I've done wrong and I need to make it right
April 25, 2013 3:38 PM   Subscribe

I cheated on my partner early last year. We were going through an extremely bad patch and I dealt with it in the worst possible way. We've come a long way since then, and I think I want to spend the rest of my life with him, if he'll have me. But I think he deserves to know about my worst secrets if we're going to do that. How do I do this in the least awful way?

I've been stewing on this for months, and so many times I've nearly posted the question "should I tell him?" but of course, I know the answer is yes. I want to propose to him one day, but why should he marry someone who's hiding such a shameful secret?

So here are the facts. I never slept with anyone else, but I made out with more than one guy, at different times. Without trying to excuse any of it, he had been shutting me out due to a lot of factors beyond my control, and romance and our sex life had died down to almost nothing. I craved attention so much, I found it in the worst places and gorged on it until things went too far. I'm disgusted with myself - I was at the time too, but the longer I go on, the more ashamed I am. It all stopped months and months ago, but I think of it almost every day and how much I regret it.

Anyway, I know I need to tell him. But he's a kind and gentle soul, and I can't bear the thought of how much it will hurt him. He is so good, so honourable, and so incredibly trustworthy that I hate myself for how it will make him feel.

So please - help me make this as easy on him as it can be. Please be kind - I know it's all my fault and however much I hate myself for what I did and how it makes him feel, I deserve it. But please help me mitigate its impact on him, his self image and his long-term happiness. I know he might not want to be with me anymore - that's a choice he will then be at liberty to make with the full facts.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (53 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Tell a therapist instead.
posted by kavasa at 3:44 PM on April 25, 2013 [73 favorites]

It doesn't sound like you want to tell him because you feel he deserves to know, it sounds like you want to tell him because you want to offload your guilt so you don't have to feel guilty anymore.

You really need to consider the potential effects of your choices before deciding whether or not to tell - the typical outcome is destruction of the relationship and that person's ability to trust for a long time.
posted by zug at 3:47 PM on April 25, 2013 [22 favorites]

"should I tell him?" but of course, I know the answer is yes.

Think again.

Telling him does not right the wrong.
posted by scottatdrake at 3:48 PM on April 25, 2013 [16 favorites]

I am of the sometimes unpopular opinion that if you make a mistake and you are certain you will not repeat the pattern of behaviour, sometimes it causes more harm than good to drag it out into the light.

You didn't have sex, so I assume you don't need to worry about STI's. Unless there's a chance he will hear about this otherwise from someone else, consider not telling him. It sounds like the need to tell him comes from alleviating your own guilt rather than benefitting him in some way.

If he's going to hear about it otherwise, yeah, a heads up would be in order.
posted by robot-hugs at 3:49 PM on April 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

Do you think he would want to know? A lot of people - perhaps most - would not, and in those situations, the kindest thing to do is not to say anything.

I think you need to figure out whether you want to tell him to unburden yourself (in which case say nothing or talk to a therapist as suggested above) or whether you think he would really, truly want to know.
posted by insectosaurus at 3:49 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're going to get a lot of people telling you no, don't tell him.

I'm one of those people. And I'm only going to say it because OMG you do NOT want to tell him and you need to hear it as many times as possible.

No, no. no.

If you want to be kind, don't tell him.

Please don't tell him.
posted by kinetic at 3:50 PM on April 25, 2013 [20 favorites]

You need to find a way to deal with this guilt and self-hatred. That should be your focus. Telling him would be painful for him and a release for you as it would give him the chance to punish you as you believe you deserve. I would suggest not telling him and finding another way to deal with you pain and self-loathing.
posted by Area Man at 3:51 PM on April 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Have you spoken to him about how you perceived him pulling away and how that affected you? That's a far more important conversation to have then the one you are agonizing over. If you get married the dynamic that "caused" you to seek out attention elsewhere IS going to happen again, at some point. Is he aware at all how much it upset you?

It sounds like your relationship communication skills are in need of some work. It doesn't matter how wonderful and amazing this guy is if you two can't talk, and telling him you made out with other guys isn't going to patch that.
posted by Dynex at 3:54 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Telling him will not make it better. Please don't tell him to make yourself feel better. Talk to a therapist, work on forgiving yourself.
posted by Nimmie Amee at 3:56 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you think he might find out some other way if you don't tell him? Realistically?

If so, tell him.

Do you think he's unlikely to find out some other way if you don't tell him? Realistically? THEN FFS DON'T TELL HIM. That would be needlessly cruel.

I always recommend a book called "There's Something I Have To Tell You" by Charles Foster, for difficult disclosures like this. It may be hard to get hold of, but it's absolutely essential that you work through it.
posted by tel3path at 4:00 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

You need to forgive yourself for what happened and you need to keep this little tidbit of information to yourself. There's absolutely nothing in it for him to know of your transgressions.

Making out with other people is not the end of the world. However, for example, if you were still in love with another person that would be something else entirely.
posted by dgeiser13 at 4:01 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I feel like I'm living on some other planet where the truth matters. Or something.

I know you're NOT asking, "Should I tell him?" But many people are posting here that you oughtn't, so I'm writing in that regard.

I don't feel like you need to tell him just to "deal with guilt." I think you want to tell him for very good reasons. You broke an agreement, and he doesn't know about it. That probably makes it difficult to feel like you're equally consenting to the agreements going forward.

Generally, I'm of the opinion that forthrightness, transparency about agreement-keeping, and honesty are great for feeling good and right about things for the long haul.

I think this conversation is going to open a lot of other conversations, (as Dynex mentions), and that's good. If the relationship can't handle this...

You're going to be able to do it by being kind and compassionate to yourself and to him. Let him (and be truthful with yourself) know why you're telling him. Be gentle and let him feel what he feels.
posted by eyesontheroad at 4:01 PM on April 25, 2013 [38 favorites]

I don't have any specific advice, but more food for thought. Have you guys ever talked about your feelings and opinions about infidelity?

This is not very politically correct in some circles (and I believe that AskMe is one of them), but many people believe that not all infidelities are created equal. Yes, I know that we're supposed to be equally offended by all forms of infidelity, whether it's emotional infidelity, or "making out" (what do you include in that, by the way?), or full-blown intercourse, but many people aren't. It's PC, if you're a guy, to be equally hurt by the idea of a female significant other cheating with a woman as by the idea of her cheating with a man, for example, but for many people, there is a difference.

While infidelity of any kind will be profoundly hurtful to most people, for some there are definitely gradations of hurt and forgiveability.
posted by jingzuo at 4:04 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

FWIW, eyesontheroad, my answer would be different if they'd posted this early last year.
posted by kavasa at 4:06 PM on April 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

If I married someone who did not honestly confess to cheating and it came out years later, I would consider the whole marriage a lie and consequently, I would feel that I had wasted years of my life that could have been spent on somebody genuine, and I would hold my partner responsible for those wasted years. This would almost certainly end in divorce.

I would recommend starting with the good news, which is that you never engaged in sex with anybody. Then explain what you did, making sure to put it in the context of the problems you were having and your feeling that you were being sexually neglected.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 4:10 PM on April 25, 2013 [10 favorites]

You're asking for advice on telling him, not whether you should, so I'm going with this: do it as plainly and straight-foward-ly as possible. There is no kind way to tell someone that you breached boundaries that you both (presumably) agreed to uphold. There just isn't. Choose a time when this is least likely to mess him up, though - not the night before some big personal/work thing and not right before his family is coming to town and not right before his birthday.

I agree with wolfdreams01 with regard to the idea of putting it into context but I disagree with saying anything at all that implies this is his 'fault', like "I was being sexually neglected". You need to own the fact that you made choices that, ultimately, you regret and that were not okay within the constraints of your relationship. Whatever you were, or were not, getting from your relationship at the time has no bearing on the choices themselves. At no point in time do you want to attempt to justify what you did because, really, there isn't any way to do that. And you need to make sure he's clear on that, too. That you are not justifying, you are just telling him what happened.

Assuming he's willing to work through this, be ready to talk about how you're going to prevent this from ever happening again - because that's the thought that will be forever creeping into his head if you don't make it very clear how you're going to avoid doing this, or something else, in the future when things are tough (because, of course, relationships DO have times of strife and difficulty). The therapist that kavasa suggested is a really good idea.

Depending on how he takes the news, you're going to have to do a LOT of rebuilding of trust within your relationship - and that might be a really long, hard road. You need to let him lead the way on that and try to honour his boundaries, requests, suggestions, and help him to feel comfortable again.

I don't think there's a way to make this easier. I really don't. I think that if you're positive you want, and need, to tell him about what's happened, you're just going to have to do it.
posted by VioletU at 4:27 PM on April 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Tell him. It's up to him what he does with that information but it's insulting to him think you're protecting him by not disclosing it. He's an adult, he'll do what he has to do once given that information but he should know.
posted by You Guys Like 2 Party? at 4:29 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was unfaithful to my spouse. I told. He stayed. (It was a one night stand with an ex boyfriend.) It happened again a few years later, another one night stand. I threw it in his face and asked for a divorce. We went to couple's counseling. We stayed together a long time. But he did tell me two was his limit and a third incident would lead to divorce. I was unfaithful a third time. I never told him. It was more than a one night stand. By then we had two kids. I couldn't have stayed without the affair (long story), so I felt there was no real downside as my marriage was likely doomed either way. We did ultimately divorce. It was a long time in the coming.

I am an excessively honest person. I am clear that I never want to live a lie again. I want an honest relationship in the future. I have since had a couple of "open" relationships. Most relationships can't survive that kind of honesty. And it can be very hard to be on the receiving end of it. I knew an excessively, painfully honest man for a few years. I felt cleaner for knowing him but that is really not for the faint of heart or thin-skinned. My preference would be to figure out how to do the happily monogamous thing. I never got the memo on how that works. I have made my peace with the possibility that the value I place on honesty may mean I will always either be celibate or have an open relationship. I suggest you think very carefully about that concept before disclosing.

If you still wish to disclose, here is how I suggest you handle it:

I suggest you do therapy first and deal with your enormous shame. Given what you were going through and that you only made out with these people, your shame sounds kind of over the top to me. I don't think you have any hope of making this work unless you first deal with that piece.

After you have cried on someone else's shoulder and sorted out your own garbage, think long and hard about exactly what you want to convey. It should be very nuanced. It should not be about your needs AT ALL. Therefore, do not talk about your feelings, your shame, etc. Instead, go to him and tell him that you think you want to spend the rest of your life with him because in spite of X time frame's turmoil you have come to really love and respect him. Because you love and respect him, you want to treat him honorably and therefore you feel he deserves full disclosure about some things relevant to the relationship. Then admit that during said turmoil, you made out with some people but never slept with them. Do not use words like "cheated" or "unfaithful."

Do not do that until you are ready to let him go without drama should that be unacceptable to him. Discuss that piece of it with your therapist (or journal or whatever) well ahead of time. It is not an easy thing to accept. In my opinion, you have almost zero hope of both disclosing and keeping him until you have really made your peace with the fact that being honest with him may cause him to walk, life is not fair, yadda.
posted by Michele in California at 4:38 PM on April 25, 2013 [19 favorites]

Don't tell him. This is your secret to bear forever. But if you don't tell him now, you can never, EVER tell him in the future. It's harder not to confess.

I am close to three couples in which one partner committed infidelity, and in two of them, the infidelities were immediately or eventually disclosed. In these two relationships, the infidelity became a power/superiority issue in a big way, and neither partner was happy. Both sets of partners felt like strangers afterward. These relationships hobbled along and both partners felt trapped. In the third relationship, this was suspected but not confirmed. The cheating partner spent years looking for atonement (agreeing to buy a house she wanted, agreeing to a third child) but they are still together and seem happier now that some years have passed.

I wouldn't have answered this way five years ago. But I can answer with certainty having been so close to it. Ignorance is bliss.
posted by mochapickle at 4:47 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wow. Of course you should tell him.

It may well be the end of the relationship--it's good you're prepared for that--but it's the only path to a sound long term future with this guy.

Also, you get to be an honest person again. Even if the relationship ends, you'll have that.

Deliver the same way you'd deliver any other awful news: sit him down, warn him briefly that you have something bad to tell him, and then tell him as directly as possible.

The fact that you didn't actually sleep with anyone does count for something. The fact that you are sincerely remorseful and wanted to air the truth, also. I think it's OK to mention these as facts in your favor, as long as you don't use them as a claim that you should get forgiveness.

I hope it works out for you two.
posted by mattu at 4:48 PM on April 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

I don't get this shit about not telling him to protect him. He's a big boy and he doesn't need protecting. He'll take his hurt and do what he needs to do. Once you stepped outside the rules of the relationship, you lost the right to decide what's best for him within those rules. You need to fess up and let him decide if he wants to keep playing.

Not telling him is manipulating him. Period. I feel really icky reading all these people saying otherwise. But then again, one of the rules in our relationship is "if you cheat, you tell immediately, then you start packing your shit."
posted by bfranklin at 4:50 PM on April 25, 2013 [15 favorites]

I can sort of see the argument people are making about "don't put him through this if you don't have to". But I personally would not be able to marry a person, keep this a secret for however long you are together, and always wonder in the back of my head whether they would have left me if they knew. I would consider it an unethical entry to my marriage, since I think of my (upcoming) marriage as the closest, most honest bond I will undertake with another person.
posted by nakedmolerats at 4:51 PM on April 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've been cheated on and for me the lying was 100 times worse than the sex. If it were me I would want to know, but I'd also want a specific and real plan about what you are doing to ensure it won't happen again. Something like, started therapy, joined a group for people who have cheated, cut of all contact with the people you cheated with, changed the habits that allowed the cheating to happen, stopped going to the same places, etc. I also think you need to give him room and time to have his reaction.

Good luck. Everyone makes mistakes. You're doing the right thing.
posted by latkes at 4:54 PM on April 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

So let me be sure: you were not married. He had shut you out emotionally and physically. You made out with some other people. Then stopped when your relationship improved.

This, while a concern, does not seem to approach serious infidelity to me. He abandoned you. That's a betrayal, too.

You certainly have no reason to feel this kind of huge self hatred, even if you regret it. You didn't kill anyone. You didn't even have sex.

Having said that, I would preface telling him with a request for couples counseling because you, and possibly he, are carrying around a lot of trauma. You two need to work this out, or find out if that's impossible.
posted by emjaybee at 4:56 PM on April 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

Your guilt is excessive and does not match the transgression.

It's not clear the relationship is worth this much drama, or that he is the guy for you, since your guilt is so exxaggerated.

Maybe if you hadn't worked yourself up so much with guilt, you wouldn't think he's so great? Could that be true??

I have no conclusions for you, but this is my firm takeaway from your question. Make of it what you will.
posted by jbenben at 5:04 PM on April 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

unfortunately, there's no easy way to do it. just rip the band-aid off and tell him. the sooner the better. you sound totally sorry and like you really regret what you did so do tell him that. be sure not to make any excuses. he may forgive you and he may not. here's hoping he does. good luck!

for what it's worth i think you are right to tell him. i could possibly be with someone who had cheated but no way with someone who cheated and lied about it. two wrongs don't make a right.
posted by wildflower at 5:16 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I too am surprised here by the number of people saying you shouldn't tell him. However each person has their own tolerance levels with things like cheating and what constitutes "cheating". My marriage has an absolue zero tolerance level for cheating.

But moving on. So the timeline here is that you kissed other men earlier last year? Like 2012? And you have been together ever since? Or were things still rough?

If he is a gentle soul, be kind. Write out what you want to say so you have a nice script. Tell him you felt neglected, but you clearly made a mistake, tell him what you did. Some couples can survive cheating and in others it's a deal breaker. I agree with others, the sooner he knows the better otherwise he will feel like your whole relationship was founded on a lie if it goes further.

However I feel there may be a deeper point to all of it. Why did you cheat? (Besides feeling neglected of course.) Why did he neglect you to that point? Why was there not mutual emotional support? Have those issues been resolved? If not, I am not sure the cheating is the main problem.

I 100% agree that a true, long-term relationship needs to be founded on total trust. If you lack that trust, you can't truly be best friends. At least that's the way I see it. If you do want to tell him, you just have to tell him. There's no magic formula of words that will make it all sunshine and rainbows.
posted by Crystalinne at 5:19 PM on April 25, 2013

Don't tell him.

Do have a discussion with him about what fidelity means to you both -- that is, what constitutes cheating and what doesn't. I suggest this not because you made out with other guys nor because you feel guilty, but because it's an important converstation for every committed couple to have. And it's not all about sex...my husband and I have agreed that it's not ok to have an extramarital confidant who learns about stuff we don't talk about with one another.
posted by wryly at 5:25 PM on April 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Without trying to excuse any of it, he had been shutting me out due to a lot of factors beyond my control,

I think it's a problem that you actually ARE trying to excuse it here.

Let me tell you a story about myself. I cheated on someone in similar circumstances. How long could I make it through a rough patch then? Oh, a few months of feeling shut out before I cheated. What happened there is that I was dumped as a result. I lost something important to me, I had a huge amount of learning pain, and I really learned not to cheat.

A few years later, I had a few relationships. There were more rough patches, as there are in relationships. One rough patch lasted literally a year. Unfortunately. However, I didn't cheat. I was not permitted to have (non-agreed-upon) outside sex or make-outs until the relationship was formally terminated AND I knew there would be no reconciling. I felt that certainty in my skin and bones because I had the learning pain of cheating prior. I didn't cheat the whole time. I didn't cheat when he cheated on me. I even waited quite a long time to have sex again after the break-up, just in case.

My feelings in the first case, when I was a cheater, were very different from my feelings in the second case, when I wasn't. When I was a multiple cheater, it wasn't until I had a big lesson that I stopped. I had to hit rock bottom in some way.

My fear is that if you tell him, you're still going to be a cheater. Especially if you did it multiple times. How long could you go without cheating again? The main question isn't, "Should I tell him?" It's, "How am I going to not cheat again?" I think that a lot of therapy might be needed there, over a fairly long time. One year ago is fairly recent. If you're freaking out, it might not be because you have a secret. It might be because you did something bad and you are still the same person. How are you actually going to not be that person? What, tangibly, needs to change?

I think you should work out a lot of that with a therapist before you march in and tell him the truth. I am not sure if there is some way to learn to not cheat again, without feeling unpleasant consequences like I did. Maybe you can learn it through therapy. Or some type of greater understanding. The answer isn't, "Our relationship is good now so I won't cheat." You don't cheat when your relationship is good. You cheat when you have a rough patch, and in long marriages, they happen. You had one just last year.

I think the right thing to do is to figure this out how to not be a cheater. You should figure that out before you get married, or propose, and at least have it a bit more figured out before you dump this news on him. Metafilter can't solve this in one fell swoop. I think you need to talk it over with a professional, read some books, whatever, and figure out how to not do this again.
posted by htid at 5:25 PM on April 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

Let me preface my comment with the the following facts, well known to those close to me that I have zero tolerance for infidelity, don't do forgiveness, and believe that people who cheat once will likely do it again --

I just don't see the big sin here. You weren't and aren't married. Your relationship was in bad shape. You didn't sleep with others, you necked with a few. I do agree that when you and your partner patched things up, there probably should have been a discussion about what happened, but at this point it seems like very old and irrelevant news.

If you do marry, of course that means a real commitment that no matter what, you aren't going to do anything like this again. But it does not mean you have to confess your prior bad patch peccadilloes.

I'd let this go and stop beating yourself up. The step I'd take going forward is not to confess, but express clearly to your partner your need for attention and affection.
posted by bearwife at 5:27 PM on April 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

I wrote a long reply and it went missing. Now, I am not going to retype everything.
Short version: No, please don't tell anything. It is not important, and by talking about it, you will make it important.
As I read your post, the issues which got you into seeking other forms of confirmation have gone. So now you need to get on with your lives. But maybe you should examine wether you truly believe all will be good. Maybe this is not your true love. Don't be afraid to move on. You know you are attractive and you have a choice. Maybe this is not the person you will be happy with forever.
posted by mumimor at 5:30 PM on April 25, 2013

I can't speak for every man, but I think you should tell him.

As others have suggested, tell him as calmly and collected as you can. Tell him that this has been troubling you for quite some time and, from what you say, you love him very much and that this will never, ever, happen again.

It's up to him what he does with the information (ask me how I know), but the last thing you want to do his keep secrets from him. He'll respect you more, or less depending on how he feels about you and the relationship.

This may be a deal breaker for him, but let him make that choice and live with the consequences.
posted by mrrisotto at 5:32 PM on April 25, 2013

I started out thinking you shouldn't tell him, but now, I dunno.

Either way, work out your guilt and angst elsewhere first. Because if you don't, and you end up telling him while breaking down and being all distressed, that puts the burden on him to comfort you, and it shouldn't be his burden right then. You should be in a place where you're collected and centered enough to tell him without manipulating him - however unintentionally - into trying to ease your distress. Don't do that to him.
posted by rtha at 5:41 PM on April 25, 2013 [7 favorites]

If your question is, actually, HOW to tell, not whether, this is the script I would use (as a person who keeps having these things happen TO them, unfortunately):

You: Hon, can I talk to you about something openly and honestly?
Him: Uh oh
You: Remember that time, last year, when we weren't really ourselves? Things were kind of rough. We weren't intimate with each other, we didn't have our usual connection.... things are so much better now, but it was hard last year. I wanted to tell you, because I think our relationship is the most important thing to me and it should be based on honesty and openness, that during that time I felt really lonely and missed our intimacy and I had a couple drunken (?) makeout sessions with strangers (??) during that time. I never had sex with anyone, I never saw them again (?) and I don't want to ever be with anyone besides you. It happened twice (?) and I haven't done anything like it since. I have no intention of doing it ever again. But during that shitty time, I did a shitty thing, and I want you to know everything about me before we move our relationship forward.
posted by Pomo at 5:52 PM on April 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

I was on the other end of a situation like this, albeit with less time elapsed between infidelity and disclosure. Yes, it was horrifically painful to hear. Yes, all things considered, I was still glad to have been told, rather than being forever 'protected' from honest knowledge of the relationship I was in and the person I was in it with.

I'd want to be told. Your guy may or may not - you'd have a better sense of than than any of us would. But since there are so many voices against it I thought I'd add the voice from the other side of this scenario suggesting another perspective.

That's about all I want to say about that publicly, but you are welcome to MeFiMail me if it would be helpful to hear more about my perspective on this.
posted by Stacey at 6:31 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stand by your principles - tell him, or don't marry him.

I'd sit him down. Don't make it a date, don't make it special, don't say We Need To Talk. Just talk. Be honest, explain how it happened, but don't seem like you're making excuses.
posted by corb at 6:35 PM on April 25, 2013

I think you should work out a lot of that with a therapist before you march in and tell him the truth.

This. You may decide to tell him, or you may decide not to, but don't do it while you're still beating yourself up.

For one thing, it would be very easy for your confession to turn into a situation in which he'd have console YOU for feeling so guilty.

For another thing, if I were him, I'd want to know you'd worked on it enough to give me some sense that you really get why you did it and how you now know that it would never EVER happen again.
posted by small_ruminant at 6:40 PM on April 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

In this life, we are too often dishonest. With ourselves, with our loved ones. We don't dare confront the difficult things, the vulnerable things, the shameful things. We don't communicate often enough the extent of our love and resolve.

Face yourself in honesty. Why do you want to tell him? Are you seeking forgiveness, or your own exculpation? How would you react if he cannot forgive or accept? If he cannot forgive, or at least, require a long time to think things over, can you hold onto your love, be patient for a steady length of time and ready to prove yourself? Be prepared for that. Before you even think about telling him, put your mind and heart in a place where, should he react in hurt and lash out, you are able to maintain openness and vulnerability, feel his pain, and communicate how much you understand his suffering in that moment.

When you are ready to have a talk, set up an appointment, give him heads-up. Give him full awareness of your love for him, your belief of a future together, but let him know there are things to discuss first. Not so far ahead for him to become apprehensive. Just enough to know the talk will be serious.

Then, tell him everything you wrote here.

Be present, be patient, and wait for his reaction. Remember that you have done wrong. Let him see your guilt, your shame, and also how much you were hurt by his shutting you out of that period of time--without casting any blame. Let him see your new understanding, all that you have learned from that experience. Let him sense your resolve and confidence that, should he still wish to, you have learned that he is the one and you are ready to do whatever necessary to make this work.

After that, it is up to him, but you would have truly done your best.

Good luck.
posted by enlivener at 6:41 PM on April 25, 2013

I know I need to tell him.

You toss this off as if it's a simple, obvious statement, and it's not. If you take anything away from this thread where people are hotly batting around the ethics of telling versus not, let it be this: There is no right answer. The only dumb, closed-minded opinions on this subject are the ones that say, "You need to do X/Y, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong."

My advice is that you unpack the statement, "I know I need to tell him." First, how do you know? What's the source of this knowledge? Are you drawing it from social expectations you've been exposed to, from deep self-reflection, from having prolonged conversations with your partner about hypothetical situations? Second, what exactly do you mean by the word, "need"? Saying that you need something is like saying you feel "upset," which could mean angry or dejected or heartbroken or exasperated. It's not a very informative word. There's more there, if you feel inclined to use that word, so figure out what that is.

Personally, I fall with the side that says, as a general proposition, don't tell. I always think of David Mamet when this question arises: "You cheated on your wife...? You did it. Live with it." [Emphasis in original.] That's something that spoke to me when I heard it. It's about responsibility. You talk about your partner making a decision with the "full facts," but is that ever really true? In my experience, in my personal relationships, in the relationships of friends that I've seen and clients that I've worked with and family that I've been surrounded with...it isn't. I've seen a lot of people who claim their spouse "knows everything" about them but in reality it's roughly equivalent to people who say, "I'm in control of [thing]." It's illusory.

You can frame it a lot of different ways. "He deserves to know the truth." "I should protect him." "It's my mistake and I should own it." "I need to be honest." Et cetera. Personally I don't think much of any of those, but that's just my opinion and what works for me. If a particular framing works for you, go with it. I would suggest you try on some different framings, in your head to compare how they fit, before acting on one.

I'm always curious to know people's experiences with infidelity, when this question comes up. When you're telling me that I need to do X or that I cannot do Y, what's your experience? Have you cheated and told? Have you also cheated and not told? And have you been on the receiving end of those two experiences? If you've been cheated on and you weren't told, did you find out? Might you have been cheated on by someone and still not know it? Even further...have you been the "other person" in infidelity? What were the circumstances of that? My experience has been that many people have experienced none of these and many people have experienced one of them, and those are the two groups of people who tend to have the strongest and simplest opinions. People with more varied experiences tend to have more complex opinions.

How do I do this in the least awful way?

Do it in a public place. That's not condescending. It is manipulative, but not in a bad way. Keeping him from exploding/imploding is as much a favor to him as to you. Some people might say that he deserves the chance to explode, and that's a valid opinion but I think it's shortsighted. I think that when you're looking for the "least awful" way to do something that he'll remember for the rest of his life, if you can keep it emotionally capped you should. The potential for explosion/implosion is also the potential for him to have a more awful memory.

Break the news with simple, brief language. "I kissed X guys Y months ago." Pull off the band-aid. Omit all of that bullshit about, "I'm not trying to excuse it, butyouwereshuttingmeoutandandand..." That isn't part of a confession and it isn't part of an apology, so if you think it's relevant then save it for another day.

Pretend your friend was injured in a car accident, and you are telephoning his mother to tell her about it. You want to be gentle, so the first thing you do is cap her expectations by telling her how deep the hole isn't. "First of all, Joe is alright and he's right here with me." Then you break the news. "He broke his leg. We had a car accident." You might do something similar here. I can't write your script because I don't know enough about your situation, but you get the idea. Maybe that makes sense, maybe it doesn't.

I'm sorry for your pain. I hope something in this thread helps you. Good luck.
posted by cribcage at 7:00 PM on April 25, 2013 [11 favorites]

I do not think it is selfish to confess. I hope your man has the integrity and self-awareness to break off the relationship if he cannot forgive you. I also hope that you understand that you deserve better than a relationship where your transgression is used as a trump card against you in every argument. You both deserve a relationship where you both trust each other. I don't think you can fully trust him without knowing that he will forgive you for what you did. I also think that you do need to forgive yourself for what happened. If you don't, you will be the one dragging this situation into the relationship and letting it define the relationship. If you can't forgive yourself, you need to let go of the relationship. So, for the sake of having a good relationship with him, you should be honest with both him and yourself.

I was in a situation where I was in your boyfriend's position. If my ex had wanted to continue the relationship, I would have wanted a confession. If he did not want to continue the relationship, I would not have wanted to know this had happened. Here is a rough script of what would have gone over well with me:

1) I did x,y, and z. It happened a long time ago and I am not doing it anymore.
2) I love you and loved you while I was doing it. I know it was wrong and make no excuses. If you need to know why I did it, it was because we were having problems and I handled it poorly. I was weak and selfish. I am incredibly regretful and will never do this to you again. I am so sorry to have hurt you.
3) I still want to be with you and will do my best to make the amends you need.
4) Take as much time as you need to figure out what you want to do.
posted by rhythm and booze at 7:06 PM on April 25, 2013

I wouldn't tell him. Not because I'm trying to protect him but because telling him would make me feel better while making him feel worse. After doing something rotten, why should I get to feel better? You seem inclined to self-flagellate so own this thing. Talk about it with a shrink if you like but don't tell him. And I agree that your guilt seems disproportionate to your crime.

That said, what are you going to do if you and your boyfriend have a rough patch in the future? Have either of you worked on your communication skills so it doesn't happen again? I am more concerned that you'll do something destructive in the future when under stress than the fact that you made out with some randos.

I've never been cheated on AFAIK but I have cheated, though not in my current relationship. When I cheated, it was because I did not want to be in that relationship anymore and I didn't have the balls to end it. Why did you cheat? Why should he believe that you won't do it again?
posted by kat518 at 7:14 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

You made out with some people. My rule for disclosing cheating would be (a) will he find out from others if you don't tell him, and (b) can he catch an unexpected STD from what you were getting up to?

I can't speak for the first one, but as far as I'm concerned, kissing doesn't rank as bad enough that you need to confess it for health reasons.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:46 PM on April 25, 2013

If you are not involved with this other person any more and are committed to spending the rest of your life with your current partner, then say nothing.

Take it to your grave.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:00 PM on April 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I know what you're going through. Personally, I think it has been so long that it is not necessary to disclose what happened, however:

If you want to "mitigate its impact on him, his self image and his long-term happiness", then I would recommend what many others have: to band-aid it and just be straightforward. Do let him know that you'd have much rather been kissing him. It sounds like it is true in your case, and it may make him feel less rejected.

Something along these lines, perhaps?

"I don't know how else to say it, but a while back I was so frustrated by our circumstances that I projected my expectations of you onto other men and made a few mistakes. I really want to be with you for the rest of my life and hope you do, too, but I wanted you to know this going in. I understand if you can't decide right away and I understand if you hate me, but I love you."

I wish you luck and really hope you can stop beating yourself up about it. If you have a login but posted anonymously because of the nature of this post, feel free to PM me and say whatever you need to. I'm sure you'll feel better once you have told him. You seem like a kind an honest sort.
posted by nohaybanda at 9:05 PM on April 25, 2013

I suggest sitting down in a comfortable place that is easy to leave quickly, and then telling him what you told us. I never slept with anyone else, but I made out with more than one guy, at different times. That's all the information required to get things started. After that's out, he is likely to provide directional cues for the conversation. If things become unproductive or scary (define those terms as you will, but be safe) leave quickly.
posted by current occupation: at 10:14 PM on April 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd tell him. Come clean. I couldn't live with myself if I had to keep this from my potential boyfriend/girlfriend for the rest of our relationship.
posted by dubious_dude at 1:09 AM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Woah, it's a learning experience to see how many folks wouldn't tell.

Anyway, I guess a question worth asking, if you're considering not telling, is what would happen if he found out through someone else.
posted by latkes at 6:28 AM on April 26, 2013

Having been there:

Telling them is a sign of respect for their capacity to process what happened and where the relationship is now.

Not telling them is (to me) an indication that you think you have more insight into what is good for the relationship than your partner does, and that you alone get to decide how much this should matter. If I were your partner, I would not think this is fair.

As far as how to tell them, well, I completely endorse the idea that you should go to therapy first. In the conversation where you tell him, you can say that you knew this was a mistake, and you went to the therapist to make sure that it was one that you will not make again.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 7:21 AM on April 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

help me make this as easy on him as it can be. Please be kind

The way to make it as easy on him as can be is not to tell him. That is the kind thing to do.

I understand the need to confess. It is powerful and frankly, a sign that you know the right thing and that you don't want to do the wrong thing anymore. But, no good would come of confessing to the man you wronged. If you are of a certain persuasion, confess it to a priest or pastor. If not, confess it to a therapist. In a sense, this thread is your confession.

This will get better, although you will probably never forget it. It will probably cause you sadness when you think of it. But, please don't make your sadness his sadness. For yourself, do not despair.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:15 AM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

You want to tell your partner because you want to clear your conscience. But you're going to make your partner feel worse. In other words, you help yourself and hurt him. Don't do it.

You did something wrong. You'll make it right by being the partner he deserves from this day forward.
posted by 2oh1 at 11:04 AM on April 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Advice not to tell your partner because it will hurt him doesn't account for how much more it will hurt him to find out in a way that isn't an honest and open conversation with you.

Finding out any other way is torture.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 11:10 AM on April 26, 2013

I think you should and need to tell him, as the person who was the opposite party in this same scenario a few years ago.

My boyfriend and I had been dating for three years, one of them long distance. He went out with friends one night in the city where he lives, and ended up making out with a girl that we both knew at a bar. He freaked out, left immediately, and called me immediately the next morning to tell me about it. In this conversation, it came out that this wasn't the first time this had happened - once, a year before, he had made out with a stranger at a bar. (Made out in both of these context is kissed aggressively in public.)

I was crushed, I told him I needed time and space, and that I wasn't sure if I would ever get over it.

We (somehow) made it through the next few months long distance. We ended up in the same city and we kept trying to make it work. The 16 months following the confession were the absolute worst - we had had 'bad times' in our relationship before, but it was nothing compared to my complete paranoia every time he went out without me. He put up with my obsessive need to dig into the details of his life, I managed to slowly rebuild my confidence and trust in our relationship. It was hard, and dating him wasn't fun for awhile.

BUT. It worked out. We've now been together almost 9 years and we are getting married this summer. I've never trusted anyone more, and I utterly and completely confident that we are meant to be together, and that we can make it through anything. We've been through a ton (cheating, hospitalizations, deaths & family illness, etc) and I know that we can make it through anything at this point.

Anyway, I would want to know. I wanted to know. It hurt, a ton, but it brought us infinitely closer together to talk about it, to come to terms with it, to understand what caused it, and to ultimately work through it together. Together. Not him alone, 'keeping his guilt' from me. But together - it's the only way the relationship will actually heal.
posted by CharlieSue at 11:49 AM on April 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

You were not married. Your partner was dealing with his stuff and distancing himself emotionally. You reacted by making out with a few guys. This level of acting out is nowhere near what I'd consider infidelity or a broken agreement or the "shameful secret", as you've characterized it.

Let's be clear: Confession is good for the confessor's soul, but hardly ever the listener's.

I think there is nothing to be gained, except that you will introduce a new reason for your partner to mistrust you, and a boatload of hurt and anger, which could take months or years to work through, if he doesn't decide to dump you there and then.

There are, of course, times when confessing is the right thing to do. Such as when a couple is in counseling, and there are strong suspicions and getting back on track requires truth-telling.

I read nowhere in your post what EXACTLY you have done to ensure that this mistake will not happen again. How will you answer that question when he asks it?

It is far more important for you to own your actions, take responsibility and ensure that you have the tools and maturity to act more appropriately the next time your relationship hits a rough patch. Do that now, for you can be sure another rough patch is just around the corner.

There is no law of man or nature requiring people to have the "full facts" about each other. I'd bet my last bippy that you don't have the "full facts" on him either. All we can do is stay committed, flexible, forgiving and communicative with each other, and hold on for dear life.

Since you have recognized your mistake and want to take your relationship further, try to make amends with a renewed commitment. That way you will be able to work through your guilt as opposed to constantly churning this in your mind and exaggerating the importance of your mistake in the grand scheme of things.
posted by MyTwoCentsToo at 3:01 PM on April 26, 2013 [6 favorites]

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