While the disclosure of infidelity is never going to be a happy experience for either the betrayer or the betrayed spouse, you need to know that there are helpful and unhelpful ways to go about it. And the unhelpful ways can make a difficult experience especially damaging for the betrayed spouse. Today, we want to talk about some of the key things you should discuss and the reactions you should be prepared for when disclosing infidelity of any kind.
The Value of Disclosure
It’s very easy to come to a topic like disclosure and wonder if anything positive could possibly come out of it. It is normal to dread an event like this and believe that it is going to cause catastrophic and irreversible damage to your relationship. Those fears may be realized regardless of how well you prepare.
One thing that it’s important to realize is that any damage should only be from the behaviors that you are disclosing, not from the disclosure itself. A thoughtful, caring disclosure may actually end up becoming a first healing step for your spouse if you validate that what they are experiencing is real. It can even begin to restore trust in themselves if there were suspicions or questions about your activities prior to the disclosure.
That’s not to say that the outcome you desire will be achieved or that the difficult feelings of disclosure will be avoided if done right. No, you can still expect the full range of emotions that flow from betrayal.
However, a well thought out, intentional, planned disclosure is going to offer much greater possibilities of repair, recovery and restoration than a careless or forced disclosure.
Discovery or Disclosure?
Let’s define some terms briefly. Discovery is when your spouse finds out some or part of what’s been going on. There are a lot of different ways this can play out. In one scenario, the spouse can find something on her husband’s phone and then challenge him and he may start disclosing immediately. In another scenario, the wife can have suspicions and have all of the lines tapped in their home (in the days before cell phones) and record conversations between her husband and his affair partner for several months before confronting him.
We think it’s fair to make the sweeping statement that a well-prepared disclosure is always better than discovery. One variation on a prepared disclosure is a forced disclosure. That is a situation where, for example, you may have a political candidate who had an affair a few years back and ended that affair and never disclosed it. However, it’s election season and the opposition dug up this information and is about to hit the news with it. In that case, the betraying spouse is forced to urgently disclose the betrayal to their spouse. This is obviously a very difficult situation to be in, not only because of the betrayal itself, but also because of the public exposure tied to it.
Even with that being said, there’s still a lot of variables around disclosure. The recommendations that we want to make is primarily around the more typical forms of infidelity: an affair has occurred, there is a pornography addiction, or there has been some form of financial betrayal.
If you are sex addicted and you need to do a disclosure, this is a much more severe situation that warrants a more carefully planned and thought-out approach than even what we are suggesting today. We have team members with our online counseling agency who can help you with a professionally coordinated disclosure.
Make a Full Disclosure
Another piece of terminology you should be familiar with is “staggered disclosure.” This is where you trickle information to your spouse over a period of days, weeks, or even months. Usually, this happens because the betraying spouse wants to minimize the pain their betrayed spouse feels by delivering the medicine in small doses. However, it does not work and actually has the opposite effect.
The problem with staggered disclosure is that your spouse just recovers and has stopped reeling from one piece of information when you hit him or her with another secret. The cumulative effect is far more devastating than delivering the information in one blow. Any therapist with experience in this field will tell you that this is more damaging to your spouse than a single, complete disclosure.
For a more basic disclosure, one of the most important considerations is assembling and recording all of the information you need to disclose. Because the actual disclosure itself will be difficult, it’s going to be easy to talk yourself out of full disclosure if you do not prepare what you need to cover ahead of time. When you disclose, make sure you don’t leave anything out.
Information to Include
We talked about things to exclude in episode 267, such as the specific details of sexual acts, or what your affair partner wore, and so on. What you do need to include is the extent of the sexual activity in basic terms (e.g., “we had oral and vaginal sex”) or if it was an emotional affair the extent of what was shared in broad terms. You should share who the affair partner was, your connection to the person, where you met (generally, not specifically e.g., “in a hotel” but not “at the Marriott down on 12th Ave”,) when you met and how often you met.
If sexual intercourse was involved you should disclose whether you used barrier protection or not as this has health implications for your spouse if you were sexually active in your marriage at home. Use appropriate sexual terminology and avoid slang.
You should also disclose the current status of your relationship to the affair partner: if you ended it, what did you do to end it? If you may come in contact with the person, where or how might that happen (e.g., if this was a work colleague). More could be said on this but we covered that in episode 267 so make sure you go back and review that show.
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.
Don’t stumble into a hasty disclosure or start when you know you have a fast-approaching deadline or commitment. This is not something you want to do on the way out the door or just before your kids’ Christmas concert.
Choose a time when you’ll have at least 2-3 hours available to sit with your spouse, go over everything, and answer his or her questions. It should also be at a time where s/he will have time to process what you have disclosed (i.e., don’t disclose in the afternoon when you have friends coming over that evening).
Approach Disclosure with Empathy
Psychologist Shirley Glass (2003) states “Discovering that a partner’s been unfaithful is a traumatic event that shatters all the basic assumptions of commitment, love, and honesty. Understanding the story of what happened is an essential part of the recovery from that trauma.”
Undoubtedly your spouse will experience a range of strong negative emotions. If they are stronger than expected, you may even find yourself thinking that your spouse is overreacting, but it’s more important that you be understanding and acknowledging their feelings. If you stop and consider it, how would you even begin to reasonably dictate what he or she should feel?
The following symptoms are common following disclosure:
- Intense emotional disruption. You should expect your spouse to be completely derailed/blindsided/devastated.
- Feeling shocked and grieved. He/she may experience numbing, confusion and disorientation, anger and protest, or despair and depression.
- Some spouses want to spend time apart after the betraying spouse discloses an affair.
Include Support Options
Since your spouse is going to be terribly upset following the disclosure, it would be wise to include some support options and to encourage your spouse to take advantage of these resources.
- Online resources such as articles, podcasts, videos that may be helpful. Some spouses will really turn to research to try to understand what has happened and how to make sense of it and recover.
- A few counseling options: having done the research on 2 or 3 therapists who are familiar with working with betrayal trauma can be helpful. Links to websites are great. Remember that it’s more important that your spouse choose someone who they think is a good fit for them than going with the person you feel is most qualified.
- His or her support network. It’s often very shameful to have to tell a friend or loved one that you have been cheated on. Your spouse may even want to refrain from this in order to protect you. However, he or she should be encouraged to reach out to at least one or two people who would be a strong support to your spouse and also be a friend to your marriage and a supporter of rebuilding what is being broken between you.
- Some larger centres will also have support groups for betrayed spouses, especially spouses of sex addicts. These kinds of groups can be very helpful as well.
Apologize but Don’t Expect Forgiveness
Don’t forget to include a sincere apology — in reality, no words will heal what you have done at this stage. However, it would be very neglectful to fail to include a heartfelt expression of your own remorse regarding the hurt and pain you have inflicted on your spouse.
This is not the time to ask for forgiveness, either. You may indicate that you know you do not deserve forgiveness, but that you hope in time your spouse will be able to forgive you. But it would be good to state that you understand this will take time and you will not put pressure on him/her to do this.
It’s also valuable in the apology to acknowledge your spouse’s feelings. You could say something like, “I can see that I have hurt you terribly and that this is going to be very difficult for you to figure out and heal from.” Furthermore, you should state your commitment to taking responsibility and making amends. You may say something like, “I take full responsibility for this and am not going to blame you for what has happened in any way. I also understand that I need to take time to really make sense of how I came to make the choice to betray you so that I don’t ever go there again.”
Is Disclosure the End of My Marriage?
Disclosure starts a period of uncertainty where you may not know for sure if your spouse will stay married to you. That’s a tough spot to be in, but the situation is not hopeless.
One source we found in our research stated that “Relationship volatility following disclosure, such as threatening to leave, has been found not to predict the eventual marriage outcome.”. So you will have to just hang in there and see what happens. You set yourself up for this when you made the choice to engage in extra-marital activities. You cannot put an expectation back on your spouse now to remove this uncertainty for you or to take care of this emotional distress of uncertainty on top of all of his or her own feelings that they have to find their way through.
Many, many couples do heal from infidelity. Even profound or extensive infidelity such as secret sex addictions that have lasted for decades. Disclosure begins a long and difficult process. But it is possible, with time, to regain and rebuild trust. This requires you to reengage with your spouse, take responsibility for what you have done, reassure your spouse of your commitment to the marriage, increase the communication you have with your spouse, and eventually for your spouse to forgive you as well.
 Mark Butler, Ryan Seedall, and James Harper, “Facilitated Disclosure Versus Clinical Accommodation of Infidelity Secrets: An Early Pivot Point in Couple Therapy. Part 2: Therapy Ethics, Pragmatics, and Protocol,” The American Journal of Family Therapy 36 (2008): 265–83, https://doi.org/10.1080/01926180701291253.
 Shirley Glass, “How to Have an Honest Discussion Without Accusations and Defensiveness,” Psychotherapy Networker (blog), 2003, https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/1289/after-an-affair-how-much-should-be-shared.
 Butler, Seedall, and Harper, “Facilitated Disclosure Versus Clinical Accommodation of Infidelity Secrets: An Early Pivot Point in Couple Therapy. Part 2: Therapy Ethics, Pragmatics, and Protocol.”
 Butler, Seedall, and Harper.
 Glass, “How to Have an Honest Discussion Without Accusations and Defensiveness.”
 “How to Confess an Affair to Your Spouse,” Focus on the Famly (blog), accessed January 18, 2020, https://www.focusonthefamily.com/family-qa/how-to-confess-an-affair-to-your-spouse/.
 Butler, Seedall, and Harper, “Facilitated Disclosure Versus Clinical Accommodation of Infidelity Secrets: An Early
Pivot Point in Couple Therapy. Part 2: Therapy Ethics, Pragmatics, and Protocol.”
 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.