If you are in a relationship and you have done something that you consider cheating, the first question you need to ask yourself is, do I tell? If you have decided to tell your partner that you cheated, that is really just the beginning of a journey. Cheating may seem like the most inconsiderate, selfish thing you can do. If you intend to show your partner that you aren't all about being selfish and inconsiderate, you can start with the way you tell them you cheated.
There's no right way to navigate talking about cheating or infidelity, but here are some key questions to ask yourself, and tips on how to make the first telling about cheating as productive as possible.
- Clarify for yourself what you mean by cheating.
You think you've cheated, but is that based on a conversation you've had with your partner, or just your own definition of cheating? Start by being precise about what it is you did, and what about it felt like cheating. Eventually, your partner may want to interrogate you about your activities, so it can help to interrogate yourself first, both about the details but also about thoughts and feelings.
- Ask yourself what it meant, why you did it.
Don't assume that cheating is something that has a clear definition or clear reasons or consequences. Think about why you did this thing that you think of as cheating. Did you know it would feel like cheating before you did it? Do you think your actions have greater relevance for your life or relationship? These are things that can be much easier to think through with help. In many cases, it is better to seek support from a counselor or therapist, and not friends or family members who are going to have more at stake in your relationship succeeding or failing. Also, the fewer people that know about it, the less painful it may be for your partner (some people are very embarrassed by this and don't like the idea of other people knowing about it).
- Why do you want to tell? What's your motivation?
Telling or not telling is going to be your choice, and there is rarely a clear answer to the question of whether or not you should tell at all. But if you've decided to, then it's your responsibility to know why. Why do you want your partner to know about it? Again, don't go with the obvious "everyone would want to know" because that isn't always true, and anyway, how do you know that unless your partner told you? Understanding your own motivations for sharing this information can help you when you get into deeper conversations about the meaning of this with your partner.
- What do you want to say? What do you not want to say?
Think about how much you want to share with your partner. Decide in advance whether or not you're going to share details or names. This may change in the conversation, but it's helpful to think about it in advance. Same goes for talking about your feelings and your hopes for the future. If you're going to tell that you cheated, don't just leave them with that. Be prepared to talk about how you feel now, and what you're hoping for in the future. But remember that this first conversation is likely one of many, and there's no need to share everything all at once.
- Avoid assumptions.
The idea of compulsory monogamy leads us to assume many things, including that we know how someone will respond if we tell them we cheated on them. Assumptions are never a good idea because they are based entirely on what we think, and not on who our partner actually is. When we act in a way that is guided by our assumptions, we are, in a sense, dehumanizing our partner, by telling them how they should respond, instead of giving them the opportunity to respond from their own experience. Chances are your partner isn't going to be happy to hear that you cheated. But beyond that, try not to assume you know how they will react, and try to be present as they do react, so that you can respond to what's actually happening with them in the moment, and not what you anticipate or think should be happening.
- Consider the timing.
Have the first conversation when you both have time to talk. It may or may not be a long conversation, but it's considerate to give them the opportunity to have a long conversation if that's what they need. Don't have that first conversation when you're both away from family and friends, don't have it when your partner has a deadline coming up, or has to make dinner, or has family coming over. Also, think about what supports they may turn to and make sure you don't have the conversation at a time when all their friends are out of town or unreachable.
- Decide what you want to say in advance, but be flexible.
It may be safest to start by saying that you feel like you've done something that is cheating, and then talking a bit about your thoughts and feelings, without going right into the details. Of course, your partner may want the details and you should be prepared to respond either by offering them or by saying no. This may sound counter-intuitive, but even though you are the one that feels as if you betrayed your partner, you are not required to disclose details. Whether you do or don't may have an impact on the future of your relationship, but that's still your choice.
- Give them a lot of space.
Now that you've told them, you have to give them the respect and consideration of allowing them to have any initial response then need to have. This doesn't mean you need to accept verbal or physical abuse, but be prepared that it may come and have a plan for how you can keep yourself safe when they do react. There is a difference between saying they shouldn't react in a certain way and saying that you will allow them to treat you any way they want. They do have a right to an emotional, intellectual, and even physical response. Only they don't have the right to assault you (so hitting a pillow is fine, hitting you is not). Try to remember that first responses are just that -- first. Don't try to rush them to deal with it, or move to talk of forgiveness.
- Check in on what they need in the moment.
Offer to give them time alone, or to stay with them but not talk about it, or to talk about it. If you want the relationship to last, the only thing you can do is make it clear that you aren't going anywhere. At the same time, they shouldn't feel as if they have to manage your needs in the moment. So even though you may not want to give them space (for fear that they'll just fill it with anger and regret), if that's what they're asking for, do your best to respect their needs.
- Offer and/or suggest a counselor or therapist.
Many relationships survive what one or all people in the relationship consider cheating or infidelity. But few do it on their own. Having a counselor or therapist that you can each talk to, and one who you can talk with together, may be crucial in the relationship not only surviving, but getting better as you both grow.
- Establish rules about who talks to who.
This may or may not be for the first conversation, but soon after you tell your partner, you should talk about who you'll each talk to about this and who you won't. Your partner should get to decide who among family and mutual friends is told, and who does the telling. You both need to be able to get support to work through this, but it should be done with the acknowledgement that one person had no choice about how this happened, and they should be given more choice now about who finds out about it, when, and how.
- Talk about the next time you'll talk about it.
Your partner may not be in any mood to talk with you, or they may feel all talked out. But as the first conversation winds down, it's okay for you to ask about when you can talk about it next. Maybe you'll set a time where you won't talk about it? Maybe you'll agree to talk again in a few hours. Does only one of you get to bring it up, or can anyone bring it up? This is a concrete discussion point that can help eliminate some of the anxiety about what comes next, as it clarifies at least how the next conversation will happen.
- If you can, close with something about the future.
This isn't the kind of thing that will usually get resolved in one conversation. So looking for closure after you've just disclosed that you cheated is NOT going to get you a lot of bonus points. But, if your intention is for the relationship to last, then there's nothing wrong with ending the conversation by saying something about your hopes for the future. Avoid being too positive, and don't appear to be asking them for forgiveness right away. But making your positive intentions known may be appreciated, if not in the moment, some time down the road.