We’re naturally used to feeling empathy for those who have been cheated on. But if you’re the one who cheated, let’s be real – telling your partner may be one of the hardest conversations you ever attempt. Here we’re going to suspend judgment and finger pointing, assuming you understand you made a mistake and want to make things right. Some relationships can make it through these difficult times, and others cannot. But taking responsibility and owning your errors with love and empathy will improve your chances of making things right.
1. Talk about the talk
You’re going to be nervous, so instead of jumping in and dumping your anxious thoughts on your partner, take a step back. Start by talking about the sort of talk you need to have. You may set an intention for the conversation, emphasizing your love and commitment, while assuring you will be “here” for them. For instance, “I really value our relationship, and deeply love and care about you, so I need to be honest. I have something to share with you, and I don’t know how you’re going to respond, but it probably will not be good. I want to respect and hear your feelings, even if they are difficult.” This can help prepare them for what is coming instead of dropping a ton of bricks into their lap. (This technique has been suggested by Jonathan Miller, of MindfulCommunication.me.)
2. Do it in private
Realize this will probably feel like a huge bomb dropping to your loved one. Respect their feelings by having this conversation in private, not while driving to Target or in the middle of a dinner date at your favorite restaurant. Choose an environment where you both feel safe and comfortable opening up.
3. Put aside time
Unless your partner is the type to rush out and slam the door when upset, this conversation may take awhile (and even if they do, they will most likely come back, so be prepared!). Choose a time when neither you nor your partner have upcoming plans. You may want to ask if its a good time to have a serious discussion. Consider also their schedule for the following day, and avoid evenings before a major work presentation or a long-awaited party. At the same time, don’t wait too long, because hiding your actions for awhile may feel like added deception.
4. Focus on their feelings first
Anger, jealousy, betrayal and sadness are all possible reactions your partner may feel, or maybe all of these at once! It can be difficult to experience those emotions directed at you. But no matter what the “story,” their feelings are most important here. Statements like, “Of course you’re angry, I broke your sense of trust in me and our relationship agreement,” can go a long way. Help them feel heard and understood with empathy, even if its uncomfortable to acknowledge and validate. Take it slow, take deep breaths and center your attention on their feelings rather than details they may not really want (that might even drive them away).
5. Take responsibility
Responsibility is the hallmark of adulthood, but that does NOT always mean its easy. It may be hard to see your partner so upset, and guilt or shame may make you want to shift the blame away from yourself. But even if your relationship had been rocky, with frequent arguments and tension, you are still the one who took that next step. Consider the situation in the reverse: if they cheated, would that be your fault? (Probably not.) At the same time, its important to keep a sense of compassion for yourself. If this step is hard, talking to a trusted friend may help you process your own fears so you do not project them onto your very hurt partner.
There is no magic spell to make everything right. For some people, an affair is a hard line never to be crossed. For others, with time, communication and efforts to repair the lost trust can save, and at times, even improve the relationship overall. You simply cannot know how your partner will respond, so the best aim is to be compassionately honest. If the relationship can be saved, breaking the difficult news with the same level of care and love you hope to recover can help lay the groundwork for conversations to come.
Bio: Dr. Nazanin Moali is a sex therapy counselor in Torrance, California. She hosts a weekly podcast series called Sexology. Her clinical approach comes from a place of education, training, skills, intuition and most importantly tailored to her clients’ needs. Her office is located in Torrance, serving the greater Los Angeles area including Palos Verdes, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, South Bay and surrounding areas.