by Peggy Vaughan
(based on a previous Question)
The "common wisdom" among most people is that if an affair is over and won't happen again, that you shouldn't tell your spouse. In fact, many counselors also share this view. But most people are only considering the obvious problems with tellingfailing to also recognize the problems in NOT telling.
There is no short answer to this question. (Frankly, it's not a simple matter of "to tell or not to tell." It's more a case of "when, why and how" to tell.) Since I addressed this issue in some length in my book, The Monogamy Myth, I'm including an excerpt below:
The advice most people offer to a person considering telling their spouse about their affair is, "Don't." Surprisingly, this attitude of secrecy is reinforced by the standard advice from marriage counselors, therapists, and advice columnists. Many of them are adamant in their belief that a person shouldn't tell their partner about an affair...
The caution against the risk of telling about an affair ignores the fact that there's also a risk if it's not disclosed. In marriages where affairs are kept secret, certain topics of discussion are avoided because the deceiving partner fears being discovered and the other is reluctant to appear suspicious. This causes many relationships to be dominated by dishonesty and deception. It's doubtful that a couple can keep something like this hidden for the rest of their lives without a terrible strain developing. A large part of the high divorce rate may be due to the alienation caused by the dishonesty inherent in affairs, even if the affairs are never confronted.
So while some relationships come apart from not being ready to deal with the truth, many more relationships come apart because of the effort to keep an affair hidden. And even if the marriage doesn't end in divorce, it's likely to become empty and meaningless because of so much secrecy. It may be that there is no escape from the pain, regardless of whether the affairs are kept hidden or exposed. Often it's just a matter of time before either the marriage became a pretense or the truth comes out, along with the pain it brings.
This is not meant to diminish the pain of finding out. But one of the advantages of volunteering the information about an affair instead of waiting until it's unexpectedly discovered is that it allows a degree of preparation that can significantly reduce the pain of finding out. The person doing the telling has a responsibility to take steps to increase the likelihood that the disclosure will lead to building a closer relationship rather than tearing it apart.
First of all, they need to be motivated by a desire to improve the relationship, not a desire to unload their feelings of guilt. They also need to be prepared to hang in and work through their partner's reactions to the information, regardless of what those reactions may be. And it's important that they plan the timing of their disclosure of an affair. They need to consider such things as their partner's general level of self-esteem, what other issues or pressures their partner is currently dealing with, and whether their partner has a clear understanding that they are loved. The first task of the person who plans to disclose an affair is to attend to these needs of their partner to be able to hear what they have to say.
Perhaps the most critical factor in determining the impact of this disclosure is having an understanding of affairs in the context of society as a whole. For instance, if a person is told of their mate's affairand they see it only as a personal reflection on them and strictly as a personal failure on the part of their matethey're likely to feel the devastation that has been so typical of this situation.
However, if a person is told of their mate's affairand they recognize it is not a reflection on them personally and that their mate is not solely responsible for its happeningthey're much more likely to be able to hear it and deal with it in a way that leads to improving their lives in the long run.
As more professionals include this societal perspective in their work with couples seeking their help, they may be more inclined to encourage responsible disclosure as a way of working toward building a relationship based on honesty. There are indications that some therapists have come to believe in the need to overcome our secretive way of dealing with affairs. One therapist who supports the importance of honesty is Frank Pittman, author of Private Lies.
Another professional who has written extensively about the importance of honesty is John Powell. In his book, The Secret of Staying in Love, he makes a compelling argument for honesty as the basis for achieving the kind of relationship most people want.
Unfortunately, most professionals who discourage disclosure of an affair also discourage too much discussion once an affair is discovered.
(End of excerpt from The Monogamy Myth)
For future reference, a very short overview of the above thoughts is included in one of my Articles about Affairs permanently posted on the site.
And for more on the final statement in the above quote from the book about "professionals who also discourage much discussion once an affair is discovered,"