I've been cheating — Tell my partner?

Originally Published: April 29, 2011 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: January 30, 2015
Share this
Alice,

I've been with my boyfriend for nearly four years and, while we may have our occasional disagreements, our relationship is great — my boyfriend is sweet, understanding and caring. I am also very attracted to him. Our sex life is wonderful and he is attentive to my every need, both physically and emotionally. However, despite the fact that I am very happy in this relationship, I have cheated on him a few times. I've never slept with anyone else, but I have gone out on dates with other guys and even made out with a few. It's not like I don't love my boyfriend, I just like the thrill of being with a new guy. He is my first boyfriend, and I'm worried that I'll never be able to be in a fully committed relationship, even when I'm married. How can I stop cheating on my wonderful boyfriend? Also, should I tell my unknowing boyfriend that I have cheated on him? I think you're great, Alice, and I would really appreciate your advice.

Thanks!

Dear Reader,

Your cheatin' heart: What to do? People may cheat for a range of reasons, whether it’s one time or repeatedly. Some individuals use techniques to help them stay faithful in the future, while others negotiate relationships that may be something other than monogamous. The impact of a partner learning about cheating that has occurred also varies from relationship to relationship. To address your question of whether or not to tell your boyfriend that you've cheated on him, it may be helpful to consider the different ways that this situation could play out:

  • You could choose not to tell him about it, even if he asks.
  • You could choose to say something only if he asks.
  • You could choose to tell him, without him asking about it.
  • You could choose to volunteer some, but not all of the information.
  • A third party could tell him.
  • He could "discover" your cheating.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Studies show that the way someone finds out that their partner has cheated may influence the outcome of the relationship in the aftermath of the discovery. Research indicates that, if the cheating partner discloses the infidelity, the couple is more likely to have a positive outcome compared to the non-cheating partner finding out some other way.  What option makes sense for you? Only you can answer that question. But here are some things you may want to consider:

  • If you decide not to tell him: Assuming he doesn't find out another way, this may result in sparing his feelings, but it also can create a certain level of distance in your relationship. If you know something that you feel you can never share with him, he might feel confused about the distance. Sometimes, this can have no impact on the relationship and other times, it can reduce feelings of closeness between partners.
  • If you decide to tell him: Research indicates that many study participants who told their partners about cheating felt good about that choice and associated it with respect for their partner, the relationship, and themselves. Research suggests that when the person cheating chooses to tell the partner without having been asked, there is a better chance for the relationship to continue (rather than the partner finding out via a different avenue). In the best cases, disclosing infidelity to a partner allowed the couple to have beneficial conversations that helped address whatever motivated the cheating and solidified future commitment to each other. Unfortunately, a positive outcome is in no way guaranteed, and it is best to be prepared for the partner to react with negative emotions and the chance that the relationship will end.

You also mentioned your worry that perhaps cheating indicates that you may never feel able to fully commit to one partner even if you feel truly happy with them. Does this mean you won't ever be able to commit? It depends. You mentioned that this is your first relationship. Your cheating could reflect a desire to explore your options — to not "settle down" before you've had a chance to see what's out there. A need that goes unfulfilled in a relationship is also sometimes implicated in the desire to cheat, though you mention that you feel your boyfriend does indeed meet your needs. An individual’s level of executive control (the ability to control your own behavior) can also factor into cheating. When a person are especially stressed or tired, it may be more difficult for her/him to exercise control in decision-making when faced with temptation.

For some, the desire to be with more than one person never goes away. People handle these feelings in different ways. Some choose not to act on them, either working through or suppressing such desires. Some use techniques when they feel tempted, like reaching out to a trusted friend for social support or focusing on the long-term consequences of cheating. Others opt for an agreement with her/his partner that some activity outside of the primary relationship is permissible (lots of trust and communication is key for this to work). For more information on relationships with these types of arrangements, check out Extramarital sex always wrong? and Should we have an open relationship?

Whatever you choose to do (either telling your boyfriend or not), exploring why you've cheated could help relieve some of the stress you're feeling about your future ability to commit. It may also be helpful to talk it out with a counselor. Taking time to reflect on your options and relationship will likely help you come to a decision that is right for you.

Alice

For more information or to make an appointment, check out these recommended resources:

Counseling and Psychological Services (Morningside)

Mental Health Service (CUMC)