Regardless of how you define cheating, if you are in a relationship and have done something that you yourself consider to be cheating, the question remains -- do you tell?
The way that you, and the people you turn to for advice, answer this question depends on many things. The values you were raised with; your ethics related to relationships, honesty, and disclosure; your religious and/or cultural beliefs and understandings of not only how you should act in general, but what is expected of you in this particular situation -- all of these things go into answering the question of whether you tell if you cheat.
With so many variables, the question of to tell or not tell can quickly become a conundrum that lasts for weeks, years, or even a lifetime. There may not be a right way to decide, but there is a wrong way, which is simply taking someone's advice or answer and following it without thinking it through for yourself. No one can tell you the right way for you to respond, which isn't to say that there won't be plenty of people who want to tell you the right way to respond.
So instead of giving you yet another instruction on what to do if you cheat, below you'll find some of the reasons people may choose to tell, and some reasons people may choose not to tell a partner that they have cheated. My hope is that these considerations will help you think it through for yourself and arrive at a decision that reflects your values, beliefs, and best intentions.
Reasons To TellIf you've had an explicit conversation with your partner about what counts as cheating in your relationship, and your partner told you they want to know if you cheat, and you agreed to tell them, then there is a clear expectation and obligation to tell.
If you know that unless you tell, it will be difficult for you to move forward in the relationship, you may need to tell. Wanting to make yourself feel better may not be a good reason to tell, but if you believe that keeping it to yourself will prevent you from being in the relationship and growing together as partners, you may have to tell.
If the activity that you consider cheating isn't completely over, and if keeping it a secret is going to keep the activities going, and you want to stop, then telling your partner may be an important part of changing your behavior.
If you have engaged in activities that now make sex with your partner risky, and you are not able to reduce the risk back to the same level it was at prior to your "cheating," then many people would say you have an obligation to tell.
Acting against a commitment you made is always, in part, a selfish act. And for this reason, telling your partner just to make yourself feel better can be more selfish than selfless. But if keeping it to yourself is causing severe and prolonged distress, and is a threat to your mental, emotional, or physical health, then telling could be necessary.
Finally, many people would say that if your partner is going to find out some other way about the thing you've done that you call cheating, you should tell them first. This includes a situation where you have done something with a friend, family member, or co-worker of your partner. Or if you know that the person (or people) you were with when you did what you're calling cheating, are going to talk about it publicly (which DOES include blogs and social networks). In most cases, no matter how painful it may be to find out about it, it is better to find out about it directly.
Of course, if you choose to tell, it behooves you to spend some time thinking about the best way to tell that you cheated.
Reasons To Not TellIf you've never had a conversation with your partner about what constitutes cheating, you need to ask yourself whether what you've done is something that you need to disclose. Ideas about compulsory monogamy lead many of us to assume that we know where monogamy ends and infidelity begins, but the truth is that most of us don't know what others think of these issues, and you may be surprised by where your and/or your partner's lines are drawn.
You need to ask yourself why you are going to tell. If what happened was something that happened once, that you have no intention of doing again, and that isn't going to create drama in your life or relationship, then why are you telling your partner about it? In some cases, the reason people tell is to make themselves feel better, to absolve guilt, to ask for forgiveness. But ask yourself whether that is a fair position to put your partner in, given that you have already acted selfishly. Put bluntly, there may be some situations where telling is worse than not telling.
For some people, regardless of how good a relationship is, regardless of whether there are children in the picture, and how it may affect surrounding family members and friends, anything that seems like a betrayal is a betrayal and must mean the end of the relationship. It may be that neither of you want the relationship to end, but if you tell, it will necessarily mean the end of the relationship. Fair or not, this decision is up to you, and not telling may prevent a greater pain and heartache. Of course, you need to be able to live with this responsibility and your decision.
Finally, despite the media and pop psychology drama that is always attached to the idea of cheating, for some people what gets called cheating actually feels relatively insignificant. It doesn't involve a deep emotional connection, it may have happened once, it may be something you have no interest in doing again. If this is the case, not telling may make as much sense as not disclosing that you lied about a book you read, or that you lied on a tax form.
The Bottom Line:
If the above points seem shallow or callous, they may not be for you. The truth is that cheating is rarely defined the exact same way by any two people, and you may have done something your partner considers cheating without even knowing it, and without ever telling. And then you may do something you think is cheating, that your partner would rather not even know about. This makes the idea of finding the "right" answer an impossibility. Instead, it's about finding an answer that allows you move forward in a way that minimizes pain and encourages growth. What that will look like depends entirely on you and your relationship partner or partners.