As both a sex therapist and marriage counselor, I have been talking to individuals and couples about infidelity for over thirty years.
These conversations involve recurring themes: sexual boredom; fear of intimacy; chronic conflict; power struggles; feeling trapped; workaholism; childrearing disagreements.
And in every infidelity case, each party has to decide who gets told about it. The Betrayer typically wants to keep things just between the couple. But when the Betrayed discovers the betrayal, their anger or grief may drive them to tell one or more people about it. Before you know it, everyone except Dr. Fauci has heard about the affair. These people—including parents, mutual friends, employers, and children—then start treating both Betrayed and Betrayer differently, often causing more marital strife.
The entry of bystanders into the unstable relationship mess can make reconciliation—or even productive conversation—impossible. Whoever invited those people in (usually the Betrayed) often takes no responsibility for these consequences.
It’s easy to imagine the loneliness, humiliation, and rage of someone who has been betrayed. Yet none of these feelings is a good reason to tell others the ugly story.
I’ve heard just about every bad reason that Betrayeds tell others about the pain of betrayal. Listen to them:
“I have a right to tell everybody; after all, she behaved really badly.”
“I couldn’t live without revenge, and telling his boss was a good start.”
“I needed someone to talk to, and my sister is my only friend.”
“I didn’t want to feel alone, so I told the first person who asked me how my day was going.”
“I could never hide anything from my family.”
“My best friend would be angry if I hid this from her.”
“I figured that telling everyone what a slut she is would prevent her from doing it again.”
“I read online that telling others is a form of empowerment.”
“Our kids deserve to know what kind of a person their mother is.”
I understand these feelings, I really do. I never tell patients not to feel this way. I just encourage Betrayeds to think about how they want to deal with these feelings. Telling one or more people is only one way—and it may turn out to be the most complicated and most damaging.
Yes, I encourage the Betrayed to think clearly, exercise self-discipline, and decide wisely, rather than just respond to their understandable feelings. “But that isn’t fair—first I’m treated like crap, and then I have to act smart and mature?” Yes. Memo to all adults: life isn’t fair.
When I tell the Betrayed that I’m sympathetic, I also say that managing betrayal requires self-discipline, which usually surprises them.
There’s the question of protecting the children, if there are any. Not only do they NOT have a right to know how much their mom has hurt their dad, they have a right to NOT KNOW—to not be dragged into the marital politics of their parents.
They’ll inevitably feel pressured to take sides, which benefits no one. They may feel guilty for failing to protect one parent from the other. And they can’t possibly understand the unique marital situation in which the infidelity occurred. As the Spanish proverb goes, “No one knows what’s in the soup except the two cooks who stir the pot.”
There’s also the question of protecting the marriage’s future, which is initially unknown. No matter how angry or hurt a Betrayed is, they can’t really predict whether they will stay or go, or when they’ll decide. Over and over, I’ve heard “I always said, one betrayal and he’s out”—followed weeks or months later by an attempt to reconcile. I don’t take a position on this, but I’ve learned that almost no one can predict how they’ll respond to betrayal.
Other things I ask people to consider before discussing an infidelity with others:
- Do you truly think you can control where information goes once you share it?
- What if this disclosure ruins your spouse’s job, on which you and the kids depend?
- What if you want to reconcile after trashing him—what will people think of you? Of him? How will they relate to you? To him?
Some cultures have norms requiring adult children to reveal all important life events, such as infidelity, to their parents—who then dutifully tell the in-laws, siblings, and extended family. I have seen this repeatedly with families from India and China (remember, I practice in Silicon Valley), although from elsewhere as well.
I have never, ever, ever, seen this end well. It mobilizes dozens of people, often in several continents, to form opinions, give advice, and demand further detail. As often happens in large, multi-generational families, the individual couple quickly gets lost in the smoke of group norms, family tradition, gender assumptions, and the management of shame.
So when I start working with an individual or couple around infidelity I always ask who else knows, who told them, when, and why. If no one knows yet, I urge people to continue this policy for the moment. I also say the couple (whether they’re both in front of me or not) needs to agree on who’s going to be told (if anyone), and what they’ll be told. Of course, cooperative decision-making is difficult when the betrayal is fresh, but it’s as important then as any other time.
Sooner or later, the Betrayed (and often the Betrayer) wants to talk. If I counsel people to be closed-lipped with family and others, with whom can people in anguish safely speak?
- A therapist
- A clergy member
- A physician
- An attorney
( Note that all of these professionals are legally bound to keep your disclosure confidential.)
- One close friend, preferably someone who lives out of town and doesn’t know your spouse. And to whom you say in a serious tone, “If you tell anyone—including your mate or my mom—our friendship is permanently damaged.”
The goal of such talking should NOT be advice, which isn’t what most people need. The goal should be feeling witnessed, sane, and cared about. Hopefully a Betrayed can find someone to do that who doesn’t also insert their own emotional needs into the conversation (“Well, all men are dogs, you know.” “Well, I never trusted her.”)
Other options for self-expression during the anguish of a revealed infidelity include writing in (or dictating to) a journal, and a centering activity such as yoga or meditation. Some people find walking in nature tremendously valuable.
Sometimes a Betrayed is confronted by relatives or friends to whom it’s clear that there’s something wrong. If your kids or parents see you moping, crying, or not talking to your (unfaithful) mate for days, they may demand an explanation and refuse to be put off.
In that case you can reference “marital problems” rather than infidelity. What kind? “I’d rather not talk about the details.” And if the other person pushes back? “I’d rather not talk about the details.” If they keep pushing—even claiming to have the right to know—you’ll have to make a quick choice. No one has the “right” to know what’s bothering you if it isn’t about them. If necessary, just say you’re too upset to talk, and quietly withdraw.
Protecting yourself (and, for the moment at least, the wounded marriage) is more important than gratifying a well-meaning person who expresses their caring by making demands and feeling wounded.