward, your partner doesn’t need or want to know the nitty-gritty details of your affair. Avoid telling them exactly what happened when you cheated, things you did with the other person, etc. This will only end up hurting them more, and the infidelity alone is bad enough on its own.
What to expect when you tell your partner you cheated
Your partner will very likely be extremely upset when you tell them you cheated. This is not only because you betrayed them by being unfaithful but also because they may believe it’s a reflection of their own attraction or worthiness. “Some people get triggered by a partner cheating because they think it means they were not attractive enough, not good enough in bed, or otherwise not enough,” Weiss explains. “You can prevent this from happening by emphasizing that this decision was about you. Sharing your motivation may be helpful, without going too much into detail about the incident itself.”
It’s important that you avoid getting defensive if your partner has an extreme reaction when you tell them you cheated. Instead of getting up in arms, recognize and acknowledge that what you did was wrong. Validate their feelings by taking responsibility for your actions. Leave the ball in their court when it comes to what happens next, even if that means the relationship is over. (And know that they may very well decide to leave you as a result.) However, if you want to stay together, do let them know you’re willing to do whatever it takes.
What to do after the conversation is over
- Be willing to have follow-up conversations. Despite how uncomfortable it might be, your partner needs to process what’s happened. That means they may have other questions they need you to answer. You must be willing to do this. “Allow your partner to repeat questions and be open for as long as you can. When you get overloaded, ask for a specific time to talk about it again within a short window of time. Eventually, if you are both working at rebuilding, make time to talk about it and time to rebuild outside of it,” DePompo advises.
- Have patience and allow your partner to heal. While it’s possible that your relationship can recover from cheating, it’s not going to be an overnight process. Breaking someone’s trust is often irreparable. When it’s not, it still takes time and effort to rebuild. If you want to stay together, you will need to do the work to show them that you’re committed to being with them. Don’t try to rush them or the process.
- Consider couples therapy. While you shouldn’t suggest this right away, it may be a consideration down the line. Working with a licensed professional can help provide unbiased feedback as well as tools and strategies to get your relationship back on the right track.
- Accept that it may be over. Your partner might not break up with you right away after you tell them you cheated, but they may eventually decide they can’t continue the relationship. That’s their decision and you must respect it. You chose to be unfaithful and every action comes with consequences.
- Forgive yourself and offer yourself some grace. You’re only human and people make mistakes. “Even if your partner is not able to continue the relationship with you, that doesn’t mean you aren’t cut out to ever have a healthy relationship,” Weiss says. “It means you had a learning and growing experience, one that can make you a better partner in the future if you choose to do the work of examining why it happened and how you can prevent it from happening again.”