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
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 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.
  • Leave a Comment
  • 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

    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

    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

    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?

  • Don

    August 9th, 2023 at 9:19 AM

    I am angry that I had just accepted it. in my case it was my wife who was having an affair. And I knew it but said nothing. I figured it would end and we’d get back to all is well. Then she found out that I knew and that I just accepted it without saying a word. That made her furious. She began calling me names, ignoring me and my needs and I had lost all respect for her. Interesting how this caused the end of our marriage.

  • 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

    August 28th, 2015 at 1:06 PM

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

  • 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

    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

    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.

  • hurt person

    September 13th, 2019 at 9:34 PM

    My husband and I have been together a total of 21 years and we have been married for 8 years. I recently found out that he cheated on me 6 years into our relationship when our first child was 3 years old. He cheated on me with an old high school “friend” in 2004 and had sex with her 4 times. It’s a long time ago but I’m devastated that I am just now finding this out in 2019. He has been deceiving me for 15 years!!! I always suspected he cheated on me back then but he always denied it and so i gave him the benefit of the doubt. anyway – just recently my husband accidentally left his phone on the couch and that’s when i saw a message from this so called “friend”. he had been talking to her for the past 3 months. He told me that he was trying to break it off and tell her they couldn’t speak to each other anymore because he felt guilty and because he didn’t want to lose his family so the “friend” decided to send me a text with details about the affair. it has been so painful to deal with his deception. He has kept this from me for 15 years!!! mind you – I married him back in 2011. I feel like such a fool. He should of told me about it back then!. I think this is so painful now because he kept this a secret for so long. He said he didn’t tell me because he didn’t want to lose me. I will never trust him and i’m having a hard time forgiving him. He begged me for a whole week, cried, pleaded with me not to leave him and he told me he would go to couples counseling if I would just give him a second chance. He said he wants to show me that he’s a changed man and that he will never deceive me again and that he only loves me. That this girl means nothing to him and that she was just a conquest. I feel like he’s putting forth the effort because he has come clean about this situation and he’s taken me on romantic getaways – he spending as much time as he can with me but I just feel like I can’t look at him the same. The damage is done. He broke my heart. But even after all this I still love him. He’s my first love, my only love. I’m just so disappointed in him. I just don’t know if I should give him another chance.

  • Casey

    November 23rd, 2019 at 12:18 AM

    Yesterday I learned that my husband of 19 years had sex 2 times with 2 different women he worked with while I was pregnant with our second child about 15 years ago. He made out with some strange woman just after our first child was born three years into our marriage. I had suspicions and caught him calling some random woman. We went to counseling but he swore he never cheated on me. He has flirted with other women in front of me, and behaved like I was being paranoid. If he was okay with flirting with women in front of me, how far did it go with women behind my back? I doubt he had the 2 women and been celibate since then. We now have 6 children together. I don’t want their world to be broken apart, but I feel so violated. Rage seems to be my most frequent stop off. I have yet to cry, I just despise him and don’t think I will ever trust him again. I have no respect for him anymore. Worst if it is that he had unprotected sex and never even warned me. He was my first love, best friend and soul mate and I absolutely hate him now and feel as though I have been raped for the entire duration of our marriage.

  • Margaret

    March 15th, 2020 at 3:09 PM

    Do not confess under any circumstances – it only causes intense pain.

  • Maarten

    May 25th, 2020 at 7:05 PM

    Here is YOUR question reflected back at you:
    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.
    The answer resides in your question! What if you would have started your question with: “I have had an extramarital affair “bang!! … Forget all other excuses and paving the way to a preferred answer, why did it take you 17 years to ask this question? You have a ‘heart’ otherwise you would not have asked the question so I am not judging you (and I am sure you have lost a ‘few’nights of sleep) but her being the love of your life might have ‘something’ to do with you making up for approx. 17 years not telling her? … Love is patient, love is kind, love is wise … love always conquers!! Love her and be honest with her, all else will falll in place.

  • Andy

    August 25th, 2020 at 11:31 PM

    Never tell a loved one of an infidelity: you would be badly rewarded for your troubles. Although one dislikes being deceived, one likes even less to be undeceived.

  • Cheryl

    October 24th, 2021 at 2:45 PM

    Someone who hasn’t been cheated on doesn’t know how it feels. DO NOT tell your wife it might not destroy the marriage but it will destroy her and she will never get over it and feel the same about you. It’s been 33 years since my husband cheated and he is dead now and It messed me up so much I still have problems. Try to forgive yourself and be the best husband you can be. If you tell her you will loose a lot more. It’s not worth it!

  • Sarah

    November 25th, 2021 at 12:49 PM

    What rubbish! I love her but I cheated on her and did not tell her at the time because I don’t know what love is and I am only a comfort seeking coward – even now. I’m not sure your wife did not know and am not sure she had not had an affair either. You get what you deserve. Unconscious living called love!!!

  • JLGC

    February 17th, 2022 at 11:53 AM

    I think my spouse cheated on me for about 8 years. He cheated with no intention of leaving his family. He loves me deeply. I do not love him deeply. I do not have proof other than some really long phone calls. I feel that I am living a lie and that our marriage was built on a bad foundation. Because it started early in our marriage and went on for a number of years, I feel it invalidated anything that came afterwards because it was built on lies. Like most men, I would divorce if I had proof of a physical affair. If he lied to me for years he in incapable of the type of love that I want, and is shallow- only caring about his wants and goals and not letting me make my decision based on the facts. The love I have for him is really love for a person that isn’t him, so it is not worth much. The OP should tell his wife and let her decide what she wants to do with her life. We only live once and he should not force her to live a lie.

  • Lee

    November 20th, 2022 at 7:05 PM

    Mine confessed her affairs 15 years afterwards when we had two small boys. It gutted me. Destroyed my ego and crippled my self esteem. Made me question EVERYTHING, I have had to learn how to trust, even and especially so my self !
    I would prefer to have never know. It has done nothing but made my life a living hell. I forgive but I can’t forget and the knowledge has destroyed my love for her. I still care for her. But “love”, idk. I’m less patient and not particularly fond of her company. I try. But I can only handle so much of being around her before I begin to think of history and memories I thought that were once us but now …… marriage of convenience. But not true happiness.

  • Deli

    December 2nd, 2022 at 1:42 AM

    Not telling your partner about an infidelity, whether it’s current or long ago, is a form of control. Everyone has the right to know about anything that will affect their lives especially when your partner could potentially give you an STD. Condoms don’t protect you from all STDs.
    Infidelity is a choice not a mistake. There is lots of planning involved (where are we going to meet, when are we going to meet, how often are we going to meet, what excuses/lies am I going tell my partner as to why I’m not home). When people say that they didn’t want to confess about their infidelity because they love their spouse and didn’t want to hurt them, it sounds very disingenuous. It sounds so lame. Do they really think people believe their reasoning? If they really loved their,partner, they wouldn’t have cheated in the first place.
    If the shoe was on the other foot, would you want to know? No one likes to be made a fool of. You obviously thought having an affair was a great idea. Your partner should now have the choice as to whether to stay or leave. There should be no secrets between you and your partner. If you truly love your partner, love them enough to tell them the truth. Stop making a fool of them.

  • Liv

    July 30th, 2023 at 8:26 AM

    You are depriving your wife of free will over her life as she doesn’t have good information about you. One loves one’s spouse, has sex with them, conducts all of life’s sensitive activities with them (finances, family, community) — this representation should be true and honest as understood by the couple. If one doesn’t have good information about the person one is conducting their life with — well, then there is no truth to the situation. For instance. would your wife want to have sex with you if she knew? She doesn’t have free will in this situation because of your activities and coverup. So therefore, those acts of sex are a fraud. Same with money, bearing children etc You have robbed her of freewill for 17 years! .

  • Anon88

    December 17th, 2023 at 2:51 PM

    I say don’t tell her. I did – one drunken night after a sex-starved year of living hell (worst part of our marriage), and I confessed immediately the next day. It has never been the same. We’re still together 9 years later, and we have two boys, but I know she doesn’t ‘love’ me that way. It’s more like a friendship without real passion, and she has brought it up once or twice during arguments, so I know it’s still there. If you tell her, your marriage as you know it is over. There’s no going back. I’d give anything to have a time machine and undo that night, but I can’t, so I live knowing my wife, who I will stay with until one of us dies, will never feel the way she could have about me. That’s my bed – I made it, and now I lie in it.

  • Lessthinking

    January 23rd, 2024 at 10:11 AM

    I view keeping it a secret as ongoing relational abuse.

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