When Should an Affair
Be Exposed?

by Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.




The issue of exposure comes up when a betrayed spouse has first learned about the affair. Should it be exposed to others, or kept secret? I generally recommend exposure. When should it be exposed? I usually recommend that it be exposed immediately. To whom should it be exposed? I recommend that family, friends, children, clergy, and especially, the lover's spouse be informed. Exposure in the workplace depends on several factors.

There are many reasons for these recommendations, but the primary reason is based on my belief that the more people know about what I do in my most private moments, the safer I am to others. Infidelity is one of the most painful experiences one spouse can inflict on the other, and it's far less likely to take place, or continue to take place, when everyone knows about it.

Imagine how little crime would be committed if everyone's activities were videotaped. Several weeks ago, a street fight in Minneapolis resulted in the death of a teenager. A gang of over 20 men were involved in his death. But it all happened in front of a host of surveillance cameras. The men involved in this murder will be arrested, tried, and sentenced. Minneapolis used to be called Murderapolis because of its extremely high murder rate. No more. The murder rate is now one of the lowest for a big city because people have traded in their privacy for security. People are now safer because they're willing to have their activities recorded.

Another, almost equally important reason for exposure is that it usually provides support for the betrayed spouse at a time that their whole world is falling apart. When family, friends, clergy, and even children know what's happening to the betrayed spouse they can provide considerable emotional support when it's needed most.

But there are exceptions to exposure. Once in a while I dont recommend it. So the following is my definitive explanation and defense of this very controversial policy.

Whenever a betrayed spouse tells me that they've just discovered their spouses affair, my advice is almost always the same: Let others know about it. Tell your children, family, friends, clergy, and especially the lovers spouse, if they have one. And this is even to be done during what I call plan A (making an effort to make as many Love Bank deposits, and as few withdrawals as possible).

The problem some people have with that strategy is that it conflicts with the goal of plan A because it's likely to cause massive Love Bank withdrawals. An unfaithful spouse almost always considers such exposure to be a worse act of betrayal than their affair itself. But the alternative, helping the unfaithful spouse to keep the affair a secret, is enabling the addiction, prolonging the agony. In the long run, making the affair public knowledge without any forewarning, threats, or bartering (which by themselves can create massive withdrawals) actually reduces the number of Love Bank withdrawals made by the betrayed spouse.

It's my opinion that the advantages of immediate exposure usually far outweigh the disadvantages. But are there exceptions to my recommendation of the immediate exposure of an affair? Absolutely! Let me give you a few examples of situations where I would not suggest immediately exposing an affair.

A physically violent unfaithful spouse

In every instance of physical violence in marriage, I have recommend separation along with a restraining order to prevent any contact between spouses. No one who has followed my advice under my direct supervision has ever experienced injury in the 35 years of my counseling tens of thousands of couples. And I have counseled some of the most violent spouses.

If a wife tells me that her husband has a history of physical violence toward her, and she's discovered his affair, I suggest that she make immediate plans for a complete separation. Generally, I refer her to a shelter for abused women. After the separation is complete, and she is safe, I recommend exposure of the affair. Plan A is ruled out, and plan B is followed (no contact between spouses). Contact is restored only after the violent husband has enrolled in an anger management program, has no contact with the lover, and is willing to begin a program of marital reconciliation.

Uncertainty regarding the affair Many of the cases I've witnessed involve suspected affairs with no firm proof. In those situations, I do not recommend exposure. Instead of immediate exposure, I suggest gathering evidence that would convince a jury that an affair has taken place. In some cases I suggest hiring an investigator to gather that evidence. Once there is certainty regarding the affair, I then recommend immediate exposure.

Affairs are not usually difficult to prove. That's because the affair is an addiction, and addicts are notoriously sloppy in covering their tracks. They also become progressively sloppy as the affair develops. They try to hide it, and are reasonably successful early in a relationship. But eventually they leave text messages, email, and telephone records in plain sight for anyone to observe. If a suspecting spouse is patient, it doesn't take too long or require too much effort, to prove that an affair is taking place.

On the other hand, a diligent hunt for evidence may prove that the spouse hasn't been unfaithful after all. One of the best ways to learn to trust a spouse is to investigate and then find that the spouse has been trustworthy.

Those who guard their privacy in marriage, claiming that a spouse has no right to passwords, internet viewing history, email records, cell phone records, credit card accounts, and other sources of evidence, are more likely to have affairs. Privacy between spouses should never be tolerated for a host of reasons. But one of the most important reasons is that privacy, and the secret second life that it helps create, breeds infidelity. Transparency, on the other hand, where almost everything spouses do are known to each other, is one of the most important safeguards.

Economic considerations

A divorce, and even separation, can have dire economic consequences for a betrayed spouse. Many wives of cheating husbands that I've counseled are economically dependent on him. If she exposes the affair, she fears that he will leave her, creating financial hardship. So in those cases, before exposing the affair, I generally encourage her to plan for that possibility.

Women's shelters usually offer both legal and financial advice for women who find themselves dependent on irresponsible men. Temporary aid from government, religious, and other charitable agencies can provide a safety net for those women. While exposure usually causes the affair to end, these betrayed women can expose his affair with less fear when they know that separation will not leave them destitute.

When there is an affair in the workplace, my general advice is that the unfaithful spouse must quit the job and find another to avoid ever seeing or talking to the lover again. But while the affair is taking place and the unfaithful spouse is unwilling to resign, should a betrayed spouse expose the affair to the employer?

While I unhesitatingly recommend exposing the affair to friends, family, clergy, children and the lover's spouse, I'm not so quick to suggest exposing it to an employer. That's because such exposure could have unintended legal and economic consequences. For example, the affair might constitute grounds for a sexual harassment claim by the unfaithful spouse's lover. Or it might trigger the outright firing of the spouse, making it far more difficult for them to find another job.

So in those cases I usually advise the betrayed spouse to warn the unfaithful spouse he or she will expose the affair to the employer in a month if the unfaithful spouse is still working there, giving him or her time to make a graceful exit from the job to another. Even if a new job cannot be found in a month, I recommend waiting no longer to inform the employer, unless the unfaithful spouse has already resigned.

Other issues

Many betrayed spouses are afraid that exposure will drive the unfaithful spouse further away. While it's true that unfaithful spouses usually feel betrayed and angry when their affair is exposed, I regard that reaction as being part of the fog that most addicts experience. When the fog has finally lifted, and the source of addiction no longer has control, the value of exposure is usually conceded by the addict himself.

Some feel that an affair should not be exposed to children. Granted, I would not tell a 3-year old about an affair, simply because a child that young cannot possibly understand what it means. But I would not hesitate to reveal an affair to a child 7 years or older. Exposure to those between those ages should be a matter of discretion.

What about exposure of an affair that took place years earlier and is now ended but recently revealed? I feel that the children, close relatives, close friends, and the lovers spouse should be informed. Granted, it's embarrassing to admit an affair, but publicly admitting failure is usually the first step toward redemption.

As you probably already know, I'm a strong advocate of honesty and openness in marriage. I call it transparency -- letting your spouse know everything about you, especially your faults. But should that level of openness carry into the public arena? I believe that it should in cases of extreme irresponsibility, and that certainly includes infidelity. When you have done something very hurtful to someone else, others should know about it. Such exposure helps prevent a recurrence of the offense. Your closest friends and relatives will be keeping an eye on you -- holding you accountable.

If exposure of an affair threatens the marriage, should the risk be taken? I regard infidelity as a violation of the most basic condition of marriage. In most wedding vows, "forsaking all others" is usually the only definitive promise that's made. When you marry, the overriding condition that is mutually accepted is that you won't have an affair. When that condition is broken, the marriage is threatened at its very core. That's why I believe that spouses who have recovered after an affair should make new vows to each other, in effect reestablishing their marriage.

So when a betrayed spouse asks for my advice, I usually take the position that infidelity is the greatest betrayal of all. After an affair, trust, which is an essential ingredient in marriage, is dashed. If the unfaithful spouse is offended by being exposed, so be it. Exposure is very likely to end the affair, lifting the fog that has overcome the unfaithful spouse, helping him or her become truly repentant and willing to put energy and effort into a full marital recovery.

In my experience with thousands of couples who struggle with the fallout of infidelity, exposure has been the single most important first step toward recovery. It not only helps end the affair, but it also provides support to the betrayed spouse, giving him or her stamina to hold out for ultimate marital recovery.

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