Should I Tell My Wife about an Affair That Ended Long Ago?

I have been with my wife for 22 years. About five years into our marriage, I had an intense affair that lasted almost two years. My wife never knew. My wife and I have grown closer and closer as the years have passed, and I can't imagine being with anyone else. She's the love of my life, without a doubt. We do everything together and we're more in love today than we were on our wedding day. My question is whether it's a good idea to come clean to my wife about the affair all those years ago. On the one hand, ignorance is bliss, but on the other hand, I feel terribly guilty and ashamed for having cheated on her and keeping it a secret for so long. I don't know how she'd react. She might forgive me, or she might question everything she knows about our relationship and ... who knows? I feel in my heart that I should tell her and it might even make us stronger. But the thought of hurting my wife kills me. And if she didn't react as well to the revelation as I hope she would, I cannot bear the thought of pushing her away or losing her. Is the risk of telling my wife about my misdeeds (hurting her, maybe losing her) worth the possible reward (lifting of my guilt and shame)? Or should I chalk it up to a lesson learned, leave the past in the past, and just appreciate what we have today? Thank you. —Guilty Guy
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Dear Guilty Guy,

Thank you for your question. It does indeed sound as though the vice-like grip of guilt has taken hold. Painful, indeed. As Pete Campbell from Mad Men said in the show’s final season regarding having an extramarital fling or affair, “It feels good, and then it doesn’t.”

I suppose some might advise you to not tell your wife under any circumstances, that telling her can only cause grievous harm and would only be for your own benefit (such is the certainty of most advice columnists). This may prove to be the wisest path, although before I personally go there, I would be curious about a couple of things. First, what is it that prompted you to stray? It could be any number of things, both general to early marriage and specific to you personally. What stressors were present in and outside the relationship? Some who have experienced past relational injuries or trauma (in childhood, for example) can, later in adult life, find sustained marital intimacy challenging, to the point where some feelings and desires appear or feel “shameful”—needs that, it seems, can be met only outside the relationship, which unfortunately ends most often in regret, guilt, and more shame.

What might have been causing distance between the two of you? And are any of those issues present today? Assuming it always takes two, what do you imagine to be your “side” of the issue—and has this problem or obstacle been resolved? Is this aspect of the relationship (on either side) still an issue?

Could this be what is bothering you today, that this “part” of yourself (however it manifests) might still be unacceptable to your wife, and that by sharing about the affair you’re also testing to see if this particular aspect of yourself is accepted by your wife?

Or is it that you were a different person then, and that this past issue has no bearing on the relationship as it exists today, but that you’re anticipating possible fallout if she were to find out … so better to just come clean?

If the problem no longer exists, it may be wiser to sort it out with your own conscience before taking the complicated and highly unpredictable step of discussing it with your wife, assuming you decide to do so. I think it would be hard to say if or when she would forgive you; she might, but she might not, or it might take years. You, of course, know her better than I do. What is it you feel will help the relationship by telling her? If it is more a matter of your own conscience, is she the best person to offer forgiveness or redemption?

What is always keenly ironic to me is that sometimes partners will stray outside the relationship to “protect” the partner from those shameful or unwanted parts that we are sure will offend the other. We fear being too “needy,” too “kinky” in bed, too angry, too sad, and so on. Those emotional needs and feelings thus find a home outside the relationship, making it more likely that the relationship will suffer, possibly fatally.

Keep in mind your wife may very well, like many partners, take the affair as a rejection of her, proof of her own inadequacy still existing today. In other words, it’s quite possible the affair will feel to her—though it’s long over for you—as if it just happened. This will be new information for her, possibly turning the perception of the marriage on its head. I am curious as to what the benefit of this might be, given the risk. Perhaps deciding how you feel about the affair will make it easier to discuss with your wife, should you go that route. I don’t know that it would be up to her to resolve your own conscience on the matter.

In other words, you may not get the peace of mind and redemption you’re seeking, so perhaps it’s best to make peace with this as best you can before seeking out her forgiveness—because it could take months or years, and meanwhile you’ll be in the same pressure-packed boat while she figures out how to feel about it. Unless by telling her you feel you both might be “in the same boat”?

The other thing that occurred to me is that the impulse to tell her might, even unconsciously, be a way of creating distance again. Some might call it self-sabotage, though I’m not so crazy about that term as such sabotage might also be, on some level, protecting us from intolerable uncertainty and vulnerability. Again, if intimacy is challenging (as it is for most of us in one way or another), there is a part of us that both craves and fears closeness, lest the injuries or abandonments of the past play out again (not literally, but via new hurts or slights that press our old buttons). Maybe it’s as if you’re saying, “Well, OK, you love me, but do you really love me? Try this on for size!” This might spring from a historically recurring question of whether you really “deserve” the intimacy or love you crave and have found now. If it ain’t broke … as the old saying goes. But sometimes, our deep fear of injury or (symbolic) reinjury leads us to distance ourselves or evade our partner in all manner of ways. In other words, is this a genuine, heartfelt question or a desire to rock the boat in disguise? Maybe both?

Behind the morality of “do I or do I not deserve love” lies the deep fear of being rejected or exiled from our beloved, since we have so little control over the love given to us by others. Do you have a fear of receiving love in general, or dread sustained vulnerability? Could it be you are still upset with your wife about something, and telling her this news is a way of transmitting a feeling of betrayal you have felt but never expressed? If so, is there a different way of doing it, as the fact of the affair itself might well be a red herring, since the truth likely lies less with the what and more with the why of it.

You say the affair is “over,” but something about it remains very much alive for you. What is it, and is it more about yourself and your own long-standing personal history, or more relating to the relationship specifically? I’m sure there is overlap, but still these questions are probably worth some self-reflection.

It’s also true that infidelity often happens early in a relationship, where a sustained commitment of love and intimacy is frightening to a person. I cannot tell you how many couples I have seen where one partner strayed shortly before or after an engagement or marriage, especially (ironically) when such engagement or marriage was something long-desired. The only thing scarier than not getting what you want, sometimes, is getting what you want.

The more I think about this, the more I think you are struggling with, quite possibly, an existential or highly personal rather than relational question. Before deciding whether to take it to your wife, try discussing this with a therapist (even if it’s only short-term), trusted friend, or spiritual counselor. My sense is that we first have to get right with our own conscience—or make best efforts—before handing that power over to someone who might need time to understand or get over their own hurt. A partner always has their own subjective filter, and it is hard to see how his or her perspective will or won’t align with ours. (It also occurs to me that your wife may end up forgiving you in a way that feels almost dismissive to you, like, “Well, it’s in the past, let’s move on,” which could feel dismissive of your current angst.)

You say the affair is “over,” but something about it remains very much alive for you. What is it, and is it more about yourself and your own long-standing personal history, or more relating to the relationship specifically? I’m sure there is overlap, but still these questions are probably worth some self-reflection.

You could even try writing out a “confession,” in as honest a way as possible, and then read it to yourself a few days later (or, again, to a trusted confidant). Then imagine being in her shoes and hearing it for the first time. You might ask, how does this serve the “we” and not just the “me”? Who might benefit, really; are you seeking a redemption that—for a while, at least—she may not be able to give? This way, you can make a decision, fraught with emotional risk, that you have thought through and reflected upon as best you can.

Thanks again for writing.
Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 9 comments
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  • margo

    margo

    August 21st, 2015 at 1:56 PM

    Here are my thoughts- this is something that is going to make YOU feel better, not her. You may have a lot of regret and guilt, and you feel like you want to tell her about it and ask for forgiveness. But what good is that really going to do? You know that you were wrong and that this was a mistake and that hopefully it isn’t something that will ever happen again. Bringing this up to her now when the affair is long over is only going to dredge up the past and hurt her. I say keep this one to yourself and if there is pain on your part, then you just have to learn to deal with it.

  • Penelope

    Penelope

    August 22nd, 2015 at 8:11 AM

    I understand what margo is saying, but I think that if it was me then I would want to knw.
    I would want to know because this is obviously something very difficult that is causing you pain and in that case this is something that the two of us should work on healing together.
    It wouldn’t be easy to hear it but there has to be something said for feeling that need to come clean and asking for forgiveness.

  • eric

    eric

    August 24th, 2015 at 10:47 AM

    R u an idiot? U want to keep ur marriage or send it down the rabbit hole?

  • Richard

    Richard

    August 25th, 2015 at 4:36 PM

    I guess that you need to do what you feel like is right for you. I sort of side with those who say don’t tell her, but you know, confession is a key part of being a better person so I can also understand why there is a need on your end to rid yourself of the secret. Juts know that no matter what you decide to do then someone is going to be hurt. You just have to decide if you want to be the one to hold onto that because you are in fact the guilty one or are you going to make others feel that pain too?

  • Phylis

    Phylis

    August 26th, 2015 at 10:47 AM

    Then what do you do or how do you react if once you confess then she confesses to something that she has done too? Are you going to be just as forgiving of her as you are hoping that she will be of you?

  • peter w

    peter w

    August 28th, 2015 at 1:06 PM

    Could you feel comfortable doing it within the confines of counseling or something like that?

  • Joanna

    Joanna

    August 29th, 2015 at 5:33 PM

    So the affair apparently wasn’t as white hot as the marriage if it has fizzled out and you are still with your wife.

  • Marianne

    Marianne

    September 23rd, 2015 at 2:38 PM

    So it seems that the consensus is to hush up and stay the course
    I think that I could probably agree with that
    Now of course if the shoe was on the other foot and I was the wife I think that I would want to know
    Or would i?

  • HH

    HH

    July 27th, 2016 at 2:58 PM

    Can’t the response be more brief and straight to the point? I dozed off while reading it.

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