If you've strayed, should you tell?

January 21, 1999|By MEG H. PARTINGTON

You've stepped outside your marriage vows by being unfaithful and are wondering if you should break the news to your spouse.

That depends on the situation.

For some, fessing up to the act may feel like the best route.

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"Oftentimes, the confession is to relieve guilt," says Donna Bage, a licensed certified social worker in Hagerstown who does marriage counseling and provides mediation services for divorces.

The Rev. Alice Thornton, a counselor at Shenandoah Pastoral Counseling Service in Charles Town, W.Va., says an admission of infidelity makes the confessor feel better, but the recipient of the confession feel worse.


"I don't think it's always appropriate to confess," Thornton says.

Those who have chosen to keep the disloyalty to themselves and accept that it was wrong may be better off not telling their spouse and causing undue pain, Bage says.

But, "If behavior is repeated, nobody has learned from it," Bage says.

There are times when the truth, though hurtful, may be best.

If the spouse who strayed is willing to make a concerted effort to work on the problem that caused the straying to occur, admitting to it may be appropriate, Thornton says.

If a relationship is not well-developed or growing, one or both spouses may feel hungry and vulnerable, which can lead to an affair, Bage says.

"When there's an affair, there's always an underlying issue. They are always a way to make a bad marriage tolerable," Thornton says.

The temptation to hide an affair may come back to haunt you, warns Anne Leedy, director of outpatient services at Cumberland Valley Mental Health Center, which has offices in Chambersburg, Waynesboro and McConnellsburg, Pa.

"The problem with not telling your spouse is sometimes secrets have a way of coming up again," says Leedy, a board-certified counselor.

Leedy recommends a spouse confess if the marriage is already weak because news of the infidelity coming from someone else could blow the relationship apart.

It's not fair for the person involved in the affair to continue both relationships, she says.

"They need to be honest. They can't play two ends against the middle," Leedy says.

Health issues also must be considered. If the person having the affair suspects that his or her partner outside the marriage is promiscuous, the spouse should be informed so he or she can take measures to prevent HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases, Leedy says.

Lucky for most people, they don't have to admit their misbehavior to the entire American public like President Clinton did about his "inappropriate relationship" with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Leedy, Bage and Thornton say they haven't noticed any increase in clients coming forward to discuss extramarital affairs since the president's scandal came to light.

Thornton recommends the person who has been unfaithful go to a counselor before making a decision on whether to inform his or her spouse.

If both people are aware of the affair, Leedy suggests they deal with it in therapy, where a counselor can act as a referee.

Broken trust

The pillar of trust that helps a marriage stand can begin to topple when an indiscretion occurs.

"The issue is the broken trust. You cannot have a sound relationship unless there's trust," says Bage.

After infidelity comes to light, the deceived spouse has two difficult options to choose between: trust again and reinvest in the marriage or detach and move on, Bage says.

The tendency toward extramarital affairs can be intergenerational, Bage says.

If the parents of one spouse were unfaithful to one another and it didn't seem like a major issue to them, there is a chance that spouse also may have an affair, Bage says. If that person marries someone from a similar background and one or both has cheated, she says the couple may bounce back, but damage still has been done.

If a person from a background of infidelity is unfaithful to a spouse who comes from a family in which fidelity was the rule, the damage is more severe.

"They're probably not able to imagine how devastating it can be to those whose parents modeled fidelity," says Bage. Men and women from more stable families tend to be "stayers" who want to try to save the marriage. However, that person should question whether the infidelity is going to happen again, she says.

If the spouse who was unfaithful recommits to the marriage and the pair opens its path of communication, the marriage can become stronger, says Bage.

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