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October 17, 2011 8:36 AM   Subscribe

How much to tell a potential new love about past infidelity

After ending a several year marriage over six months ago, I've decided to stick my toe in the dating pool. During my previous marriage, my ex and I engaged in a multi-year tit-for-tat that began with flirtation with other people and resulted in both of us having extramarital affairs (meaning, we each had an affair with more than one person). It was an awful war of attrition and I hate how cowardly and abysmally I acted. I have worked with a counselor for a few years to attempt to understand my behavior and have striven to act in a way more consonant with who I want to be. I continue to try and be truthful in all respects even if it pains me to do so. Now I'm faced with the question of what to tell someone I am (seriously) dating about my past infidelity. How do I do this and how much do I tell? I think I should tell someone who wants to get serious with me that I was unfaithful in my marriage but should I give dates and names? I'm incredibly ashamed of some of my actions and, at this point, they are nearly four years in my past and I don't feel as if I'm that person anymore. But, would it be a lie of omission if I didn't reveal the extent of my dishonesty in my marriage to someone who is considering whether to pursue a committed and exclusive relationship with me?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't feel obligated to mention it early in a relationship. I assume if it gets serious enough, the topic of your first marriage will at least come up, and you may have to outright lie about it (not just by omission) if you want to keep it a secret. I wouldn't lie about it.

That said, if a partner told me about this in general terms ('we both cheated, among other things...') I don't think I'd ask for dates or names or frequency, and probably wouldn't even want to know that stuff if it was volunteered.
posted by pete_22 at 8:46 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think you can just say that when you were married, you behaved in ways that you're now ashamed of, and did things you now realize reflected a person who is not your best self or the person you strive to be. If you want to get more into it, you could talk about how you and your spouse engaged in a war of bad behavior that has left you ashamed, but that you learned a lot about who you are and who you want to be, and you are humbled by the experience but a better person based on what you learned.

Basically, I don't think you need to do a blow by blow or go into vast detail, but you shouldn't hide anything or be evasive either. I think you just want to be straightforward but don't tell someone something they didn't really want to know.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:49 AM on October 17, 2011 [7 favorites]

I wouldn't mention this to anyone. It's old news. Are you planning on mentioning every other transgression or sin you've ever committed? If you feel the need to confess--why turn your lover into your priest or shrink?
Your actions show your new love what kind of person you are, not your words. If at some point in a committed relationship, you two decide to swap secrets, maybe this could be a topic for discussion, but I'd not venture into that territory until you are at a very serious stage.
Picking your scabs isn't healthy. Reciting a laundry list of wrongs isn't healthy.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:51 AM on October 17, 2011 [11 favorites]

I once had a girl I was interested in tell me "I don't want to date you, it sounds like you need a therapist, not a girlfriend." She was right, at the time. Sounds like you've already got the therapist, so keep the ancient past in the ancient past. It's probably wise to acknowledge that you went through a period where you didn't behave well, and that you're committed to not being that person anymore, but more than that is probably no good, as A Terrible Llama says. Getting into names/dates doesn't serve anything, though, especially not that far in the past, with therapy and big life choices between here and there.
posted by Alterscape at 8:59 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're serious about her (or him?), you must say something about your past behavior and how you now feel about that behavior. She has a right to know the person you were--and the person you believe you've become. Give her the respect--and the facts--to allow her to judge. But details would not serve anyone's interest.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 9:06 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do not mention. Especially if you did not have any previous history of cheating in other relationships.

Let the ancient past stay there. Talk it out with a therapist again if you need to.

I think you are brave for wanting to be brutally honest, and yet, I can't help but feel there is a point where something will damage the other person so much, and if it does not and did not involve them, your brutal honesty is just selfish and drama making.

Short Answer: Don't disclose this unless it is true for you that, "Hey I cheated before and I will cheat on you, too!"


It doesn't sound like your marriage was a Marriage. Some relationships are about learning. We do bad things in these relationships and hurt ourselves and others.

If you've turned the corner on that type of behavior, you don't need to rehash it. Youget to move. Feel good about yourself again.

Part of learning from our mistakes is knowing when to let go of them entirely because we will never ever do that thing again. If you've truly learned your lesson, drop the guilt and the narrative from your current life.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 9:16 AM on October 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'd talk about this with your therapist. I see pluses and minuses to both discussing it with a new person in the name of honesty and never talking about it in the name of bygones being bygones, so if this were me I'd go over the whole thing with my therapist and have them help me make a decision.

That said, I wouldn't go near the topic unless things were semi serious.
posted by sweetkid at 9:17 AM on October 17, 2011

I think it would be respectful for you to tell your serious SO about the cheating, but only when it comes up naturally. There's no need for you to volunteer the info out of the blue, but don't lie about it.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:21 AM on October 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

But, would it be a lie of omission if I didn't reveal the extent of my dishonesty in my marriage to someone who is considering whether to pursue a committed and exclusive relationship with me?

I would say "no". I don't think you need to wear a scarlet "A" or anything.

However.......If you are asked, you should own your role in the demise of your marriage.

I, personally, wouldn't divulge details about how past relationships ended unless such information was requested. Otherwise, I think it is TMI.
posted by PsuDab93 at 9:53 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, I think that directly lying about it would be a very bad thing to do. I also know from personal experience just how much 'don't pick at past scabs' and 'not-that-person-anymore' secrecies can hurt a relationship when they eventually come to light. Do you need to volunteer the information? Not necessarily. If the topic of cheating in relationships comes up, should you discuss it then (even if you aren't asked)? I think so.
posted by 200burritos at 10:34 AM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you should bring it up if the topic of cheating comes up. It probably will at some point.

If you were my partner and I found out, years later, that you'd cheated on a past partner, I would be very upset. I'd have wanted to know before making a huge emotional investment in you, in case it was just something I could not bear. For example, if I found out you'd done that while having unprotected sex, I probably could not work past that. I'd be concerned about my safety and the fact that you'd put your partner at risk, for example, regardless of what your partner was doing. However, if you explained all the work that you'd done to address it, I might be able to get through it. But I would want to know - and earlier.

If you simply say that you did things that did not reflect the person you were and that you would not do them now, this, to me, would come across as a big red flag for cheating, physical/sexual/emotional abuse or some other grievous harm. I think it's far better to address it naturally, instead of setting off (my) alarm bells.

I'm just one person. But that's the thing. Your current partner is a person. And has her own reactions, values and feelings. So I'd address it - even a bit at a time - when it comes up naturally.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:45 AM on October 17, 2011

I believe in honesty in relationships but you do not need to go into detail. As mentioned above, talking about what you learned is the best approach. I would also recommend being honest because I am sure several people already know (not just in your circle of friends but your partners' circle of friends) and juicy gossip like that gets around in the oddest ways. So while the infedility itself may give your current partner pause when you bring it up; finding about it from someone else or after a significant amount of time would certainly raise red flags if lying appeared to now be a pattern in two consecutive relationships.
posted by saucysault at 10:50 AM on October 17, 2011

I would say only addressed if directly asked, but certainly don't lie about it if they do ask. At the beginning of my previous relationship, unbidden and out of a misplaced sense of "laying it all out there" I brought up that I had cheated once, and she had serious trust issues with me because of it. Now, I believe those trust issues were essentially unwarranted* and I was completely faithful to her, but that doesn't change how it affected how she thought I approached relationships.

* FWIW, I'm not sure if it was just me, or if she had a default (and IMO flawed) opinion of prior relationships, since she believed in having 24/7 access to my communications that seemingly came out of nowhere. Yes, I know that is messed up and an unacceptable level of distrust for most people, but hindsight is always 20/20 and all that.
posted by zombieflanders at 11:32 AM on October 17, 2011

I agree with everyone about not providing details...except if for some reason you had an affair with someone that is still around, somehow, and there might be some leftover "stuff," (e.g. you have to explain why your boss hates you or your brother's wife emails you constantly, etc...).
posted by Pax at 11:43 AM on October 17, 2011

I would want to know about it. I like having knowledge in a relationship, so I would be inclined to ask why your marriage ended. At that point, I would expect someone who had cheated to mention the cheating. Maybe I'm an oddball. As a woman, I have noticed that men that I have dated haven't wanted to hear a single thing about my past relationships. I wanted to hear all about theirs though...not out of jealousy, but I thought it was part of emotional intimacy.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:33 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think people reply based on a) their philosophical approach to honesty; b) their projection of the partner's likely reaction, thus projecting a 'philosophy of honesty' onto this person. I would recommend making an appraisal of your partner's philosophy of honesty and make your decision then. Note, this will take some time and perceptiveness on your part. There are people who would be hugely (hugely!) betrayed by the idea of a seriously impactful aspect of your past being kept from them by a lover (I would be one of those people). There are also people who simply Don't Want to Know almost anything 'iffy' about your past, and if they do, only in broad outline (these folks tend to be more likely to be given to jealousy, anxiety, worry, etc). I worry, but I worry a lot less depending how honest I perceive the other person to be.
posted by reenka at 12:41 PM on October 17, 2011

But, would it be a lie of omission if I didn't reveal the extent of my dishonesty in my marriage to someone who is considering whether to pursue a committed and exclusive relationship with me?

This becomes a Catch-22, because the kind of person who would consider this a lie of omission (me) is also likely to have this knowledge undermine her trust in you (also me, even in spite of the best intentions). Then again, maybe people like this aren't people you'd want to date anyway--in which case revealing this part of your history at the right time can weed out potential partners who are judgmental and unforgiving.

But, it would be a very big deal to me if you tried to hide this part of your past, and it would reinforce every negative thing the horrible little voice in my head says about cheaters. (No, that voice doesn't even use the more correct "person who cheated.") There's a chance that if you were matter-of-fact and direct about it, I'd be won over by your confidence and honesty that this was something you went through in your marriage, and it wasn't likely to happen again.
posted by gladly at 1:31 PM on October 17, 2011

Once you are talking seriously about your future together, then you need to let her know what's in your past. Not names and dates though.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:48 PM on October 17, 2011

To give you some perspective, more than half of us are unfaithful (probably with the other half). There is absolutely no need to do a "big reveal" on this, and in fact, serial infidelity as a marriage collapses is so commonplace as to be boring. By the time people reach their mid-30s, folks just have mileage on the clock, more than a few dings, and at least one major collision on their clock. It's just the way it is.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:17 PM on October 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

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