The thought of disclosing an affair to your spouse can be quite terrifying. You know that it is going to cause a lot of distress, perhaps even profound distress, and you also know that you do not really have control over the outcome of your disclosure.
While no disclosure is ever going to be a positive experience, our experience working with couples over many years has shown that there are some helpful and some very unhelpful ways to disclose infidelity. We want to help you prepare as well as possible to disclose a betrayal to your spouse.
Disclosure is Important
If you have broken a promise of faithfulness or fidelity to your spouse and have not told them, then you are facing the need to disclose this betrayal or infidelity. Infidelity can be a number of different things. It can be a purely emotional (and sometimes romantic) relationship with someone of the opposite sex, an online relationship (or relationships), viewing pornography, a one-time or ongoing sexual relationship outside the marriage, or a financial betrayal (e.g., hidden gambling debt or purchasing something significant without disclosing it).
Although it is very difficult to disclose an affair, the research shows that individuals who do disclose acknowledge that in the end it was a challenging but correct decision to make.
We do want to mention that if you are realizing that you are sex addicted and have an extensive double life to disclose to your spouse, there are professionals who specialize in helping with this kind of disclosure. In this article, we’re mainly focused on the disclosure of an affair, although some of the principles will apply to other betrayals as well. We just want to note that for sex addiction, the process is much more deliberate and planned because of the extent of what must be disclosed and how traumatic that typically is for the betrayed spouse.
Avoid These Things When Disclosing Infidelity
It is important to be fully honest. You definitely want to avoid lying while disclosing the truth. That may sound funny to say, but sometimes people think they can ease the blow by reducing the overall truthfulness of the disclosure. When those lies get discovered, even the truth is called into question at that point.
There are several things to avoid, but we’re assuming that you, as the reader, have the goal of becoming radically honest with your spouse as a result of engaging in this disclosure.
Avoid Excessive Detail
First of all, every spouse varies in how much they want to know about the infidelity. Some want to know very little. Others want to know what the infidelity was and who it was with, and others want to know all the details even down into the exact play-by-play intricacies of the extramarital sexual encounters.
While it is important for your spouse to know the truth, it is also important not to give too much detail as this will greatly increase the traumatic blow of the disclosure. When too much is disclosed, we hear a lot of betrayed spouses talking about flashbacks and scenes playing like a movie in their mind even though they did not see the event.
We do recommend in cases of infidelity that the betrayed spouse know who the affair partner(s) was, where they met, when they met, and what happened (e.g., whether the trysts involved intimate conversations or if they involved sexual intercourse, etc.). Those facts help the betrayed spouse to understand the pattern and extent of the extra-marital behaviours so that they can be aware of the signs of the behavior.
Now, if your spouse wants extensive detail (sexual positions, what she was wearing, your exact thoughts at different points, etc.) you have to be careful not to appear to be hiding or minimizing what happened. A thoughtful response is really important. We recommend that you tell your spouse you are not entirely opposed to sharing all of the details, nor do you wish to continue any form of hiding or dishonesty, but you are deeply concerned that the sharing of these details could cause extensive, unnecessary trauma. You could encourage them to carefully and thoughtfully review why they feel they need the extensive detail with a counselor who specializes in marriage counseling or in betrayal/infidelity recovery. Or if that’s not an avenue they wish to pursue, at least see if they will agree not to share all of the details until several weeks after disclosure. Often, obsessing over details is a stage that betrayed partners go through as a way of coping with the intense feelings of the betrayal. What they really need is to process and address those feelings rather than the details.
It may be helpful to consider a couple of personal accounts that speak to the issue of how much detail should be shared. Here’s one from Olsen et al. (2002): “You know, on my side I need to know every single detail. And now that I look back, that was wrong. He was willing to tell me every detail, but in the end, I didn’t need to know every detail. I mean I thought I did, but really didn’t.” When they first hear of their partner’s betrayal, a betrayed spouse may feel they will not be satisfied until they hear every detail. But in fact, this feeling sometimes goes away with time, and they realize that they really don’t need to know every detail to process their feelings.
What to do After You Learn About Your Spouse’s Infidelity
Once again, we have a bonus information packet for our much-appreciated supporters. If you would like something that you can give to your spouse after your disclosure as a starting point, it includes several points for him or her to consider. There are also links to some of our shows that we’ve created specifically for betrayed spouses. Additionally, it includes a link to our betrayal counseling page so your spouse can reach out and talk to a qualified counselor for help through this very tough time, if s/he would like. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Avoid Inconsiderate Timing
In our organization, we’ve had the occasional betrayed spouse share with us how they received disclosure at extremely inopportune moments. In one case, a husband disclosed when the wife had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Another wife shared that her husband disclosed just a few days before he died, just as he slipped into a coma. Other times spouses have disclosed on the way to a family Christmas holiday time.
While there is never a great time to receive a disclosure of betrayal, there are definitely some times that are much worse than others. If your spouse is already overwhelmed with pain or grief, it would be wise to wait. If they are going through something personally, such as battling a severe illness, disclosing an affair could actually compromise their immune system and their body’s natural healing abilities even more.
Disclosing via a long-distance phone call is also not recommended. This can leave your spouse to cope and pick up the pieces for a number of days on their own, which is also a bad idea. It is best if you speak with your spouse face to face if at all possible and make sure they are not left to deal with it alone afterward.
Having said all that, it is usually best if your disclosure is sooner rather than later. One thing that may be worse than an inopportune or mistimed disclosure is a forced disclosure or even a discovery. So, if there’s a possibility that your spouse may discover the betrayal through another source then you are probably better off with a poorly timed disclosure than you are with a discovery of the event. At least the disclosure itself is an honest gesture towards recovery, whereas a discovery always raises the question of whether you ever planned to stop the lies and betrayal that have covered the affair to the point of discovery.
Avoid Staggered Disclosure
This is something we see fairly commonly. Staggered disclosure is when you reveal the infidelity through a series of smaller disclosures. You keep back or hide information that could have been revealed at the first disclosure.
This is often done with a little bit of sincerity just in the sense that the betraying spouse realizes that disclosure is going to be very painful for the betrayed spouse. They want to protect their spouse from all that pain by bleeding the air out slowly rather than just popping the balloon in one loud, sharp blast.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. The reason it doesn’t work to stagger disclosure is that it quickly becomes apparent to your spouse that the hiding and covering up is continuing even if the infidelity or affair itself has stopped. Remember that at this stage, the lying hurts worse than the betrayal. Holding back information from your spouse creates further feelings of mistrust. It is better to tell them the full extent of what you have done rather than reveal it in bits and pieces over time. Your spouse wants and needs to arrive at a point where they believe that they have seen and now know everything that has happened.
Avoid Blaming Your Spouse
It’s really critical that you do not blame your spouse. There will come a time to look into what was happening in your marriage that made it vulnerable to infidelity. But that this stage, you do not want to get drawn into explaining the affair in any way that lays the blame at the feet of your spouse.
Even if your marriage was in bad shape prior to the affair (and that is a shared reality that will eventually have to be solved together), you are still the person who made the betrayal decision. At this point, that’s all that is relevant.
If you blame your spouse at this stage, it will only add a lot of fuel to the fire. You may need to explain your actions. Your spouse will likely ask you why you did what you did. You’re probably best off sticking to two key strategies:
- Avoid excusing your actions. This is harder than you think. But any attempt to explain why you did what you did that makes you out to be a victim of circumstances or others is going to look like excuse-making. That is not going to fly with your spouse because what this means is that any time you find yourself in those circumstances again, you will repeat the betrayal. You should own the factors that contributed: I drank too much. I let my guard down with another woman. I allowed myself to be captivated by another man’s flirting. And so on. But don’t make excuses.
- State the hard realities that are almost always the case in these kinds of situations: I was selfish. I wanted it, so I did it. I was not thinking of you, only of myself. I ignored everything that you mean to me, and all that we’ve built together, and all that we’ve done. I was so self-absorbed I was willing to risk everything for a moment of pleasure.
These are tough realities and hard to admit. But those simple statements where you take responsibility without any excuse or fine print or disclaimers or minimizing: those are very, very honest things to say. They aren’t going to remove your spouse’s pain, but they will cause far less pain and trauma than if you deny, minimize, blame-shift and generally avoid responsibility.
 Andrew Walters and Burger, Brea, “‘I Love You, and I Cheated’: Investigating Disclosures of Infidelity to Primary Romantic Partners,” Sexuality and Culture, 17 (2012): 20–49, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-012-9138-1.
 Michael M. Olson et al., “Emotional Processes Following Disclosure of an Extramarital Affair,” Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 28, no. 4 (October 2002): 423–34.
 “How to Confess and Affair to Your Spouse,” Focus on the Family (blog), accessed January 18, 2020, https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-qa/how-to-confess-an-affair-to-your-spouse/.
 Olson et al., “Emotional Processes Following Disclosure of an Extramarital Affair.”
 Olson et al.
 Mark H. Butler, Julie A. Stout, and Brandt C. Gardner, “Prayer as a Conflict Resolution Ritual: Clinical Implications of Religious Couples’ Report of Relationship Softening, Healing Perspective, and Change Responsibility,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 30, no. 1 (January 2002): 19–37, https://doi.org/10.1080/019261802753455624.
 Deborah Corley and Jennifer Schneider, “Disclosing Secrets: Guidelines for Therapists Working with Sex Addicts and Co-Addicts,” 2002, http://www.jenniferschneider.com/articles/disclosing_secrets_5_02.html.