To Tell and How to Tell (about an affair)

One of the most challenging and sometimes frightening of all questions surrounding the topic of infidelity is whether the spouse who is having an affair should tell their partner what has happened.  Indeed people agonize over this question in fear of the future and the potential outcome for a separation.

While most agree that the expected reaction of most people will be one that is highly emotional, painful, negatively charged and in some cases even physical, the truth is that it is hard to predict what the outcome will be in all cases with any degree of certainty.

But why do people who choose to tell their partner make the choice to disclose?  On the other hand why do other people choose to conceal the truth?  Of course there is the simple explanation that some people are brave while the rest are cowards but I don’t buy it, how about you?   Some will conclude that those who don’t tell their partner are simply wanting to save themselves, while those who choose to disclose still have a degree of compassion for their partner and/or at least have somewhat of a conscience left.  But this is in my view the simple explanation and not necessarily the truth.  The answer is in my opinion much deeper.

While considering the question of whether or not to disclose I have relied on the work of the scholar Rabbi David Golinkin, as well as the work of the late Peggy Vaughan, one of the experts on infidelity.

The view taken by me from Rabbi Golinkin’s article is an extrapolation since he studied and wrote about the question of Telling the Truth to Terminal Patients from a religious perspective.  I consider this to be relevant because when there is infidelity in a relationship it is general believed amongst therapists that the marriage as it was prior to the affair no longer exists, it comes to an end.   As a result I add that the hurt partner may be a “patient” in this context since he/she is upon disclosure of the affair, about to be told information that is hence terminal.  Rabbi Golinkin writes:

Therefore, since most patients today want to know the truth, (Jewish Law) mandates telling them the truth. This is not necessarily because they have the “right to know”, but because, as of today, this information has proved beneficial and therapeutic.  Roughly 4-7% of patients, however, do not wish to know the truth.  Doctors and families must use their best judgment to ensure that such patients are not told the truth because the truth would be harmful to them. Most experts agree that the main issue today is not whether to tell patients but how to tell patients. They stress that patients should be told by their own physician, after all the medical facts are known, in a private place, in plain English and in as gentle and as hopeful a fashion as possible.   Needless to say, these are only general guidelines. In the final analysis, “each case must be judged on its own merits according to the individual patient.”

Hence, in regards to disclosing the truth to terminally ill patients Rabbi Golinkin appears to encourage honesty for the majority.  His data indicates that the vast majority except for less than 10 per cent of patients want the truth and except for the exceptional case, should be given just that.

Furthermore he says that the majority of experts say that the question is not whether to inform, but how to inform.  The rest of his article states that the sharing with the patient should be both informative and hopeful.

Rabbi Golinkin’s point of view closely resembles the work of the late Peggy Vaughan who advocates “responsible disclosure”.  Ms. Vaughan wrote in her book, The Monogamy Myth that:

First of all, they (the participating partner) need to be motivated by a desire to improve the relationship, not a desire to unload their guilt.  They also need to be prepared to hang in and work through their partner’s reactions to the information regardless of what those reactions may be, and it’s important that they plan the timing of their disclosure of an affair.  They need to consider such things as their partner’s general  level of self-esteem, what other issues or pressures their partner is currently dealing with, and whether their partner has a clear understanding that they are loved.  The first task of the person who plans to disclose an affair is to attend to these needs of their partner to be able to hear what they have to say.

So the answer to the question whether to tell and how to tell one’s partner about an affair lies in the purpose more than anything else.  The emphasis is clearly on the person receiving the information and not on the person telling it.  The only consideration is why you are telling, how the information is shared and when the disclosure occurs.  In other words, disclosure of an affair should always come after there is considerable preparation by the participating partner and it must be delivered to the hurt partner with compassion and as a message of hope for the future.

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