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Should a Cheater Confess?

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Cheating: a lot of people do it, but hardly anyone talks about it.

Now, thanks to Whisper — a free online app where people anonymously share secrets — we have a little more insight into an otherwise private situation.

That is what I read in The Huffington Post the other morning while poking around the Internet. Apparently this anonymous confessing site is not the only one either. This idea has been around for a while on postsecret.com, which asks its participants to send in postcards with secrets–so I learned from my girlfriend.

Now what could be the benefit of an anonymous confessional app or space? I know the power of confession is great, a purging, and the anonymity allows for the confession, but how does that change anything for the confessor, the voyeurs looking on, or the couple? I can understand the voyeur part, as misery loves company is not a cliche for nothing, and perhaps the redeeming factor for such a site is for those who peer into others’ lives not just for vicarious thrills but to shore themselves up to do something about their own cheating or their significant others’ like confront or confess to the real live partner.

But as for the cheater confessing, what does that do other than provide a momentary relief of built up pressure that comes with holding in a really big secret. Does it alleviate the guilt associated with the act by justifying that others have done so too? Does it allow someone to reduce the self-hatred that comes with the act by seeing that he/she is not alone or the only person who has ever cheated? I can see how some would benefit from such a site. But for the serial cheaters and sociopaths, this site may actually be a narcissist’s delight; look at my exploits.

I believe the real need for confession comes in not merely commiseration but in communication and validation. If one carries a dark shameful secret, it works the mind of the carrier into shame and guilt, distorted thoughts of proportions from “I’m a bad person “to “no one has been as evil as I am.” If someone on either end of the scale confesses the secret and the hearer does not run away or burn up in the hearing, or the confessor does not explode, then the test of validation has occurred. He or she thinks in relief, “I said this terrible admission but the other is still looking at me as if I were a human being. Or, maybe, even sympathy or empathy.”

Human beings need continual confirmation that they/we are all together in being human. It’s lonely living in your own skin. There is no perspective, no context sometimes. The human egocentric being will distort the degree of horribleness of his crime or sin commensurate to how he feels about what he risks losing in having done that shameful deed: dignity, moral standing, trust, stature, jobs, friends, lovers, spouse and/or kids. For marital strayers, the need for confession depends upon that experience of projected loss and degree of guilt, whether religiously or secularly framed.

Confession as therapy has a long history from Freud’s “talking cure” and later Jung’s stages of wellness. Jung believed confession was integral to therapy and was one of the specific steps to recovering wellbeing. Others, philosophers like Michel Foucault, saw the confession as an institutionalized demand by society’s officials, the confession recipients. Whether criminal, medical, psychological or religious, confession is an extraction of personal details for the purposes befitting the one with greater power, the confessor’s hearer, i.e., police, doctors, and priests, according to Foucault. By the act of confession, one person is dependent upon the other for the hearing, the pardon, the judgment or non-judgment as the case may be, the punishment. One of the two-party configuration is in a position of power and the other is spotlighted in the gaze of the other, awaiting her fate.

When it comes to ‘straying’ spouses, should the offender confess to his or her partner? The answer to that question will vary according to the agenda or, not so cynically, the orientation of the advisor. Religious advisors may consider the moral character and state of the soul of the offender as paramount, whereas a psychologist may consider the long and short term damage to either or both spouses and the marriage itself.

In the small sampling of articles I perused on the subject from marriagehelper.com, psychologytoday.com, time.com and spiritualityhealth.com, the answer seems to be: it depends. Only one of the aforementioned seems intransigently prescriptive: in other words, here is what you have to do to make this work, regardless of the circumstances. The other articles weighed the grave injury to the non-offending spouse against the need for honesty and seeking for forgiveness of the offending spouse.

Some argued that it may be best not to tell for the irrevocable injury it would cause to the innocent spouse (I use these terms bluntly and descriptively only) not only in context of the marriage, which may well break up, but future going for the next relationship he or she enters, trusting issues, for example. Others advocate risking the injury and the probable breakup for the power and virtue in honesty and the contrition with which the honesty is given. Most agree that each case is different, which makes sense since each couple is comprised of specific individuals, not a common class of people.

Confession in itself is a rich source of contemplation, its ubiquity (Isn’t all social media confession?), its therapeutical properties and ritualistic sedimentation in cultures throughout the world, as well as its artistic value. One of my favorite poets, Sylvia Plath, harkens from what has been termed the Confessional Poets of the 50s and 60s, along with Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton, characterized by very personal subject matter such as domesticity, relationships and sexuality: novel for its time but pretty old hat now. Who doesn’t write the personal?

To delve in more deeply and expansively, I consulted the Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion and found an interesting morsel in an abstract of an article by Morgan Stebbins titled “Confession”:

The act of confession either begins a process of reparation or affirms the subject’s relationship with the transpersonal. That is, one can confess wrongdoing or confess one’s faith. In most religious traditions, the former is accomplished through ritualized admission, absolution, and repair, while psychologically it begins the formation of therapeutic trust and unburdens the subject of poisonous secrets….The word confess is made up of the Latin com (together) and fateri (to acknowledge), indicating that a process of change begins both with another person and by admitting that which is in error.

Getting back to C.G. Jung, in The Journal of Religion and Health, Elizabeth Todd in “The Value of Confession and Forgiveness According to Jung” describes confession according to Freud’s successor, as one of need by virtue of being human:

Man, a naturally religious being, has a need to confess his wrong and to gain forgiveness of one sanctioned to absolve. The curative effect of confession has been known for centuries. Without confession, man remains in moral isolation. Priests, ministers, and rabbis, as well as psychotherapists, attest to the universality of this human phenomenon. Confession is located in that place where psychology and religion meet-guilt. Jung’s views on confession bridge the chasm between psychology and religion.

Confession is relationship by its very nature. One confesses to an other, human or deity/spirit. Implicit in someone unburdening a wrong committed against the hearer is the hearer’s consequent carrying that burden; confession is a complex configuration of moral, ethical, and personal obligations and considerations of fairness, rights and compassion.

Does one who cheats have the right to feel better by unloading the gnawing secret on the one on whom he cheated or is he nobler to suffer quietly the burden of that dark knowledge and guilt so as to keep the other unharmed? If morality and personal integrity is the sole consideration, then isn’t the secret holder/strayer obligated to be honest regardless of the consequences for the ultimately highest purpose of integrity and rebuilding trust, i.e., if I confess the impossibly difficult, I show you I am capable of being honest going forward? What role does the other play as mere listener, forgiver and rebuker? Is honesty always the best policy? Your thoughts?

10 thoughts on “Should a Cheater Confess?

  1. Oh this is juicy. First of all, if you’re a cheater with the constitution to be one, you would never, I mean never confess.
    It’s the essence of your original ploy. You chose to cheat within a construct that insures you win. That is the essence of cheating. I will add it is a certain mind set you’re born to.
    There are Eastern cultures where cheating is perfectly acceptable as long as you win.

    If you feel a need to purge, then you have committed a crime against the rules of your own heart, can explain it away to some therapist, bar tender, cafe waitress or live with it.
    If you truly intend to cheat, man or woman up, cheaters should win, even when everyone points and yells “cheater!”

    Regarding the life equation brings you to that cross roads of cheating, it’s up to you. Is it lack of character or ambition? Selfishness or true desire? I will say as long as you follow your heart, the world is with you through any storm.

    • Hard to say that all cheaters have similar constitutions. I don’t think that’s true. I am not sure there are cheater-proof people, even as there are certainly people who have never cheated. Life’s lottery deals a little different hand to everyone. A person might cheat even after swearing never to do so, with true conviction, when she finds herself in the pressure cooker of having to make tough choices.
      Jim, what if you fell in love with someone and married someone who, you both later discover is unable to have sex ever again because of a crippling disease that she develops? Would you divorce her? Would you stay with her and sacrifice the rest of your life without sex to be faithful? Not just you, but anyone. Just a hypothetical here that tests the lottery of life and decisions we make.

      • Why I said the equation. If there is an equation that justifies a decision, then there is no guilt or anguish to confess to. It is your destiny and your life. What I was trying to say.
        It is a bit obtuse to say that anyone violating the vows of marriage is a cheater. A cheater means you have broken the rules in order to obtain what you covet or desire. It means there is a set of rules in place that are violated.
        It means developing a construct that perpetuates a lie.
        I would even say lying to someone to protect them is not cheating, it’s a logical choice sometimes and one’s destiny, why I said follow your heart. That is not cheating.
        I know a couple married for so many years now, when they fist met they were in committed wedlock with other people. They chose their love despite their vows to others and it was the best choice they could have made, I can’t call that cheating.
        I envision a cheater as the Irvine businessman pulls into Sky Park Circle for a “massage” then goes home to his wife and kids, smiles at her. To me, that is the cheater comes first to my mind.

      • Thanks for the clarification and particularly the ending example of your vision of a cheater. The profile makes it clear.

  2. First, I disagree with Elizabeth Todd because man is not a naturally religious being. And second, doesn’t Crime and Punishment talk about guilt and confessing and all? And what about this idea. Say you’re in a relationship or marriage and you aren’t getting some need fulfilled. It could be sexual or it could be emotional but you cant or don’t want to get divorced. Aren’t you cheating yourself by not doing something outside your relationship?

    • Lucky, thanks for weighing in. Jung deemed humans religious but perhaps the more modernized term would be spiritual. Religion evokes institutionalizatuon and ritual more than faith, which is a human condition. We all operate on the faith that we will wake up each day and continue with the business of life.
      Lots of literary greats deal with confession, guilt and redemption, Dostoevsky’s work the best known.
      Yes, agree that it’s complicated. Some would say yes, get divorced rather than cheat if your needs are not being met and the other person will or cannot meet them. So much depends on a host of factors. Are kids involved? That is just one relevant question. Case by case I say.

  3. Having been the one cheated on and learning about his affair from his confession while the affair was still ongoing, his confession may have helped his conscience but it destroyed my world. He had no intention of ending the affair and left the ball in my court as to what should happen to the marriage. I didn’t sense remorse other than for the fact that he had been caught in a web of lies and had no choice but to confess. I suppose he felt he did the honourable thing by confessing instead of creating more lies but to me, the confession was self-serving and did nothing but hurt me. The result was the end of the marriage and me left as a single mom raising 2 kids under age 2. His affair went on for awhile afterwards and then he moved onto someone else that he married within 3 months of meeting her.

    One the one hand, I hate being lied to and deceived and so am glad I found out. On the other hand, I think it is different to confess when the affair is over and the person wants to repair their marriage. He didn’t want to end the affair or repair the marriage or make the decision to leave the marriage. He confessed to relieve some of his guilt by transferring the decision making about the end of the marriage to me. Ultimately I found his confession selfish and all about him, with my emotional needs being completely ignored.

    • Sharon, there is very little solace for the victim of marital infidelity, as you know, but in your case as you describe it, your ex clearly was not only cheating but wanted you to be the one to do something about it and so confessed, not so much to be honest but to relieve himself of obligation, I would guess. Callous or cowardice or both, in my view. I’m not sure the hurt would be any less, however, if he had come to you and confessed the affair as well as his intention to leave outright. And I agree the honesty gives a small relief as it probably would have been worse somehow to discover the affair yourself.
      There is so much pain in a breakup of any kind but the deception is probably the worst part of the whole affair. It shatters the world you believed in and destroys your faith in trusting someone with your innermost being, your love and vulnerability. For me, when I was cheated on, I could understand somewhat the having sex with someone else far more than the lies to me. It wounded more than being jilted for another and left scars deeper.
      I agree that the confession is more for the confessor and not the hearer. I hope your wounds are healed.
      Thank you so much for this contribution.

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