Tough Talks

How To Tell Someone You Cheated On Them

There isn’t a good way to deliver the news. But there is a best way.

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No one likes to deliver bad news, particularly to a spouse. Whether it’s a diagnosis or loss of money, the admission can make you look weak or foolish. But somehow the words come out because you know that’s the best way forward.

But when the news is that you cheated, the path is rockier. There’s no sharing this load. You want to do anything but say “I cheated on you.” The words are going to hurt more since the issue isn’t from a mistake or poor planning.

“It’s a consequence of a choice,” says Bill Zilinski, a therapist in DuPage county in Illinois.

Cheating is difficult but some guys aren’t bugged by it. They can compartmentalize and go on about their lives just fine. But many others can’t pretend that nothing happened. They’re also afraid to speak the truth, so they live with the secret, but not well. In truth, they want to be found out, and their eventual “confession” becomes all about them.

“They feel so guilty, they just want to vomit on you,” says Silvia Dutchevici, licensed clinical social worker and president of Critical Therapy Center in New York City.

That’s not what you want to happen — and it’s certainly not what your partner deserves. So how do you tell someone you cheated on them? While it’s going to cause destruction and alter the course of your relationship, the admission is important. And, while there isn’t a good way to deliver the news, there is a best way. It’s not easy. It takes honesty, patience, and a lot of humility, but rather than waiting to be cornered, you can start the process and have a chance at salvaging your relationship. Here’s what to say.

How To Say You Cheated: Starting The Conversation

We hate to break it to you but there’s no best place or best time. The conversation will require a lot of discussion, so don’t try to shoehorn it in. Your primary directive is to accept responsibility. No blaming. No excuses. No, “You were always working late,” or, “You’re constantly focusing on the kids.” The quicker you take ownership, the better the chances the emotional pain shrinks.

“You gotta start being honest right now,” Zilinski says.

It helps, per Dutchevici, to address the underlying breach. You need, in some way, to clearly say, “I cheated on you. I know it was a betrayal and broke our agreement. And I know I may never be forgiven.”

That last line is essential. It’s not on the other person to make it better, and you’re not expecting absolution right then or at any time, but if you want it, you can end with, “How can I fix this?,” knowing that your spouse might not have an answer.

Sincerity — true sincerity — is a crucial part of this. If you think you’ll cheat again or you’re just talking to get out of trouble or not lose your kids, save your breath. But if you really mean what you say, after you speak, you need to remain present and accept your partner’s reaction.

If their reaction is silence, sit there and take it. If it’s anger, sit there and take it. If it’s sadness, sit there and take it. You take anything without question. “Whatever that person feels is okay,” Dutchevici says.

Another important thing to remember? They are not on your timetable. You’ve given the news, but your partner has to process it and shock might not allow that at first. It’s likely that you’ll continue the conversation over the following days. You must accept that as well.

And most likely, you’ll get questions. How long? Do you love this person? Why? This is where it gets tricky. You need to be transparent, but what you say can make the pain worse, Zilinski says. Dutchevici suggests that before you answer, ask, “Do you really want to know the details? How would this information help you?” You’ve made your partner pause and consider whether to proceed. If you do, you always want to look for ways to validate feelings and reiterate that, “Yes, I know this was wrong.”

How To Rebuild Trust After An Affair

This is the next step and another process that isn’t quick, nor guaranteed. Dutchevici says you can lay yourself open by saying, “Ask me anything you want,” or “Call me at work anytime.” You can also take the step of letting your partner check your phone and computer at will for the next month or two.

But there’s no specific number for anything, so you have to willingly go along. The main thing is that you try. You show yourself to be accountable and not keep secrets. Eventually, things may start to get better. The hurt doesn’t vanish, but the intensity lessens and the shift is one of tone. Rather than getting slammed, your partner says things like, “I’m struggling with this.”

And it is a struggle, because your spouse has to make the choice of whether or not to trust you. “It’s a leap of faith,” Dutchevici says. “It’s saying, ‘I’m willing to have my heart broken again.’”

Moving Forward With Help

If you remain together after the infidelity and try to work through things, you might find that you receive the same questions and have the same arguments months later. You know you did the cheating, but it feels like you’re doing all you can to repair things and nothing works.

Your partner might be stuck and just reopening the wound. While it sounds like the barber recommending a haircut, Dutchevici and Zilinski say that seeing a therapist can help. An outside, unbiased listener can often get you to hear each other, because most of the time what’s happening is “You’re not listening. You’re interpreting,” Dutchevici says.

The key is to get someone good. It sounds obvious, but not all couples therapists are equal. An easy test is to ask, “What’s your goal for us?” If the answer is to keep you together, find someone else. A therapist should help you communicate and figure out what’s best, nothing more. You both should like the person. You might not always love the work that’s being done, but you should walk out feeling that you’re both being challenged. “You’ve been asked questions you didn’t have answers to,” Dutchevici says. “Now I’m actively engaging in a different way with myself.”

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