If You Cheat, Should You Confess Or Keep Quiet?

by Leigh Anderson

This summer’s Ashley Madison hack prompted a national conversation on infidelity: who’s cheating, if they’re getting caught and how. (A searchable database of cheaters’ email addresses certainly makes the “getting caught” part simpler.) The news that followed close on the heels of the scandal—that there were virtually no women on the site—made the revelations even more delicious: Despicable men were conned into paying money to correspond with a robot and then humiliated publicly. It made for a rather satisfying story.

As much as Ashley Madison might have made us feel that there was a “brave new world” of cheating—as efficient as, completely ethics-agnostic—I’ve always felt that, instinctively, infidelity is more often a crime of opportunity than premeditation. I just finished Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland, which, without giving away too much, is an exploration of how an ordinary woman in even a happy marriage might be tempted to stray.

The few friends of mine who’ve confided about infidelity, either their own or their husbands’, always describe an affair partner who was just…there, always available, like a work colleague, and the temptation became too much to resist. It’s hard to imagine someone deciding to have an affair in advance of meeting a potential candidate. I mean, I think most people can sympathize with, or at least understand, being attracted to someone other than your spouse, but paying a website to introduce you to possible candidates? That’s creepy and gross.

So what happens to couples who’ve weathered affairs—do their marriages last? Does how the guilty party handles the revelation matter? It turns out that it does, says Elizabeth Bernstein, writing for The Wall Street Journal. In the wake of the Ashley Madison scandal, Bernstein reports that marriage counselors have been seeing an uptick in clients asking for advice on how to handle their infidelities: Should they confess or keep mum, living in fear that the secret will someday be revealed?

Bernstein’s advice: Out yourself before someone else does, or before your spouse finds some electronic evidence that you’ve cheated. According to Bernstein, “In our current world, where the most-private information—from home addresses and credit card numbers to secret emails and sexual fantasies—are just one hack away from becoming public, the chance of being found out has escalated. As the Ashley Madison hack has shown, the Internet is the modern version of the proverbial lipstick on the collar. You never know when a trace of your misdeed might appear and give you away.”

While the cheating spouse might weigh the marriage-busting step of confessing, Bernstein argues that you’re never going to get away with it anyway, so telling your partner the truth might be your best bet for saving your marriage. Even before electronic data became a trail of bread crumbs for a suspicious spouse, most affairs came to light: Bernstein cites a 2007 survey that showed that only 32 percent of male cheaters and 39 percent of female cheaters said their spouse had definitely not discovered the affair.

So the question becomes one of damage control. Bernstein notes that in a 2001 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers established that there are four ways spouses discover an affair: 1) the cheater tells them, unprompted; 2) the suspicious spouse asks, and the cheater comes clean; 3) the cheater is caught in the act; or 4) a third party clues in the spouse.

Of these four possibilities, the first is the best route to reconciliation. In the study of 115 couples, 43.5 percent of the couples in the first scenario—unprompted ‘fessing up—said the marriage ended, compared to 68 percent of the marriages in the “third party” scenario, 83 percent in the “caught in the act” scenario and 86 percent in the “confronted” scenario. Apparently, the humiliation of being gas-lighted, having someone else tell you your spouse is cheating, or catching them in the act compounds the damage of the affair alone.

The takeaway from the summer of Ashley Madison? Don’t cheat—especially don’t cheat with robots. But if you do, spill the beans before someone spills them for you.