Lately, my wife and I have been revisiting parts of our history that we hadn’t fully resolved. Among this is an ongoing discussion of my having cheated on her. Early on in our relationship, I slept with someone else. I kept this from her until we were working through some things, and I admitted to her what I had done. At the time, her immediate response was expected—she said there was no way we could remain together. She wanted the details. In a panic, I followed this truth-telling with another lie. I gave her false details of the cheating that cast it in a more acceptable light. She decided she wanted to stay with me, we worked through it some more, and have been as happy as we can be since. She leans on many of the fabricated details of the affair to forgive me.
This was about four years ago. Very recently, she’s let me know that she isn’t fully satisfied with our discussion of the matter, that she felt we’d had one conversation and that it wasn’t enough. We talked through it some more, and she said what really hurt wasn’t the cheating, but my having hidden it from her. She’s been very forgiving to me throughout, and I’ve only grown to love her more, and my desire not to hurt her again has been strengthened.
This has all brought about a crisis that I’d been suppressing over the last four years. I’d accepted that I’d lied again and lived with it, but talking about it more has made me realize how radically I’ve compounded my mistake. I feel like I’ve done something truly unforgivable. There’s a real yet unlikely chance she could find out about the real truth someday. I don’t know if I should tell her. I don’t know if I can tell her. I don’t know if I should keep this secret from her to, perhaps, protect her. I know she wishes I’d never told her about the cheating. Knowing what I know about how she’s come to forgive me already, I think this would absolutely break us. I think I want to just live with this secret, but in this moment, I feel like an absolutely awful person without a clue as to how to move forward.
“Should I confess this bad thing I’ve done?” is a classic genre of advice column letter, and there are essentially two schools of thought about the matter. The first values truth above all else, and the people who live this way are mostly a menace. Radical honesty is a horrifying prospect to any right-thinking person, and the few times I’ve implored people I care about to just be honest with me no matter what I have regretted it. That your wife wishes you had never told her about the cheating in the first place is a clue that she’s familiar with this experience.
The second approach, and the one I clearly favor, is to understand that knowledge can be a burden. This has become more popular over the years, I think, and lots of people these days will tell you that it’s often good to keep a secret if it will save someone else from pain. This is true, and relevant in your case (assuming the details you left out are not like, a secret second family or that the person you slept with is her best friend), and if you are at all familiar with my writing probably why you chose to ask me what to do.
However, I want to be very clear that doing something ultimately more kind here does not make you a good person. Lying to someone you love to protect them from knowing what you’ve done puts you on about the same moral ground as a firefighter who rescues someone from a building he set on fire.
This crisis you’ve been suppressing isn’t meant to be resolved, it’s meant to be endured. Life is mainly about making choices and then living with them—feeling guilt and regret about taking the cowardly option when you had a chance to fully confess is the consequence of that choice. You didn’t give me a ton of detail to work with but the few facts I do have (you cheated, you confessed but only partially, you want to keep it a secret but don’t) make me think you’re a little fickle, or prefer to have things both ways. That’s not really possible here, I’m afraid. If you don’t want to tell your wife the whole story then you have to deal with feeling like a terrible disappointment to yourself from time to time. There’s no escaping that truth, simply letting it serve as a reminder and, hopefully, a guide for future choices.
Speaking of deception, one housekeeping note here to the people writing in to ask what they should do after fabricating a rape allegation: At least create a burner email with a woman’s name you shitheads.
Got a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.