The reality that cheating doesn’t stop once a couple is married, was brought back to life when the Ashley Madison scandal made national news a couple months ago.  The “big reveal” of Ashley Madison clients forced couples to talk about infidelity with each other and many of the users of the site were faced with the dilemma of whether to admit infidelity to their partner and even harder, how they should explain to their spouses that they were cheating. 

According to reports, 1 in 6 married men in the U.S. were on Ashley Madison.  While reliable statistics of general infidelity are scarce, many experts have determined that this statistic is actually lower than the general measures of infidelity.  According to research conducted at The University of Chicago, about 20% of men and 14% of women who have ever been married have had sex outside of their marriage

While the risk of infidelity being disclosed has always been a risk (think a nosy neighbor or friend), in our current, technologically advanced society, the probability that a cheating scandal will be exposed is at an all time high.  As the Ashley Madison scandal showed us, the internet has become the new “lipstick on the collar” phenomenon of the past. 


Common Ways for an Affair to Be Exposed

A study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2001 showed that there are four main ways that affairs typically come to light.  These four ways are:

  1. Unsolicited partner discovery – the partner who had the affair admits to it without prior interrogation or suspicion from his or her partner.
  2. Solicited partner discovery – the partner who had the affair admits to it, but only after being suspected and questioned by his or her spouse.
  3. “Red-handed” discovery – a spouse catches his/her partner in the act of cheating
  4. Unsolicited third party discovery – a spouse is told about a partner’s affair by another person.


Not All Forms of Disclosure are Created Equal

The study also found that some forms of discovery are better for a relationship than others.  The least damaging to a relationship is when the person who had the affair admits to it without any prompting from the spouse.  The most damaging to a relationship is when a partner confronts the other partner about the infidelity.  Therapists say this is the most damaging because when a spouse has to confront his or her partner about an affair, it increases the pain. 

Experts say that disclosing an affair in a sincere, respective, and genuine manner can actually help improve a marriage.  Usually, if a partner is having sex outside of the marriage, that means he or she is unhappy with the relationship.  Problematic relationships are less likely to heal without honest and open communication. 


Best Ways to Come Clean About an Affair

Before deciding to come clean about an affair, you should discuss the issue with your family law attorney because any disclosures that are made may have ramifications on future proceedings.  However, if this does not concern you, you should consider the following methods of disclosure.

First, experts agree that you need to end the affair with integrity.  This means that you need to be respectful to the person you had the affair with and that you are clear with yourself and the other person that the affair is officially over. 

Next, you must tell your spouse that you would like to talk to them and then it is necessary to find a convenient time and place to have the conversation.  Dr. Nelson, a marriage therapist in Connecticut, suggests addressing three key areas of the affair: 1) what kind of relationship you had, 2) what kind of sex you had, and 3) what secrets you kept from your spouse during the affair. 

While it is important to talk about the affair, most therapists agree that it is best to stay away from too many explicit details about the affair even if your spouse asks for them.  Overly confessing may temporarily lessen your guilt, but it will only further traumatize your spouse. 

Therapists also agree that you should not apologize right away.  It is better to apologize after you have been able to hear your partner out and hear their reaction to the affair.  This ensures that you actually have some empathy for what you have done to your partner and therefore able to sincerely apologize for what happened. 

Finally, experts agree that you should outline what you are willing to do in the immediate feature, whether that simply be committing yourself to the marriage, or committing to go to therapy.  Make sure whatever you agree to is reasonable because it is extremely important to make sure you are able to honor and fulfill your promise. 

All therapists agree that if you focus on the present and the future, the conversation and relationship will be much more satisfying and effective.  Since you cannot change the past, most agree that focusing on the past will not help anything and may even make things worse in some cases.

H. Van Smith
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Trusted Virginia Attorney Serving Richmond to Williamsburg