Being cheated on can be one of the most crushing, god-awful things you experience. But what about when you’re the cheater — how do you tell your romantic partner that you’ve betrayed his or her trust? Some people’s reaction to this question may run along the lines of “Why would you ever want to do that? That’s a stupid thing to do; telling that person will only cause pain!” Maybe some of those who feel this way have cheated and are trying to justify not confessing — based on the idea that they’re “protecting” the partner. And sure, there are situations when telling probably isn’t the best idea. But assuming that you’ve cheated and decided to confess, here’s your game plan.
First step: Ask yourself a few questions.
Question 1: What do you want to get out of this?
Before you approach your partner with this devastating news, understand your own motivations. Are you confessing because you are tired of feeling guilty? Do you want out of the relationship and hope this will be your exit? Do you want your partner to understand why you’ve been so closed-off lately? Do you hope you can work through it and stay together? There is no right answer to this question, but being aware of your goal makes it more likely to become a reality.
Question 2: What are you willing to do in order to rebuild trust?
If you’re going to confess, you are going to be in the doghouse (yes, that’s the clinical term). You will not be trusted to not cheat again, and that’s a shitty feeling — for both parties. Every second you are out of your partner’s sight, he or she may assume that you are getting acquainted with someone else’s genitals — even if in your mind, it was a one-time thing and will never happen again. Your partner will not be able to be inside your head to see how you actually felt about the cheating; he or she will just think that you had the best time of your life. Are you willing to start over in your relationship, finding new ways to connect and rebuilding trust and intimacy? Are you willing to court your partner again and to have deep, honest, painful talks? All of this may be necessary to get back what you lost.
Question 3: Could this happen again?
And don’t give me one of those “I don’t know; who knows what mysteries life can bring?” answers, because that’s bullshit. Have you addressed the issues within yourself and within your relationship that led you to stray? No partner ever “makes” a lover stray — it’s always solely the responsibility of the cheater. But sometimes, cheating is about one person working through personal stuff, and other times, cheating is a symptom of something awry within the relationship. Why won’t you cheat again? What have you changed within yourself? What can you change within your relationship? Some of these might be questions for both of you to discuss together, but it’s best to have some answers (that don’t involve blaming your partner for your actions) before going into that conversation.
Second step: Have the conversation.
Try not to confess to something major spontaneously, in the heat of an intense conversation. Maybe that kind of volcanic push has been necessary for you to spew the lava of truth in the past, but today, for this situation, you’ve thought through the questions above and realize that this needs to be a conversation rather than a shouted “That’s right! I slept with Rory!” in the middle of an argument about laundry. Find a calm, neutral day when there isn’t a ton of stuff going on; do not confess to cheating 20 minutes before your houseguests arrive, for example. (Of course, sometimes your partner finds out you cheated before you tell him or her, and you don’t have a choice about when the conversation happens, in which case you’ll have to skip directly to this step.)
Sit beside your partner, take his or her hand, and take responsibility for your actions. Here are a few tips for taking responsibility, culled from my years as a therapist:
- Don’t blabber. Keep your speech brief and to the point. Do not give a ton of sordid details, but be specific about what exactly happened. Your partner will probably ask questions about it anyway.
- Do show emotion, if you’re feeling it.
- Do not, under any circumstances, blame the other person for what you did. It may be true that problems within the relationship are what led you to stray, but you still strayed, and now is not the time to play the blame game. Conversations about that come later. Right now is about you coming clean.
- Do tell your partner how terrible you feel, but do not expect a ton of sympathy.
- After the first round of confessing and processing, give your partner some space. He or she may want to yell at you, or hug you, or get the hell away from you for a while. Give your partner what he or she needs.
- Do think about how you’d feel if this were being confessed to you.
Hey. I need to tell you something that is going to upset you a lot, but this relationship means a lot to me, and I think it’s important that we be on the same page. I cheated on you. If you want the details, I will provide them, and if you don’t want to know anything, that’s fine too. I am so, so sorry. I care about you very much and I feel terrible about what I did. I am so sorry that I hurt you.
After this script, you may spend the next several hours discussing everything, or you may be thrown out of the house. Be ready for either scenario.
Third step: Begin to move on.
If you think the best solution after cheating is to break up, open up that conversation, and remember that it’s a conversation — and not just you storming out. Closure is something that you attain within yourself, sure, but when someone cheats on you, a little bit of interpersonal closure is nice. If you decide to stay together, be aware that after you confess something terrible, your partner may feel weirdly good about leaving you in the doghouse for a while. And, for a while, he or she deserves a chance to do that. Your partner has a right to his or her anger. (Obviously, you do not deserve any physical or emotional abuse, and you should take steps to make yourself safe if you find this happening.) If you want to stay with your partner in the long run, you will take his or her anger in stride and realize that this is part of the process of comprehending what happened.
If a hurricane knocks over a house, there are many steps to rebuilding. You first have to tear down the rest of the house in other words, endlessly discuss what went wrong. Then, you have to clear the land make the decision to start over — and figure out new, stronger floor plans, discussing concrete steps of how trust can be built in this new relationship. Then, you have to build. If, after a few weeks, your partner is still icing you out, it may be time to ask when the two of you can start rebuilding trust again. Slow, vulnerable steps are the only way to make progress and rebuild. Cheating can kill a relationship, but it doesn’t have to.