To Confess or Not to Confess, That is the Question

No question about it, confess to yourself. If you can’t be honest with yourself, who can you be honest with?

If you believe in God, then confess to God. He knows anyway.

If you have a neutral third party you can trust, then confess to her. Confession is cleansing. It’s a double check for bullshit. It returns you to the land of the righteous.

The only time confession might be questionable is when your confession brings harm to the person you’ve already harmed.

The idea is that your confession should not be at the expense of the person you harmed, so you can feel better. That doesn’t seem to be the route to reconciliation. That road heads the wrong way. On the other hand, you’re cutting yourself off from a powerful source of healing, you are underestimating your victim’s capacity for grace, and you’re crawling even further in the dog house than you belong.

The question comes up most when one partner has had some extramarital sexual activity and feels guilty about it. He comes to me, his therapist, and tells me all about it. I’m the neutral third party he can trust. He asks me the question, “Do I tell my wife?”

Some therapists have answers to that question. I don’t. I just have more questions. Some therapists have firm opinions on what a marriage should be; they believe a marriage should be perfectly open and honest, and any marriage which is not is headed for trouble. I believe there are all kinds of successful marriages. I also believe being perfectly open and honest may be a quality to which to aspire, but it’s not a status to achieve. No one knows their partner fully and it may not be especially desirable if they did.

The question comes up in other cases, too. The rapist should probably not seek out his victim to tell her he’s sorry; he’s likely to be misunderstood. It may be too late for the father who beat his daughter to bring it up now. She may have no stomach to review the past.

Like I said, I have no answers. I only have questions. Questions like:

Are you reluctant to confess because you want to avoid the consequences?

Be careful how you answer this question.

If you say you are reluctant to confess because you want to avoid the consequences, then you are not serious about change. You’re just trying to get away with the thing you did. You’re not ready for a confession, anyway; it would just be worthless.

If you say you won’t tell her because she’ll call you a selfish prick, make you sleep on the couch,  tell your mother what you did, and file for divorce, then grow some balls. You brought this on yourself. If you know now she’d react that way, you knew then. It was OK to risk your wife’s ire when you were sleeping with that other woman, why is it not OK, now? You wouldn’t walk out of a restaurant without paying; it’s time to pay up now.

On the other hand, if she’ll take a knife to your private parts or tell your children they’re worthless because they came from you, then you might have a good reason not to confess. If you somehow know that she’s going to hunt down the other woman and literally kill her, then I’d say, keep it to yourself. You have my blessing, but I will wonder why you would risk that reaction by sleeping with the other woman in the first place.

You should anticipate consequences and, to some degree, be fearful of them. To claim otherwise is nonsense. However, if you decide not to confess, you should not be tainted by your fear of the repercussions, except in the extreme cases I mentioned. Your decision should be motivated completely out of a realistic concern for your victim.

How can you be sure your decision not to confess is not prompted by your desire to avoid the repercussions? Easy, there should be repercussions, anyway. Even if you decide not to confess, you should still go ahead with making amends as if you did confess. These consequences, which you put on yourself, should be costly so that there’s no question that you decided not to confess because you were avoiding the aftermath.

What kind of relationship with you does your victim want to have?

If your victim has an order of protection out on you, then you know what kind of relationship he wants to have. He wants you to keep your distance. If he wants a confession out of you, he’ll ask for it.

What if there’s no order of protection? That was the case with the father and the daughter he abused when she was small. In those situations, you can look to see whether your victim is trying to get close to you, or whether she seems to want you to keep your distance. Is she is trying to make sense of her past, or would she rather pretend it never happened?

If you’re still married to the person you hurt and there’s no order of protection, then I think you can assume she still wants a relationship with you, on some level. She, at least, partly feels that way if you haven’t gotten papers from a lawyer. In that case, does your partner want the kind of marriage where you tell each other everything, or the kind that is compartmentalized, where secrets are expected? There are all kinds of marriages. In some of them, there is an understanding not to ask too many questions. Is this what she wants, or is this what she is settling for?

For that matter…

What kind of relationship do you want to have?

You’ve created the kind with secrets. Is this your idea of marriage?

If you don’t know what kind of relationship she wants to have, or if it’s not evident by her behavior, then that’s a conversation to initiate before you consider confession. If the two of you want a different kind of marriage, then you have bigger problems than extramarital activity.

Here’s another question for those in love relationships:

Who did your partner fall in love with, you or a perfect person you were pretending to be?

When you first started dating, you were probably on your best behavior; you were playing a perfect person. There’s no way you could have kept that up. At some point, you did something that put him off; something horrifying, annoying, discomfiting, or just plain weird. If he stuck around, and didn’t reject you, that’s how real love was formed. Love doesn’t come from flowers, kisses, and sweet nothings; but from acceptance, following anger, embarrassment, and shame. It’s a beautiful thing when it happens, even though it ain’t pretty when it’s made.

Here’s a related question:

Who do you want your partner to love, you or this fiction you created?

Do you want him to love the real you, with your imperfections, or a statue that belongs in the town square, covered by pigeons?

Not every client I see who confesses extramarital sexual activity asks me if he should tell his wife. Sometimes I have to ask him whether he will tell her. “Hell, no,” some say. “It’ll kill her… What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her… She doesn’t want to know.”

For them, I have more questions:

How do you know it’ll kill her? How do you know she’ll never forgive? How do you know she doesn’t want to know?

You’re staking a lot on how you believe she would take it. Maybe you know these things. Maybe you had a talk once. Maybe she said, “If you ever have an affair, don’t tell me. I wouldn’t want to know.” But she probably didn’t.

Once a relationship passes the initial fake perfect stage, you might think the couple would feel free to let it all hang out and be honest about everything. But, no; often that’s not what happens. What happens is the relationship has now become so vital that you don’t mess with it. You don’t quite go back to your original position of putting an attractive face on everything because, like, who are you kidding; but you head in the direction of secrecy. You don’t want to risk losing someone who knows you so well. Once your loved one has seen the bad and still loves you, you think you can never let her see anything like it again.

That is when couples stop communicating. That’s when they stop being honest; not out of any malice, but out of a desire to protect and preserve. That’s when you start your extramarital activity with someone who doesn’t matter.

To put it another way:

If your wife failed to know you well enough to suspect extramarital activity, then how can you be sure you know her well enough to know how she would react?

Here’s another one:

How many chances are you willing to take?

When your cover is blown, and she finds out before you tell her, all hell will break loose for two reasons, the crime and the coverup. The coverup is worse.

If you are a risk taker and willing to take a chance on coverup, then…

Can you take a chance that confessing will be the very thing that changes your marriage for the better?
That happens sometimes, most of the time, actually; especially when the one doing the damage is serious about change. A marriage is one of those things: to keep it you have to be willing to lose it; not through extramarital activity, but by putting weight on it and counting on your partner’s trust and understanding to get you through.

If you’ve considered my questions and still believe you can’t confess your wrong to the person you hurt, then go back to your written statement of responsibility and add the following.

“I could have confessed to you, but, after consultation with an advisor, I carefully decided that a confession would just hurt you more. If I was wrong and have given you more reason not to trust me, then I acknowledge I was wrong to do this. I accept any consequence that comes of it and am committed to disclosing everything to you in the future if you want me to.”

Date it, have your adviser witness it, and put it in a safe place, so you can take it out when the jig is up.

This is an excerpt from my book, The Road to Reconciliation