In today’s society telling the truth has virtually become a compulsive act. We are confessing on talk shows, or confessing in the “Diary Room” on reality shows, where the name connotes privacy but the genre denotes full disclosure. We are conditioned by the psychological community to feel that we cannot really get through a traumatic event or a problematic personality trait without talking it out ad nauseum, for the rest of our lives if necessary.
But is there a time and place for honesty and the truth? At what point does honesty become a selfish act of self-involvement and purging of guilt? Can a relationship bear the burden of full disclosure all the time?
I was having a conversation with a friend who had cheated on his girlfriend. He was in a really intense college program and spent a ton of time with his new classmates. Consequently, he spent less time with his live-in girlfriend of 5 years, which caused constant strain on their relationship, and constant pressure on him. He felt like he was drowning—the pressure at school was immense, the pressure to save his relationship was immense, and to top it off, he felt as though he was slipping out of sobriety and into his old drinking ways to try and deal with it all.
It got to the point where he was sleeping on my couch for a few weeks, giving his girlfriend space and trying to figure out what he wanted. He eventually realized that he really wanted to stay with his girlfriend. It wasn’t until months after they had sorted through everything that he confessed to me that when they were having problems, he had cheated on his girlfriend with a friend at school. It had been one night, he had slid off the booze wagon (which he quickly got back on) and had sex with this other girl.
The girl he slept with was a friend and was not looking for anything beyond the one-night stand. It was chalked up to one of those “crazy nights.” Now, the question was: should he tell his girlfriend, who he had finally worked things out with and was re-committed to? He hadn’t mentioned it while they were sorting things out because he knew that would be the end of things and he didn’t want to lose her. He knew that he didn’t have feelings for this other girl and that it was a one-time deal. He also didn’t want to be categorized as “once a cheater, always a cheater” because he hadn’t cheated on his girlfriend before and truly didn’t feel that he would again.
When you cheat on someone, you experience a ton of guilt. You know that you betrayed the trust that someone you care about put in you and it makes you feel lower than a snake’s belly. This is where confession comes in. In the Catholic Church, confession was incorporated so that people could purge their sins, put them on God’s shoulders and start fresh. When we confess infidelities to a loved one, we are hoping for the same process: purging our souls of the heavy burden of guilt and starting fresh and with a clean conscience.
But how realistic is that?
How many relationships do you know in which one of the partners has cheated and confessed, and it has caused an overwhelming feeling of relief for both parties. On the contrary, it provides relief for the cheater and often just serves to share the burden of this poisonous information. Your self-loathing abates because her anger and hurt takes its place in some ways. In effect, she hates you enough for both of you.
When deciding whether or not you are going to be honest about an infidelity with your mate, you have to first be very honest with yourself. Ask yourself some of these questions:
Did your affair put her in physical risk of contracting something (STD)?
If you cheated on your girlfriend and didn’t practise safe sex, then the most selfish thing you can do is not tell her. It is your own decision to risk your own life, but you have no right to risk hers. Nothing says “I cheated” like a brand new case of herpes sprouting out of nowhere. Can you imagine infecting her with AIDS and having to face the fact that you did that to someone you love because you were too cowardly to tell them you cheated?
Are you telling her to alleviate your own guilt or because you feel you owe her honesty if the relationship is to work out?
If the answer is the former, then maybe you should be very honest with yourself about how selfish that is. If this is a one-time thing and you don’t think that she’d end the relationship over it anyways, why should she have to bear this burden with you?
Would you want to know?
If you feel that you would want to know because it is the only respectful thing, then you should tell her. Treat her how you would wish to be treated.
Is this the first and only time you have cheated?
If not, then you have to tell her. This is clearly a developing pattern and there is either something wrong with the relationship that the two of you need to figure out, or else there is something bugging you and you need to quit pretending you can stay in this monogamous relationship and deal with it.
Are you willing to take the gamble that if she finds out, she will most likely end the relationship?
If she finds out that you cheated and that you didn’t tell her, good luck salvaging the relationship. It will be enough of a betrayal that you cheated, but the fact that you didn’t even respect her enough to tell her will be a double-whammy, and possibly the end of you. Even if the relationship continues, it will be hobbled for quite some time.
It is difficult to salvage a relationship that has been marred by infidelity. The problem is that when we get into relationships, we do so with the blind faith that we can trust our heart with another person. Once that faith has been shown to be unwarranted, it is difficult to get it back. Deciding whether or not to tell your partner about a single infidelity may just have something to do with deciding for yourself if you are worthy of that faith in this relationship, and realizing that you need to spend the rest of your time proving that you are.