My cheatin' heart

Is there a way to find absolution without confessing my sins?

By Cary Tennis
Published February 3, 2004 1:21AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

Can self-forgiveness be had without confession? Ever since my first boyfriend, I've had a cheatin' heart. Fortunately, I haven't had as many opportunities to slake this thirst as you might think. Although I've fooled around plenty (with the first boyfriend's brother, for cripe's sake) on subsequent boyfriends and a husband, I never went beyond drunken groping with a potential fellow cheater. The one time I was about to go wholeheartedly into the deed, my first marriage crumbled. And yes, I can see how these two events are related.


Fast-forward a few years, and marriage No. 2 arrives. Although I love this husband more than I've loved anyone before, I still feel the pull to flirt and fool around, to sneak kisses with whomever will participate, to still be a little wild. Again, the opportunities to really be an adulteress are limited, hampered by a variety of factors like my somewhat plain features and somewhat overweight body.

Then an experienced adulterer enters the picture. Worse, he's a co-worker. The old familiar feelings of being wanted and seeming adventurous surface, but this time it's with someone smoother and smarter than the others, and the deed, finally, is done.

As soon as I truly have an affair, as unsatisfying and alcohol-fueled as it was, I regret it. Ten minutes after the fact, I regret it as much as I do now, 10 months later. I still have stabs of self-recrimination and guilt. I suppose the standard advice is that I have to tell my husband so that we can both find a way to move on, but I'm prepared to buck that conventional wisdom because something funny happened after that one sloppy, disastrous night: I stopped being a cheater.


I no longer feel that I have to make men desire me, I don't think of myself as so plain anymore, and I have really, truly, fallen in love with my husband. Despite the guilt, which comes and goes, I feel like I've ended something that was horrible for me.

I think that to tell my husband now would be the worst thing I could do. This might sound like a burst of denial, but I think the confession would mean the difference between happiness for both of us, or wretchedness for both of us. Not only would it end our seven-year marriage (believe me, I know, it would), but I would be hurting him terribly simply to alleviate my guilt over one stupid, stupid night. Our marriage right now is better than it ever has been, and although some people might suspect that I'd go back to being a cheater, I can't even imagine that happening. It would be like someone contemplating going back to prison after finding out how beautiful freedom can be.

I want to know if someone can walk away from the wreckage of a night and find peace and forgiveness within herself without confessing all. This is a confessional society, and I'm familiar with all the old chestnuts like the truth will set you free and confession is good for the soul. But is it possible that not telling a secret can also be good for the soul, and especially, for the marriage?


Former Cheater

Dear Former Cheater,

Don't tell your husband.

I can see a tragic paradox here. Luckily, you're not going to fall into the tragic paradox because you're not going to tell your husband. But just for the sake of seeing the paradox, consider your attitude before you reformed. When you were a cheater, if you had cheated on your husband you would never have told him, right, because you're a cheater and cheaters don't tell.


But say that, as in your case, you are suddenly transformed, and you know that you will never cheat again. Now that you know in your heart that you've changed, you might feel suddenly compelled to tell him. After all, we like to share significant psychological breakthroughs with those we love. And you also might want to unburden yourself, and not be fully conscious of your motives. How ironic that would be. You might think, in a euphoria of righteousness, that you'll tell him that you cheated this one time but you're over it and it will never happen again, and that telling him will set his mind at ease.

The irony would be, of course, that what you can suddenly see so clearly because it is in your own heart, he can't see at all -- that you've changed, that you're free of the compulsion to cheat, that it's never going to happen again, you just know it! He can't see what's in your heart. All he can see is what you've done. So of course in trying to tell him what's in your heart, you would destroy his trust and faith in you. It would hurt him and confuse him. He would want to know why you did it. He would want to know why you told him. He might suspect, since it hurt, that you did it to hurt him -- as one might suspect, if you hit him with a shovel, that you meant to hurt him with the shovel.

It would be a bad scene.


So, obviously, the answer is: Don't tell him.

And may I say that I wonder where this received wisdom about confession and denial came from, and why we take it as gospel? Who says that one must confess one's sins to one's husband? Is it the Catholic Church? No, I don't think so. I think the church recommends confessing to a priest, but not to one's husband. Is it some school of psychotherapy?

Same with the term "denial." So what is denial? You say you're not the most brilliant person you've ever met, but that's just because you're in denial. What kind of craziness is that? If I accuse you of denial, I'm saying that I really know what's going on in your head and you don't. (Now, I do believe Donald Trump is in denial about his hair, but that's obvious, and besides, who cares? It works for him, right? It isn't harming anyone, is it? )


So I believe the consequences of telling your husband would be bad. So don't tell him. Just live with it. If you've got to tell someone, tell a counselor or a minister or somebody like that -- somebody who gets paid to keep secrets.

Because, sweetheart, some secrets should be kept.

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