Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Why Affairs Have To Be Confessed

August 17, 1998

Romance is an escape from reality. Marriage is about reality, the reality of two imperfect, incomplete people blending two sets of traditions into a compatible whole. Marriage is about a promise solemnly made by you and sanctioned by God. You promise that you will remain together, be faithful to one another and work through whatever difficulties life and differences present.

Relationships are built on trust. Honesty precedes trust. Trust precedes intimacy. An affair creates a secret. In keeping the secret, you become dishonest. You distance yourself from your partner. You destroy intimacy. When the affair becomes known, trust is the casualty. You have violated the promise that was the foundation of trust.

Walls and windows. In marriage, there are things that happen that are meant only for the two of you. This is a zone of privacy where shared meanings, humor, clashes and idiosyncratic behavior is yours alone. As a couple you build walls around the sanctuary of your marriage. You put some windows in the walls and look out at the world together and share what you see. Together, you look out while others can't see in.

In an affair, you build new walls with someone else and allow that person to peer into your marriage while this new relationship is protected by a fortress of secrets and lies. You have created a new alliance. Your spouse who trusts your promise can't see into this secret world you have created. He or she may sense the intimacy slipping away but does not know why.

Part of the healing for an affair is to reverse the walls and windows. The test of loyalty is determining which relationship has secrets..

What brings back the original walls of commitment? What reverses the windows? It is the truth. The unvarnished ugly, detailed truth. Truth that explains. Truth that helps create understanding. Truth that puts a bright spotlight on dark secrets and exposes nasty betrayal.

None of this can happen while the affair is still on going. Imagine the confusion if a confessed affair starts over again. Where are the walls and windows? Are they subject to the whims of emotion? It drives both the betrayed spouse and the affair partner crazy. Healing can't begin until the affair is really over with permanent walls erected and one way windows installed.

Confession. With an honest and full disclosure, the betrayer becomes the healer. It is humiliating and humbling to admit fundamental betrayal in its many forms and lies. It is painful be accountable for so much pain - to take responsibility for immoral actions.

It is painful to listen to the hurt, the anger, the utter devastation that the betrayal has caused. Yet if that pain leads to true remorse, it is good. True remorse causes change.

The story of an affair has to be understood. What does it mean? Why did it happen? How did it happen? What about this lie? What about that lie? The worst has to be told.

The full story can't be told at one setting. It isn't enough to say, "It happened. I'm sorry. It won't happen again." The process of asking and telling takes time as new questions occur and old ones are revisited. To be angry, belligerent, impatient, vague or to cover up doesn't heal. Remorse has to stand the test of time.

Humility, love and patience. Are the replies remorseful and humble? Are excuses being offered for the inexcusable? Whose pain needs attending? It adds insult to injury for the betrayer to pretend to be the victim. The pain of telling can't be worse than the pain of discovering lies, infidelity and broken trust.

Is there enough love and patience to help the betrayed spouse work through the affair? Or does the offender show more concern for his or her own pain by trying to shut down the discussion? The attitude during confession is a test of whether the new wall is being built around self-serving wounded pride or around the marriage with a deeply wounded partner.

There is another way the betrayer becomes the healer. It is through loving, consistent actions that show devotion. These are attempts to make amends for the pain. The offender tries to win their spouse back through love. Loving actions restore trust. You begin to trust what you see and feel. If you are being loved on a daily basis, then you begin to trust that love.

The betrayer needs to work at making the marriage better than it was before the affair happened. The betrayer needs to meet needs, make changes, live up to promises and put their partner first to show how much he or she values the relationship.

Honesty, humility and love precede trust. Trust precedes intimacy. Confession is good for both the betrayer and the betrayed spouse. It is a window into the soul of the betrayer. By telling the story of the affair,, however painful it might be, the betrayer becomes the healer.

Thanks goes to psychologist Shirley Glass of Owings Mill, Maryland, for her insights on "windows and walls."