I've been cheating — Tell my partner?

Originally Published: April 29, 2011
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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? For better or for worse, cheating is rather common. Different studies find various prevalence rates, but most put the numbers at least as high as 25% of people in committed, monogamous relationships reporting that they have cheated on a partner. Let's start with your question of whether or not to tell your boyfriend that you've cheated on him. Here are a few of your options:

  • 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? At least one study places the last two options — third party and discovery — as rather low on the "forgivability" meter, so that's one thing to consider. But what options make sense for you? Not telling him about it, assuming he never finds out some other way, results in sparing his feelings, but it also can create a certain level of distance between you if you are carrying something that you feel you can never share with him. Sometimes, this can have no impact on the relationship and other times, it can reduce feelings of closeness for the couple. If this were to happen in your relationship, he might feel confused about the distance. Not telling him would keep him in the dark, so this too, is something to consider. Ultimately, you know what makes sense for you and your relationship, so trust your gut on this one.

You also mentioned your worry that perhaps this cheating indicates that you may never feel able to fully commit to one partner, especially because you feel truly happy with your boyfriend. It is true that sometimes, the desire to cheat indicates a need is not being met. In your case, though, cheating seems to stem from the thrill of being with a new guy. The love of the thrill of a new fling actually has biological underpinnings. When we experience crushes, a first kiss, the excitement of a new fling, the brain releases extra neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and norepinephrine. The term "intoxicating" has been applied to new romance for a reason. An exciting new situation can feel drug-like. Some people are even addicted to the feeling. So the fact that you enjoy that thrill is very human.

Does this mean you won't 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. For many people, the desire to be sexual 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. Others opt for an agreement with their partner that some sexual activity outside of the relationship is permissible (lots of trust and good communication is required for this to work). Still, some people who have these desires opt for cheating, an option that may seem like less "work" than the other two, but is probably more harmful to the relationship. Whatever you decide, the fact that you are wondering about and investigating this part of yourself is admirable. It takes strength to reflect on oneself and one's relationship in this way.

Whatever you decide to do in terms of your boyfriend (telling him or not telling him), exploring why you've cheated could help relieve some of the stress you are feeling about your future ability to commit. If you want to explore this issue further, it may be helpful to talk to a counselor. If you are a student at Columbia, you can make an appointment to see a provider from Counseling and Psychological Services by calling x4-2878. You may also want to check out the responses in the Go Ask Alice! relationship archives for more information.

Take care,

Alice

February 13, 2014

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I just want to say thanks for writing about this topic in a very down to earth way. I've been dealing with the same issue and everywhere else has made me feel like I deserve to be alone for the rest...
I just want to say thanks for writing about this topic in a very down to earth way. I've been dealing with the same issue and everywhere else has made me feel like I deserve to be alone for the rest of my life, branded forever as a cheater. I just feel lost and confused and what you wrote has helped me start to figure out what I've done, what reasons and what my next step should be.