There’s no such thing as the perfect relationship. Even the best of couples, with the most beautiful Instagram holiday photos, will admit to flaws and fractures in their relationship. Cheating, infidelity and their ilk may be both cause and effect for many of these problems. Cheating in a marriage may be deliberate or it happen as an one-off encounter. But what happens afterwards? Do you confess to your partner and come clean? And if you don’t, do you wonder how to forgive yourself for cheating and not telling?
A study in 2020 showed that 20% of married men, and 10% of married women, admitted to cheating on their spouses. The numbers suggest that there may be many more who wouldn’t admit it, simply because confessing to adultery comes with enormous baggage – stigma, pain, anger and the possibility of a broken marriage. But, can you forgive yourself for cheating without telling? We spoke to counseling therapist Gopa Khan and rounded up some tips on forgiving yourself and moving on.
8 Helpful Tips To Forgive Yourself After Cheating And Not Telling
Maybe you know your affair was a one-time thing. Maybe you’ve got kids and you don’t want to subject them to a divorce or separation, or even the fights that will ensue if you confess to your partner. Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘I will never forgive myself for cheating, but I don’t want to break up my relationship.’ Whatever your reasons, there’s a good chance you’ll be living with huge guilt and fear for a while. But if you want to move on, regardless of whether your relationship survives or not, you need to learn how to forgive yourself for hurting your spouse when they don’t know it. How do you forgive yourself after being unfaithful? Read on.
1. Take accountability
Recognize that you screwed up, that your cheating was a choice you made, even if it was a one-off. Rather than thinking, ‘I cheated and can’t live with myself’, understand that you’ll have to. This is on you and you will need to cope with it and live with yourself every day. Yes, you need to forgive yourself for ruining your marriage or relationship, but that doesn’t mean you shrug off responsibility for what you did.
Related Reading: Do Affairs That Break Up A Marriage Last?
“I had a one-night stand while I was away on a conference,” says Kate, a software engineer. “I kept telling myself it was nothing and I didn’t need to tell my husband because it didn’t matter. But it kept building up inside me, and I hated myself for months afterward. I didn’t tell my husband because by then I was a mess and I didn’t think he needed to deal with knowing I had cheated. All I could think was, ‘I will never forgive myself for cheating.’ It took me a long time to realize that messing myself up wasn’t going to help me or save my marriage. I had to face facts and move on.”
Gopa explains, “When an affair happens, whether it was emotional or physical, it is tempting to look for reasons outside one’s self and look for reasons why it happened. A client of mine mentioned that the affair happened ‘organically’. I had my client explain how he could say that as he had actively flirted despite being married, gone on dates, planned vacations etc. Things were planned out, actively lying to the spouse, staying late for ‘work’ etc.
It is important to take personal responsibility and not look for excuses or reasons. The bottom line is you chose to cheat on your spouse irrespective of the reasons. You had the choice to not proceed with an emotional affair, or a physical one, and to draw boundaries. You need to accept responsibility for your own actions and then take steps to clear up the mess. As human beings, we can make mistakes but we need to learn to introspect and learn from them so mistakes do not repeatedly occur.”
Don’t beat yourself up or sink into a black hole of guilt over your affair or one-night stand – that’s not going to help you or your partner. Acknowledge what you’ve done and what it might say about you and your relationship. Work on it, work on yourself, and hopefully look ahead.
2. Write down your feelings
This is a little theatrical, but it’s one way to get your complicated feelings out there without burdening your partner with them. Write down your feelings. Keep a journal and spill your guilt, your anger, your sadness – let all of it out. There’s no point suppressing your feelings and pretending there’s nothing wrong, you need an outlet.
If you can’t forgive yourself for ruining your marriage, write it down. When you’re in despair, and can’t forgive yourself for drunk cheating and not telling your spouse, write it down. Seeing your feelings down on paper could make things a little more clear and gives you perspective. Things always seem worse when they’re in your head. Once they’re out, you can actually start tackling them rather than hiding from the truth.
Once you think you’ve got everything out there, you can choose to destroy or delete your writings. If you’re feeling really extra, go ahead and burn them as a symbol that your healing and moving has begun. How to forgive yourself for cheating and not telling? Get it out of your head and into the real world as much as possible.
3. Go beyond just being sorry
‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word’ goes the song, but honestly, it’s just the starting point. If you’ve cheated but aren’t telling your spouse, you’re probably not apologizing to their face, but you’re likely feeling terrible and thinking about how sorry you are. We recommend you go beyond that.
It’s all very well to think, ‘I cheated and can’t live with myself, but what are you doing about it? You need to introspect and see what it is you need to do to ensure this situation doesn’t occur again, that you don’t choose to be a serial cheater and hurt your partner again. Start with being sorry, sure, but look beyond that and take action to redeem yourself and be better.
“It is important to be sorry,” stresses Gopa. “I tell my clients that they may need to say sorry several times if required as they have hurt the person deeply. However, one needs to be proactive in relationships. If you want the relationship, you have to go the extra mile and take steps to actively heal the relationship. The onus lies on you solely to make amends to make the relationship better than before.
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“At times, my clients mention that it’s been a few years, do I still need to make amends. I remind them that the person who has cheated needs to be patient and understanding towards their partner instead of hoping to get over the uncomfortable incident by ignoring it.”
4. Stop punishing yourself
“Can you forgive yourself for cheating without telling? I didn’t think so,” says Adam, a banker. “I was seeing another woman for a while and never told my wife. I broke it off after a few months because I felt terrible about it. But even though I never told my wife, I was stuck in a well of self-hate for months. It got to a point where I would deny myself little things I liked – new shoes, playing video games, my favorite dessert.”
“It is natural to feel guilty for your actions,” Gopa concedes. “However, by punishing yourself, you end up wasting your energies which could be used in making your relationship or marriage better. A client sought therapy as he felt guilty cheating on his girlfriend regularly and wondered what was wrong with him. The first step was to take personal responsibility, the second to decide whether he could choose to be faithful to his girlfriend.
“He soon realized that he did not have the bandwidth to be in a committed relationship and that it was unfair to his girlfriend. He then decided to end the relationship instead of cheating and then feeling guilty for cheating and punishing himself. The best approach is to focus on problem solving as punishing oneself keeps you stuck and unable to move forward.”
Atonement is great, but you’re not moving on or being a healthy partner by punishing yourself. You might think you’re cleansing yourself of your mistakes and making up for cheating, but all you’re doing is digging a deeper hole of self-hate and self-pity to marinate in. None of this will help you forgive yourself after being unfaithful, nor will it make you a better spouse or partner.
5. Seek professional help
If you think you need to talk to a professional, you can seek out a therapist. This might be tricky without letting your partner find out. If it’s gotten to a point where you longer want to hide from your partner, you could take a relationship break while you sort yourself out. They needn’t know you cheated, just that you’re having some issues and need time to seek help.
Again, it gets tricky to explain, so be very sure you want to go down this road. You could opt for online consultations, or talk to someone over the phone. Therapy would mean you have an impartial listener to hear you out, and you needn’t fear judgment or moral policing.
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“Often,” says Gopa, “the person who has cheated feels his/ her partner needs the support. But it is very important that the partner who has cheated emotionally or physically reflects on their actions and understands the repercussions of their behavior on people around them. Also, it helps to have a safe zone to discuss issues they were unhappy about and to assist them to also make reparations in their relationship.”
6. Confessing will hurt your partner too
Bear in mind that admitting to adultery might make you feel better, but it shifts the burden to your partner. Think about it: Do you want desperately want to confess because you think it’ll ease that giant ball of guilt in your gut? Are you tired of carrying the burden alone and wondering how to forgive yourself for hurting your spouse when they don’t know it? Maybe it would be easier to forgive yourself if they knew.
The thing is, making it easier for yourself isn’t really what you’re trying to achieve here. You’re here to do the work and forgive yourself so that you can be better. If you were to confess to your partner, think about how it would make them feel? Do they deserve to carry around the trust issues and constant suspicion of being in a relationship with someone who cheated? We don’t think so.
To forgive yourself for ruining your marriage or relationship, understand that it’s a tough path, but not one that your partner needs to traverse with you. Since you’re the one who erred in this relationship, you need to be the one who fixes it. Don’t pass on the burden just to lighten your own load and feel better about yourself.
“There is a trend that if you have cheated on your partner, you must spill the beans. Often the partner cheated on is so incredibly hurt that they want to know every detail. I had a client, who would ask her husband if the sex was better with the other person, etc. As a counselor, I draw the line at getting into intimate details even if you need to tell your partner the bare bones of the affair,” Gopa says.
7. Be proactive in changing yourself
We’ve talked about how being sorry isn’t enough here. Underline that by realizing that you need to make active, proactive steps towards changing yourself and your outlook. Maybe you’re not an altogether terrible person, maybe you’re just human and you made a mistake, or several mistakes. Now you feel rotten about being a cheating husband or wife and you don’t want your relationship to be destroyed over it. So, what do you plan to do about it, other than feeling terrible?
Ken, a user research expert, says, “I had a brief affair with someone, and never told my wife about it. But, for months afterwards, all I did was think about it and blame myself and feel bad. But that was it. I wasn’t doing anything about it. Instead, my feelings were building up into resentment and anger towards my wife. Not only had I been a cheating husband, I was now also a truly terrible partner. To forgive yourself for drunk cheating and not telling, or any form of cheating is tough.”
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We reiterate here, you need to do the work. If you’ve always had a roving eye, make a decision to choose your marriage every day, rather than hurt your spouse and family. Do not make or accept contact with the person you were involved with. Remind yourself that you’re lucky to have a great partner and that you’ve built a connection and life with them. To remain a part of that, you need to be better.
Gopa elaborates, “Being invested in a relationship means one needs to work on their end of the relationship. Every relationship comes with challenges. If, post cheating, you realize you have made a grave mistake, then the onus is definitely on you to work on yourself. You might have been immature in love at the time, or naïve, or been pressured to being a relationship without understanding the consequences.
“I had a client who left her husband to live in with her boyfriend but she lost custody of her daughter. Since then, she has learned to be a better co-parent and take action on how her decisions impacted her and her daughter’s lives. Until one takes responsibility and chooses to change one’s life for the better, not much will change in the relationship.”
8. Understand what was missing in your relationship
It’s possible that you strayed into an affair because your relationship isn’t what you want or what you expected. Maybe you were attracted to someone who shares your interest in the stock market or your love for old movies in a way your partner doesn’t. Maybe you moved in with your partner and then realized you weren’t ready.
It’s tough to acknowledge that your existing relationship might not be exactly what you wanted and that your way of dealing with it was to cheat. But it’s important to understand if there was a reason for your straying beyond boredom in your relationship, or because you were drunk and flattered that someone was paying attention to you.
If you think there’s something missing in your relationship, that is something you could discuss with your partner. For heaven’s sake, don’t go blaming them – treat it as a conversation and see how you can go about changing things. If you think there’s an essential spark missing, or it’s something that cannot be repaired, maybe it’s time to consider a breakup or separation. Again, they needn’t know that you cheated, but also, holding onto a relationship that wasn’t working anyway doesn’t help anyone. Don’t hold onto it to assuage your own guilt either.
Explains Gopa, “If companionship was missing or you wanted more affection in the relationship or marriage, it’s possible you tried to meet that need outside your marriage. However, levels of intimacy and affection fluctuate in all relationships. It’s important to remember that affairs rarely last as they don’t have a strong foundation. Affairs conducted secretly often fall apart like a pack of cards with a lot of guilt and damage to both parties.
“Thus, the best option for couples is to focus on their relationship. If there is temptation outside their marriage, it’s healthy to acknowledge but not act on it and to identify situations which can make them more vulnerable to choosing to have affairs. Invariably, when people have strong personal and relationship boundaries, positive self-esteem and respect and trust in their spouses, the chances of cheating are less.”
To forgive yourself for cheating and not telling isn’t easy. You’re carrying a lot of negative feelings and it’s possible they will spill over into other aspects of your life too. It’s also a fine balance between taking full accountability for your actions and constantly punishing yourself for what you did. You’ll also need to make the decision of whether you want to continue with your marriage or relationship, or if your cheating was just one symptom of several underlying problems in the relationship.
Whatever it is, you’ll be carrying much of the burden alone, unless you decide to seek professional help. While you’re dealing with all of this, you’ll also need to maintain some semblance of normalcy around your partner and family. It’s a lot to take and you’ll have days where you’ll think it would be so much easier to come clean and tell your partner.
Remind yourself that with time, you will move on, and hopefully be happier and healthier both as a person and as a partner. Let that be your goal, stand strong in your resolve, and be kind to yourself without giving into self-pity. Good luck!