Updated 4-5-2018: We’ve received questions about confessing an affair, so we’ve added a video of Dr. Beam discussing how to approach this sensitive matter.
Live long enough and you learn this lesson: Anyone might do anything in certain circumstances. Just as bad people do bad things, sometimes good people do bad things; not just “minor” things, such as the proverbial white lie, but major things.
Presidents, governors, athletes, religious leaders, and a mass of others have been caught breaking their marriage vows. Research indicates men still outpace women in unfaithfulness, but if trends continue, that won’t be for long. Nearly as many wives stray as do husbands.
Except for same-gender liaisons, affairs involve at least one man AND one woman. If you carry the illusion that most trysts involve a married man and a single woman, you’re behind the times. Married women also stray for myriad reasons. With increased mobility, increased communication technology, the explosion of social interaction sites such as Facebook, and a number of other things, married women are presented with opportunities for temptation unheard of just fifty years ago. If those women are unhappy, disrespected, ignored, or emotionally abandoned, they become susceptible to temptation.
Maybe you heard a preacher quote 1 Corinthians 10:12 from the Bible. Maybe life itself taught you its message: If you think you’re above temptation, watch out. I like the way The Message renders it, “Don’t be so naive and self-confident. You’re not exempt. You could fall flat on your face as easily as anyone else.”
No one is above temptation.
Everyone is flawed. While temptations differ from person to person, crossing boundaries with someone other than your spouse appears to be one of the strongest. Reported statistics vary, but it appears that adultery affects about 60% of marriages. Sometimes it happens early in the marriage; sometimes late. In some cases it is the husband; in others, the wife. Statistically it appears it doesn’t matter whether people claim to be religious or not or whether they see themselves as good people or bad people.
Usually, I’m approached by the spouse who just discovered the unfaithfulness of the other. This morning I responded to several people on our marriage forum who found out their spouses were cheating and sought direction on what to do to save their marriages. However, this article isn’t for those whose spouse cheated; it’s for those who strayed. Specifically, I address it to people who have crossed boundaries with another person, but want to save their marriages.
Yes, it happens. Good people sometimes make very poor decisions and violate their beliefs and values. When they “wake up,” whatever the reason, they most often feel deep penitence and have strong desire to save their marriages. They live in fear that their spouses may discover what happened. They also live with guilt that haunts them to tell their spouses so they can get forgiveness and move on. However, they also live with the fear that if they tell their spouses, the spouses may not forgive and divorce will follow.
For this article, I begin with the assumption that if you strayed, you have decided to tell your spouse about your affair and are seeking direction. In most cases confessing is the best thing to do. However, if you aren’t sure if you should tell, I strongly suggest you read this article first.
If you are ready to tell your spouse, I recommend three main steps.
Step One — Preparation
There are several things you need to consider before telling your spouse. If you walk in and confess without having done introspection, you probably are going to create an even bigger problem.
Think before you act.
Your spouse will have questions – lots of questions. Expect to hear these, among others:
- How could you do that?
- What is wrong with me that I cannot fulfill you or be what you want?
- How long has this gone on?
- Who is it?
- Why him or her?
- What does s/he do for you that I don’t?
- Do you have any emails, messages, letters, gifts, etc. from that person? I want to see them!
- I want to know everything you did with him/her, every place you went together, and all kinds of other details. Will you tell me the absolute truth?
- Who else knows?
- How did this begin?
- Who ended it?
- When and how did you end it?
- Why did you end it?
If you have any hope of saving your marriage, have answers to all these questions before you start your confession. Tell the truth. Don’t embellish or add details not asked for, but make sure that you don’t deceive.
Yes, you must tell who it was. If you don’t, every person in your world is suspect. Your spouse deserves the right to focus on one person and not everyone you know.
Yes, you should answer every question about every detail. I suggest you preface each answer with, “Are you sure you want to know that? Once I tell you I cannot ‘untell’ you. I will be honest, but I don’t want to hurt you any more than I already have.” Anything you keep secret may very well be revealed later, to your detriment. It’s better to deal with the pain now rather than think you’ve made progress and later have some stray fact destroy all you accomplished.
If you’re smart, destroy all messages, emails, gifts, and the like. This is not to deceive your spouse but to keep him or her from having even more pain. No matter how much you explain, every recorded word or tangible object will deepen the hurt. Annihilate all of it completely, immediately.
If you don’t understand how you got into the affair, it’s time to find out. Get professional help if needed. It will take longer for your spouse to deal with this if you haven’t identified things about yourself that made you vulnerable, actions you took that led you into temptation, and other similar factors. If you can walk backwards in your mind to see how one thing led to another, you may be able to make a sort of timeline that explains your actions to you. This can help your spouse know that you’ve figured out your weaknesses and learned to protect yourself, and you personally will also have a much better chance of personal healing.
When your spouse starts the “what is wrong with me” type of questions, this is NOT the time to point out flaws. Your job at this point is to point out the good; your mate will need a great deal of reassurance.
Before you tell your spouse, make sure that you have stopped all contact with the person with whom you cheated. Be able to tell your mate that it is over completely and that you promise to have no interaction with the other person ever again. If that means you need to seek different employment, seek it with your spouse’s blessing. If it means changing churches, moving to a different area, or ending nonessential relationships, then do so.
If you think you can confess and your life will go on as usual, then you do not appreciate the seriousness of what you have done. It simply is not fair to put your mate into a situation where s/he has to continually face the other person, or worry about what happens when you come into contact with that person. All contact, in every manner and method, must be eliminated. Quickly.
Step Two — Telling
If you wait for the perfect time to confess your affair to your spouse, you probably will never find it. However, there are some guidelines that will help.
Pick a time and place where you have plenty of privacy and plenty of time. Children barging in, someone having to leave for an appointment, other people overhearing – are all bad. It’s better to have the kids in bed or visiting grandparents or friends. Don’t wait until late night when emotions aren’t as stable. Don’t pick a restaurant thinking that being in a public place might mitigate the response. This is a private matter and should be handled privately.
Start with the news that you are about to talk about something very important but very painful. Point out that you have only one motive for telling and no other – you wish to save your marriage. Remember that one because you’ll probably have to come back to it later. You may hear questions in the future such as, “Did you tell me just to hurt me?” “Did you tell me so I would divorce you so you could be with ____?” When those questions come, do NOT be defensive. Calmly repeat as often and as gently as needed, “I told you because I love you, am truly sorry for what I did, and want to save our marriage.”
Tell it in simple language in as few words as possible. This is not a time for long stories and CERTAINLY not the time to say anything that even remotely resembles justifying what you have done. You begin with, “I’m so very sorry” and then tell the basics. At the beginning and at every point where it is needed, say, “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I will do whatever it takes to make this marriage work.” Let his or her questions guide the conversation. Do not call what you did a “mistake” because it wasn’t. You knew what you were doing was wrong. Call it that. Wrong. Sin. Not a mistake. Avoid weak words such as “apologize” and stay with strong ones such as “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
Do not defend your behavior in any way. Especially do not react to your spouse’s emotions in kind. Take the anger, hurt, resentment, and such without reacting in any way other than to understand. Your spouse has a right to be angry and to say some things that you don’t want to hear. Tolerate it. You started this by having the affair; you take the consequences. As noted earlier, answer every question without embellishment or telling what wasn’t asked. Keep focus.
In no way say anything that appears to defend the other person. Even if your spouse is calling him/her all sorts of terrible names, this is not the time to disagree. Let your spouse vent without having any doubt that you understand the pain and that you are not in any way on anyone’s side but his/hers.
Stay in this conversation as long as your spouse wishes it to continue. However, end it or remove yourself if it appears violence is about to take place.
Repeat every so often how sorry you are, that you have no justification, that you ask for forgiveness, and that you want to do whatever it takes to make the marriage work if s/he is willing.
Step Three — Following Through
Penitent people do not make demands.
If you say anything to your spouse that indicates he or she has to forgive you if they are as religious as they claim, or anything similar, you will bury your marriage. If you truly are penitent and truly want to save your marriage, you take whatever grace and mercy is offered and do not demand more. Give your spouse time to deal with this. It may take days, weeks, or even months. Allow healing.
For at least six months – maybe longer – make sure that your spouse always knows where you are, what you are doing, and the like. Account for every penny. Give your spouse complete and total access to all emails, Facebook accounts, cell phones, or anything else. While no one can live forever under such minute scrutiny, you can and should live that way for a while as your spouse rebuilds trust in you.
Be proactive in making your marriage better. Perhaps you could see a counselor together, but make sure that counselor shares your beliefs and values and will work to strengthen your marriage. Read books together. Most importantly, make time to talk — really talk — with each other so that you can build a new methodology of communication that will draw you closer.
Many couples find a faster route to healing comes from attending our three-day workshop for marriages in crisis. If your marriage is in danger of separation or divorce, call us at (866) 903-0990 to speak with someone or use the form below to request more information about our Marriage Helper workshop for troubled marriages. We can help you save your marriage even in cases of infidelity, loss of trust, anger, sexual problems, and other issues. (If you’re thinking your spouse would never come, contact us by phone or the form below and we’ll tell you what others who felt the same way did to get their spouses there.) We will keep everything you tell us completely confidential. Our motivation is to help you determine if this workshop is right for your particular situation. We also offer solutions for couples who can’t attend the workshop.