When Should an Affair
by Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.
The issue of exposure of an affair comes up when a betrayed spouse has first learned about the affair. Should it be exposed to others, or kept secret? I almost always recommend exposure. When should it be exposed? I almost always 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. If the affair is at the workplace each person's supervisor and/or the personnel department should be told.
These are very difficult recommendation to follow, and they are very controversial. But I've come to these conclusions after carefully considering the results of exposing an affair as opposed to not exposing it. My direct experience with tens of thousands of couples who have done one or the other had led to recommend exposure decisively. Without a doubt, it's an essential part of a plan that's been shown to be the most likely way to end an affair and to save a marriage.
Read this entire article before you take a position on this subject because, in defending exposure, I also describe exceptions and precautions. You should also be aware that it's only a part of my complete plan for marital reconciliation. That plan is describe in the book that I wrote with my daughter, Jennifer Harley Chalmers, Surviving an Affair. When the plan is followed by a couple, it usually leads to a better marriage than they had previously experienced.
There are many reasons I recommendation exposure, but the primary reason is based on my experience that the more people know about what we do in our most private moments, the safer we are 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 recorded. 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.
A third reason is that it usually ends the affair. Once an affair is made public, the stupidity of it becomes clear to everyone involved. Upon the careful analysis of family and friends, an unfaithful spouse is pressured to end it quickly.
Affairs rarely make any logical sense. They usually don't pass the test of time, they create enormous suffering, especially for the betrayed spouse, and usually lead to deep depression and anxiety for the unfaithful spouse who is torn between a strong emotional attraction and their commitment to their spouse and family.
So why do so many people have affairs? My belief is that we are all genetically predisposed to have them. Unless we take precautions to avoid an affair, we'll succumb to the temptation when it's presented. But that doesn't make them any less painful. And exposure greatly helps limit the pain that they cause.
How should an affair be exposed?
When proof of an affair is established, I encourage an unfaithful spouse to ask for help in ending the affair and restoring the marriage. It should never be done in a vindictive way, but rather with a sincere appeal for support in this time of grief.
The affair should be exposed to one person at a time, preferably meeting face-to-face. Convincing evidence should be presented so that the affair cannot be challenged, but salacious details should be avoided. Accuracy is essential.
The purpose of exposure is not to embarrass or punish the unfaithful spouse. It's to help end the suffering of the betrayed spouse, and restore the marriage as soon as possible.
When should exposure be delayed
It's my opinion that the advantages of immediate exposure usually far outweigh the disadvantages. But there are a few situations where I would recommend delaying the exposure of an affair.
1. 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 50 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 then recommend exposure of the affair. Contact with the abusive spouse should be ruled out until 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. Even then, I recommend continued separation until there is overwhelming evidence that the abusive behavior has been eliminated.
2. 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.
3. 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, and the other person continues to work there, my advice is that the unfaithful spouse quit the job and find another to avoid ever seeing or talking to the other person again. But if the unfaithful spouse is unwilling to resign, should a betrayed spouse expose the affair to the employer?
While I unhesitatingly recommend immediately exposing the affair to friends, family, clergy, children and the other person's spouse, I'm not so quick to suggest immediately 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.
If the unfaithful spouse has separated, in spite of my reservations I recommend immediate exposure to the employer. But if the unfaithful spouse has not separated, I advise the betrayed spouse to warn the unfaithful spouse that if he or she works there one more day, the affair will be exposed to the employer. That gives him or her an opportunity to use vacation time to look for another job and make a graceful exit. If a new job is not found by the time the vacation time is over, I recommend applying for an unpaid leave of absence or a resignation to avoid returning to work.
If the unfaithful spouse becomes angry upon hearing the warning, making it clear that there will be no resignation from the job, I encourage the betrayed spouse to expose the affair to the employer immediately.
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 lover's 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 be exposed 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.
For more detailed information on how and when to expose an affair, written by one of the Marriage Builders forum members, go to Exposure 101 - Your Most Powerful Weapon.