Come clean and move forward after cheating

“I cheated on you” isn’t happy news to share or hear. But it doesn’t have to mean the end of your relationship. It isn’t clear whether cheating occurs more between military couples than between civilian couples. But Military Service Members marry at a younger age than civilians, and they endure stresses such as long and recurrent separations due to deployment that can make their relationships more vulnerable to cheating. If you’ve strayed and now want to “come clean,” consider the following before you confess to help make the experience go as smoothly as possible.

Look inward

Ask yourself why you cheated. What led you and your partner to drift apart? Maybe a deployment or an injury made it difficult to feel supported or stay connected. What made you feel unhappy in your relationship? What prevented you from talking with your partner about those issues? If you understand what led you to the point of looking elsewhere, you’ll be able to explain your thoughts, feelings, and insights more clearly.

Plan a time and place

When and where you talk to your partner is important. Choose a place where you can have a long, uninterrupted, private conversation. Pick a time when the conversation won’t be rushed. Check with your partner to make sure the time and place works for his or her schedule. You might say, “There’s something I want to talk with you about. Can we set aside some time tonight at home to have a discussion?” When the time comes, keep distractions to a minimum: Make sure kids are at a friend’s house, put away cell phones, and turn off the TV.

Tell the truth

Show respect for your partner (and your relationship) by being direct and honest about the details of why you cheated. Avoid accusing or criticizing your partner to explain why it happened. And don’t leave out details in order to spare your partner’s feelings. Instead, take it slowly and be willing to share it all—at your partner’s pace. Frame your sentences with “we” whenever possible, such as “We grew apart” or “We weren’t very good at supporting one another.” After your confession, make sure you apologize sincerely. Take responsibility for your wrongdoing. Say you’re sorry and acknowledge your partner’s feelings.

Anticipate possible reactions

Although you might feel better after coming clean about cheating, your partner will likely need time to process—and ask questions about—what you’ve shared. Your partner might feel angry, sad, confused, betrayed, or numb. Infidelity is a considered an “attachment injury”—an emotional wound caused by a breach of trust that’s difficult to heal without a focused effort. Once you’ve told the truth, you’ll have plenty of work to do to get your relationship back on track.

  • Listen and be patient with your partner’s responses.
  • Be prepared for a range of potential reactions and related emotions.
  • If the conversation starts to escalate to a conflict, suggest a brief time out.
  • Stay in the difficult moment with your partner, and do your best to stay engaged and responsive.
  • Keep the focus on your mistake. Getting defensive or downplaying the affair risks making matters worse.

Cope with the aftermath…again and again

Give your partner time to process the conversation and come to you when he or she is ready to talk again. After the first wave of strong emotions has passed, you might want to talk more about what led to the cheating. Use good communication skills to share your thoughts and avoid misinterpretations. It’s common for strong feelings to come in waves or after something sets off a memory or strong emotions, so be prepared to discuss the issue many times.

Find a resolution

Once you’ve both processed the state of your relationship, and after emotions have settled, you’ll need to decide whether to move forward as a couple or to end your relationship. If you both decide to move forward, make a commitment to rebuild your relationship together while recognizing it will take time to do so. If you decide to part ways, engage in a discussion about how to separate amicably. And if you’re having trouble coming to a decision, consider speaking with a couples therapist or chaplain. Many emotional wounds can be healed, at least somewhat, with open communication and time.

Resources

Abrahamson, I., Hussain, R., Khan, A., & Schofield, M. J. (2011). What helps couples rebuild their relationship after infidelity? Journal of Family Issues, 33(11), 1494–1519. doi:10.1177/0192513x11424257

Balderrama-Durbin, C., Stanton, K., Snyder, D. K., Cigrang, J. A., Talcott, G. W., Smith Slep, A. M., . . . Cassidy, D. G. (2017). The risk for marital infidelity across a year-long deployment. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(5), 629–634. doi:10.1037/fam0000281

Kachadourian, L. K., Smith, B. N., Taft, C. T., & Vogt, D. (2015). The impact of infidelity on combat-exposed service members. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 28(5), 418–425. doi:10.1002/jts.22033

Peer, E., Acquisti, A., & Shalvi, S. (2014). “I cheated, but only a little”: Partial confessions to unethical behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 202–217. doi:10.1037/a0035392

Snyder, D. K., Gasbarrini, M. F., Doss, B. D., & Scheider, D. M. (2011). Intervening with military couples struggling with issues of sexual infidelity. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 41(4), 201–208. doi:10.1007/s10879-011-9177-1