Dear Carolyn: Do I have a responsibility to tell a new partner that I cheated in the past?
Here’s the context: I was married, as was the other woman. We discussed we were cheating mostly for the sex that was lacking in our marriages, but leaving our marriages for each other was never on the table. Consequently, I decided to end my marriage.
To our knowledge, neither spouse ever knew. I never told another soul. The other woman did not divorce, although we agreed that now that I was divorced, we should cease our relationship.
I realize how wrong of us it was. Years pass. I recently got a cryptic message from the other woman that her spouse now knows, and they are working to save their marriage. I hope they do, although I don’t see any way I can help except by staying out of it. I feel like I learned my lesson, and I’d never cheat again because I know firsthand how destructive it is. I’ve started dating again. I don’t feel a particular need to bring up the cheating with a future partner.
However, the other woman and I work in the same small industry, and she holds a fairly public, prominent position. If word were to spread that we cheated, it would be quick and could be destructive to our reputations. And I would want my future partner to hear it from me rather than through press or rumor.
But I also don’t want to tell someone about past indiscretions unnecessarily. Which brings us back to my question: Do I have a responsibility to tell a new partner? If so, at what point in a relationship? My inclination would be not to tell, except if I felt they would find out some other way.
I think it’s important to tell some quantity of the truth if and when cheating comes up in conversation with a new partner (NP). For example, let’s say NP has cheated, and wants to tell you in the interest of full disclosure. Would you pretend you haven’t, let NP twist? Or if NP says cheating is a deal-breaker, past or present, what then?
You don’t need to provide any context, except that you were in a committed relationship and learned your lesson. You can explain to anyone who wants details that you’re not withholding any details to make yourself look better – you did a bad thing and hurt people. Telling more, though, would involve cutting into a part of the story that is not entirely yours to tell.
It’s also fair to say this low point in your history helped educate you about yourself, resulting in better, more compatible choices. That’s all more truth than dodge, especially in this case.
But let’s say you go into more detail with NP — and NP turns out not to be trustworthy. That would be potentially harmful to your ex-affair partner, more harmful than it would be to you, yet NP wouldn’t gain much from having the detail. Except, in the worst case, leverage.
So, you have dueling responsibilities both to disclose and withhold. (Good luck with that!) I think admitting you cheated and why, without specifics, when you’ve developed some trust, is the appropriate balance to strike.
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