Dear Dr. Mike,
I cheated on my husband about two years ago and I’ve gone back and forth with feeling very guilty about what I did and being okay with my plan to keep it a secret. It was a one time very very stupid moment that I regret and it happened with a coworker on a business trip. I still see my coworker but I put a stop to things right after that night. He’s also married and his wife doesn’t know either. My close friends have all told me to not saying anything (and most articles on the Internet pointed me in that direction) but after all this time I’m still having a hard time letting it go.
My relationship with my husband is great in so many ways and I couldn’t imagine ever being apart from him. I just feel so dishonest and like such a phony, and the kinder and sweeter he is to me and the kids, the worse I’ve felt about myself. I actually really don’t know why I did it, and I don’t want to make excuses for myself, but I often drink too much and even blacked out the night I cheated. The way I see it is if I tell my husband I will hurt him and knowing him he will divorce me. This will hurt not just me and him but the kids and why should they suffer?
If I don’t tell my husband then I’m the only one who suffers and we stay married and that seems best for me and for everyone else. Right? I’d love some advice on my situation.
Concerned Wife in Loudoun
Dear Concerned Wife in Loudoun,
I am reminded of the old saying that, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” which, as you’ve learned, is actually not true for big moments. Sure you’ve been able to successfully keep the secret of your isolated sexual indiscretion from your husband, but the experience remains with you today and at a high cost emotionally.
The reason I think you’re having such a hard time letting go and moving on two years after that night is because of the strong love you have for your husband and your family. I can only imagine that the guilt you feel over what you did has been truly horrible for you.
Unfortunately, there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to your moment or problem, or at least one that will make all of your upset go away or disappear. Your friends will certainly give you their advice, and so too will Google and I, but at the end of the day, only you can decide what’s best for you and your husband and family.
Certainly, an argument could be made for you to continue to keep your secret and for you to continue to work through your emotional conflicts. With that approach, as you shared, only you have been the one to suffer in your family, and with enough time and space, perhaps you’ll learn to accept what happened and let go of the pain all on your own. By keeping the event a secret from your husband, for the past two years, you and your husband have remained married and your family has remained intact; you’re all continuing to enjoy the love and security of being together.
That, as you also shared, could all go away if you were to tell your husband what you did; he would likely become hurt and angry and he may even leave you, and your children would likely also be negatively impacted by whatever would come next – fighting, separation and/or divorce. As you know as a mother, children are perceptive, and at the very least, your children would likely become aware of the pain both your husband would be experiencing together if you told him about your infidelity.
But, an argument could also be made for telling your husband what happened, come what may.
In God’s eyes, marriage is a sacred covenant between a husband and a wife, and protecting the sanctity of your marriage is you shared duty based in love, honor and commitment. And whether your wedding was a religious or civil ceremony, being faithful was an expectation and understanding you both had for one another when you exchanged vows and joined in your life together. Your husband is half of your partnership, yet by not knowing what happened, he’s completely in the dark. He may believe that the foundation of his marriage is strong, when in fact it now has some very real cracks.
Doesn’t your husband arguably have a right to know about those cracks? Isn’t it arguably unfair for you to keep him from knowing the truth since it’s his life too? Shouldn’t it arguably be his choice to remain in the marriage or not and not yours by keeping your infidelity from him?
It seems that you and your husband had a fully whole relationship prior to that night; and your shared hearts had all of the important ingredients for true happiness — trust, honesty commitment and love. But now you have only the appearance of that, which appreciatively, has been extremely difficult for you. And while some of the important ingredients remain in your marriage (e.g., your love for him and his for you), you now carry some painful ones in your heart — deception, manipulation and lies.
While it’s clear to me, based on what you’ve shared, that the status quo isn’t working for you, it’s also apparent that your ambivalence has, and continues to, cause you great pain. In my experience, ambivalence is often rooted in emotional conflict, so perhaps there were problems for you (and in the marriage) before that night? The idea that your relationship with your husband is great isn’t consistent with your drinking to excess, blacking out and engaging in sexual relations with another man.
So, what do I think you should do? I recommend that you seek out the services of an experienced psychologist who can help you work through the complexities of your situation toward the best possible decision and outcome. A good therapist will also help you understand yourself and your struggles better, and he or she may wish to include your husband in that work. I think you already know that this is perhaps one of the most important moments in your life, and thus, I don’t think you should go it alone or rely solely on the informal advice of your friends, Google or me in getting it right. Take your time, work on yourself and what you need to do will become clearer to you.
Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Psy.D, is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services, a private mental health practice based in Loudoun County. He is a regular contributor to the Tribune.