First, though, it’s important to realize that the concept of cheating itself can mean different things to different people. It’s often described as being physically intimate with someone who isn’t your partner [or one of your partners, if you’re in a non-monogamous relationship). But, that’s just one example. “Cheating refers to any act outside of the boundaries of your relationship agreement and that, in turn, damages the trust in your relationship,” says Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST, director and sex therapist at The Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center.
“Cheating refers to any act outside of the boundaries of your relationship agreement and that, in turn, damages the trust in your relationship.” —psychotherapist Jesse Kahn, LCSW, CST
Often, it looks like a line-crossing of the sexual or emotional variety, like having a physical relations with someone else or exchanging flirty DMs with someone, respectively. But, it can also refer to playful intellectual ping-pong, or even financial lies. Because it can be so broad, it’s helpful for you and a partner(s) to clearly define what you each consider as cheating in order to keep anyone from accidentally hurting anyone else.
Once you have that foundational understanding within the scope of your relationship, you can better gauge the best way to handle an instance of cheating, should you need to. Below, relationship therapists outline the scenarios in which you should consider telling your partner you cheated, as well as when you might opt against doing so.
The argument for telling your partner that you cheated
You could likely regurgitate this side of the argument in your sleep: If you cross a boundary or break a rule that you and a partner have mutually established regarding cheating, you should tell your partner in order to maintain the integrity of the relationship. That is, assuming that your partner entered a relationship with you with an understanding of what is and isn't permissible, they deserve to know if you’ve crossed that line, so they can make an informed decision about whether they want to move forward with the relationship. (Plus, as Kahn notes, if that's the case, it’s often best if they find out from you rather than from someone else.)
That moral argument applies all the more in a few concrete situations, according to therapist Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC, co-creator of therapy practice Viva. In particular, that’s when you’ve put (or might have put) your partner’s health at risk vis-a-vis exposure to a sexually transmitted infection (or another contagion) that you contracted during the cheating, he says.
Two important addendums here: First, the only way to know a person’s current STI status is to ask, because STIs don’t look any certain way. So, if you’ve had unprotected sex with someone who isn’t your partner, and you didn’t confirm their negative STI status, it’s essential to inform your partner of that, so you can both get tested before having sex again. Second, it’s actually illegal in many states not to disclose your status of certain STIs or potential exposure to them, which makes it all the more necessary to let your partner know if there’s any chance you might be putting them at risk.
Another instance when disclosure of infidelity is necessary, according to Caraballo, is if the cheating will impact your relationship in any substantial way. For example, if the cheating has led to you becoming pregnant, or getting another person pregnant, that qualifies as a situation where you need to let your partner know, he says. Similarly, if there will be any lingering social implications of your actions, such as ostracizing or dynamic changes in family or friend groups, you should disclose the cheating, he says.
Beyond honoring their sexual and social health, there are also emotions-based reasons you should tell your partner you cheated. For example, revealing this information could be the gateway to you both identifying and fixing underlying issues in the relationship. This is especially true if you're able to pinpoint why you cheated. For instance, what unmet need led you astray? As Caraballo explains, “infidelity is most often a symptom of a problem within the individual or the relationship rather than the problem itself.”
The purpose of searching for that root cause isn’t to place the blame of your cheating on your partner or your past. Instead, it’s to help you use a bad thing to strengthen your relationship against future flubs. “Individual or couples’ therapy can also provide a great deal of support and insight to help address those deeper issues,” Caraballo says.
2 scenarios when it may be best to not tell your partner you cheated
1. You were going to break up with them anyway
Maybe whatever form of cheating in which you took part clarified to you that your current relationship is missing something crucial. Whatever leads you to to conclusion that you're going to break up, though, if that's the route you're taking, you don’t necessarily need to disclose the cheating.
“Whatever you decide, make sure that you're making the choice that is most helpful to your partner.” —therapist Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC
“There are a lot of reasons why you might feel inclined to tell your partner you cheated even if you’re going to break up, such as guilt or the belief that it is the ‘right’ thing to do,” says Kahn. But before you do, they recommend asking yourself: Am I telling my soon-to-be-ex partner that I cheated on them in order to help them or to help me? “Whatever you decide, make sure that you're making the choice that is most helpful to your partner,” says Caraballo.
2. It really was a one-time thing
Because all cheating fundamentally reflects a breach of trust, creating a moral hierarchy of different kinds of cheating is a moot activity. That said, cheating one time, feeling bad about it, and never doing it again is generally the least-bad kind of cheating, according to the experts. So, “the case can be made for not telling your partner over a one-time indiscretion,” says Caraballo.
That said, if you cheated—even if it was just once—he recommends finding a safe space to talk through the cheating with a trusted friend, loved one, or therapist. “In the aftermath of infidelity, you need a space to learn more about why you did what you did and get the kind of non-judgmental support you need to heal and work through any underlying personal problems,” he says.
But ultimately, “there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to sharing infidelity,” says Caraballo. “Your decision around disclosure has to be one you know you can live with.”
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