What to do when you're ready to stop cheating.
In 2002's Unfaithful Diane Lane meets a handsome Frenchman in a Hollywood-contrived New York City rainstorm, becomes infatuated and initiates a lurid (and oh-my-God-hot) affair. After ninety minutes of sweaty lovemaking in stairwells, Soho lofts and café restrooms Lane is guilt-ridden and decides to call it quits. But not before her husband Richard Gere finds out, confronts the lover and murders him, neatly disposing of his body in broad-daylight.
That's one way to end an affair.
For those of us without a Los Angeles screenwriter scripting our lives, disentangling oneself from an extramarital—or any other "extra-"—affair can be painful, awkward and emotionally exhausting. How do you know that you're making the right choice? What if your feelings for your lover are stronger than those for your spouse? Is it possible to move on in a relationship after a potentially devastating affair? And then there's the big question: Do you, or do you not come clean?
Mira Kirshenbaum, psychologist, relationship expert and author of the recently published When Good People Cheat: Inside the Hearts and Minds of People in Two Relationships says, "if you have ended an affair and made a decision to return to your marriage and work on it, it is a mistake to tell your spouse that you've cheated."
To be honest, secrecy has always been this writer's policy on cheating, ever since I kissed my best friend's brother on the sixth-grade field trip. If nothing in your relationship is going to change as a result of an affair, if you plan to go back and be the best possible girlfriend you can be, what's the point of effing up a good thing? But Kirshenbaum's affirmation is nevertheless comforting: "All it would accomplish is adding a boatload of anger and mistrust to an already iffy relationship." Well said.
Ok, so you've decided not to tell. You want your relationship to work out, and you're willing to put in the time to make it happen. But what about the reason you cheated in the first place? What was lacking in your relationship that made your eyes wander and your Amex bill rack up hotel bills? I asked Kirshenbaum how she recommends talking to your partner about feelings of being sexually or emotionally unfulfilled.
"Instead of telling your spouse you've cheated, you can tell your spouse that you have an unmet need," she explains, and "that it is absolutely crucial that the two of you work at finding ways to meet that need, and that you are scared of what will happen if you don't find ways to satisfy this need." While this may not be the most comfortable conversation, especially after you've strayed, Kirshenbaum has an excellent point: communication, key in any relationship, is absolutely crucial in mending the wounds that an affair can create.
That said, lingering feelings of guilt have the potential to gnaw away at even the most ambitious of reformed cheaters. I say accept your actions and move on if you're truly committed to ending the affair for good. Kirshenbaum concurs. "If your spouse doesn't know, deal with your guilt by being the best partner you can possibly be." In other words, put on your Girlfriend-of-the-Year costume and don’t take it off.
All this assumes that you're ending your affair by choice, and not because your Richard Gere is currently catching the express train downtown to off your lover. If you've been caught red-handed (or panties-down as the case may be) ending an affair is an entirely different ballgame. Kirshenbaum offers this advice: "Deal with your guilt by helping your spouse deal with [his or her] fear, anger, and humiliation. This means a lot of listening, more than you may have ever imagined possible."