Sooo…you cheated. You were lonely, you were mad at your spouse, you made a mistake, you were just bored. However you got here, you’re probably wondering where to go next.
And because the descent into a spiral of heartbreak, self-questioning and fear about the future isn’t the most productive way to move forward, we consulted sex and couples’ therapist Dr. Tammy Nelson’s new book When You’re the One Who Cheats: Ten Things You Need to Know to find out what to do next.
Own that you cheated (and stop blaming anyone else). The first step to figuring out what you’re going to do (and why you were unfaithful in the first place) is to own that you did it: You cheated. As Nelson puts it, “Don’t waste time trying to navigate around the reality by denying or justifying it.” And definitely don’t play the blame game. Regardless of what’s going on in your marriage, you made an active choice when you cheated. When you can accept that, you can start to problem-solve.
Decide if you’re going to confess… If he didn’t catch you in the act, it’s time to decide if you’re going to tell your partner. If you’re torn about opening this can of worms, think about the potential consequences. What will you gain by telling the truth? Are you coming clean to repair your marriage, or is it just to make yourself feel better? Are you ready to do the work and fix things? Which brings us to our next point…
…or keep the secret. It’s controversial, for sure, but there’s more than one way to go about this—you can keep the affair to yourself. Nelson stresses that you need to weigh the risks and benefits of doing so. You could distance yourself in the relationship, you’ll be living a double life and your spouse could always find out eventually. But if your affair is still a secret, acknowledging it means causing your spouse a pretty significant amount of emotional pain. Are you OK with bearing the burden if it means not losing this person in your life?
If you’re ’fessing up, have a plan. As much as you might long for the catharsis of blurting out “I cheated!!” at dinner, you kind of can’t do that. Nelson says a good place to start is with an “appointment.” Tell your partner you have something you need to talk about, and don’t sugarcoat it. Let him know you need X amount of time (probably a lot) and that you’ve got something not-so-fun to share. And when you do tell, be direct. Just say, “I had an affair.”
Don’t say you’re sorry unless you know why. Which, let’s face it, you might not. Repeatedly mumbling an apology over and over doesn’t move the conversation along (and can come across as insincere). The goal is to be honest and to do that, Nelson recommends you, “1) Not blame; 2) Not deny; 3) Not dissemble.”
Be prepared for the ‘why.’ At the end of the day, this is what your spouse is going to want to know. It’s not an easy question to answer, but Nelson says it helps to understand what kind of affair you had. Was it a “can opener,” or indirect way to get out of your unhappy marriage? Or was it a “wake-up or break-up” affair, in which you disrupted your relationship in order to change something about it? One thing to note: In trying to explain, you should avoid comparing your affair partner and your spouse at all costs.
Decide to stay or go. Do you want to end your affair and make your marriage work? Or do you want to leave your spouse? It’s not an easy decision, and there are some things to consider. Nelson says that only a handful of cheaters end up with their lovers (about 3 percent) and that the subsequent divorce rate is high (75 percent). And even though repairing your marriage is going to be tough work, the result could be a relationship that’s actually better for both of you.
Create your new ‘vision.’ If you decide to make your marriage work, the next step is to envision what that future looks like as a couple. What will make you happy? What are your fears? What can you change? Nelson says to focus on what’s working—instead of what’s not.And above all, no matter what marital problems you think started it, it’s time for you and your spouse to work through the pain together.