Being honest about cheating: is it always necessary?


Cheating: there are many people who do it and many relationships that break down because of it. Is it always necessary to be honest about cheating? Certainly not, experts say.

Cheating: no fewer than 1/3 of us do it

Research by Durex has shown that about 31% of all Dutch people have had affairs. This is more than the global average,  where about 22% of respondents report having had an affair. It won’t surprise you, however, that there are few studies with truly reliable figures; after all, most people are less than willing to admit to cheating. What we do know is that, according to the CBS (Statistics Netherlands), 33% of all marriages in the Netherlands end in divorce due to the unfaithfulness of at least one of the partners.

Being honest about cheating: is it always necessary?

Let’s cut straight to the chase: this question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. There are as many different reasons for admitting you’ve cheated as there are against confessing honestly, just like there are many different degrees of cheating. A principle of honesty above all else cannot apply here. But before I get ahead of answering whether you should always admit to cheating, let’s look at the different types of adultery.

Emotional cheating

We speak of emotional cheating when one of the partners in a monogamous relationship develops sexual or romantic feelings for someone else. When do you know if you or someone else is emotionally cheating? There are no clear boundaries, but if you’ve crossed the limits of a normal friendship, you might want to ask yourself whether that’s a good idea. Are you cheating if you send each other sexy pictures or erotic emails? Or when you have very intimate conversations, for example about your desire to have children and maybe even talk about a future together? Do you delete messages you’ve sent to that friend with potential benefits? Maybe you’re already aware that you’re crossing the line of friendship. But maybe not. But ask yourself: if you were to read a similar conversation between your partner and another person, how would you react?

Reading tip: The cheating woman 

Physical cheating

A much clearer boundary is found in physical cheating. If you kiss, sleep with, or touch each other intimately while you’re in a monogamous relationship with another person, that’s a clear case of adultery. Yet, we all recall how Bill Clinton once claimed that oral sex wasn’t sex and therefore wasn’t cheating. I bet Hillary had other thoughts about this.

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How bad is it to cheat just once?

There are many different degrees of cheating. One drunken kiss with a colleague at a Christmas party is very different from a month-long affair where you hook up repeatedly in hotel rooms. Sending a picture of your naked breasts to an ex for the first time is different from having a partner who regularly visits a prostitute. But ultimately, it’s up to you how you deal with cheating. One person will be sad after a single kiss, but won’t break up the relationship because of it. For another person, it could mean the end of the relationship. The situation you are in will also play a role: are you living together? Do you have children? How bad it feels when your partner or you cheat is something that only you can decide.

Oops! You cheated. Now what?

Suppose it happened. You strayed once. Should you be honest about your own cheating? The risk is that your partner might never trust you again. Many relationship therapists agree: it’s not always better to be open and honest.

Cheated once and regretted it

Dr Ruth Westheimer, better known as Dr. Ruth, says that it’s best to keep your indiscretions to yourself if you’ve cheated only the one time. It’s perfectly normal to regret your actions and yet be genuinely happy in your relationship, even if you did jump into bed with someone else in a moment of weakness. “I don’t believe you should be honest at all costs,” says Westheimer. By doing so, you could end your relationship, even though you know it was only a one-off.

“In addition, you’re hurting your partner by telling them about the cheating,” says relationship and sex therapist Megan Fleming. “You’re the one with the guilt and if it was just a one-off, you don’t want to transfer that guilt to your partner.”

Being honest about cheating if you’ve done it before

According to author and relationship expert Susan Winter, sometimes it’s important to be honest about cheating, while other times it’s not. She also says that it does more harm than good to confess a drunken indiscretion that you hardly recall yourself. But it’s different if your indiscretions become an affair. Winter recommends trying couple’s therapy first before bringing up the adultery. This will help you learn how best to discuss your personal needs in the relationship and how you could change that. A therapist can also help with breaking the news that you’ve had an affair and ultimately help make the relationship stronger.

Be honest when your partner asks about it

If your partner asks you straight out if you’ve cheated, it’s important to be honest, says psychologist Madeleine Mason Roantree. “It’s not easy to discover that your partner has cheated, but if someone suspects it, it’s best to be honest. Lying about it makes cheating even worse, so save your partner the pain of being cheated on and lied to.”

“Once a cheater, always a cheater”

According to psychotherapist Tammy Nelson, it’s not fair to lump all cheaters into the same pile of low-down, no-good scum. There are different types of cheaters; people have affairs for different reasons. Yes, there are those who never learn. “These are people, for example, who can’t or don’t want to be monogamous, but also don’t have the courage to be honest enough to indicate that they’d like an open relationship,” Nelson says. “Often, these are people with a personality disorder such as narcissism. They can be so charming, but only think about themselves.”

Not everyone cheats more than once

On the other hand, there are also many people who make a mistake only the once and never do it again. Perhaps because it happened during a night out or because their guilt has made them realise how much they care about their partner. According to both Nelson and Fleming, it’s important to ask yourself why you or they cheated. Is there something missing in the relationship and what can you do to fix it?

Could you forgive your partner if they cheated on you?

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