Joe Beam, marriage expert and chairman of www.MarriageHelper.com, answers questions from Family Savvy readers on various issues related to marriage. Today’s question concerns when to confess past grievances to one’s spouse.
QUESTION: Joe, there are a few things in my early marriage that I have not told my wife. Although I never had a full-blown affair, I had an emotional connection with another woman that went to a brief but unfulfilled physical encounter. This was almost ten years ago and is totally over. My marriage is better than ever, and I fear that it would be disastrous to bring this up now. Is it ok to keep quiet, or should I confess – and risk turning our marriage upside down? Please share any advice that will help me make the best decision.
ANSWER: As you might imagine, people regularly ask me whether they should tell their spouses about something that they know would hurt them. Sometimes, as in your case, they tell me about an event from years before. (One woman asked me about something that happened over 50 years earlier.) More often, they ask about something that happened more recently.
Whether ancient or recent, my answer remains the same. When considering whether to tell your spouse something that may cause great turmoil in your relationship, consider these three questions:
- Is there any other way she can find out?
- Has she ever asked?
- Is there any part of yourself you hold back from your spouse because of things such as guilt, embarrassment, fear, or the like?
Before I explain the three questions and illustrate why they carry such importance, allow me to share a Biblical truth from Ephesians 4:29. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” The three questions are a way of applying the last half of that verse; one should tell another only those things that build them up according to THEIR needs because it benefits THEM. (I explain these in detail in my book Getting Past Guilt.)
Is There Any Other Way She Can Find Out?
As much as it will hurt to hear from you about your failings, it will hurt much more if your spouse finds out some other way.
If you feel there is a possibility your spouse may learn of your failure, I suggest you muster the courage to tell her yourself. Yes, it will be painful. Maybe terribly so. However, if you truly regret what you did, do not allow her to discover it from anyone or in any other way than hearing it from you. Face the pain of confessing in order to lessen her pain overall. She WILL hurt. She may never know how much more she would have hurt if she had learned about it differently, but you will know that you spared her deeper pain by being mature enough to confess your sin rather than to be caught while trying to hide it.
If you are confident that your spouse will not find out, then it may be better for her if you do not tell her.
BUT, before you decide that, consider the next two questions.
Has she ever asked?
In general, I like the concept as interpreted in The King James Version in Proverbs 29:11, “A fool uttereth all his mind: but a wise man keepeth it in till afterwards.” I believe it to be unwise to say everything you think. Similarly, I believe it unwise to reveal everything you ever did. This is why I advise asking oneself the three questions before deciding whether to confess or not.
However, there is a great deal of difference between not telling about something and lying about it. Not telling may be wise in some situations, but lying is wrong. Furthermore, when a lie remains on the table, it makes it easier to place other lies beside it. If your spouse asked and you lied, I believe the right thing to do is to remedy that lie with the truth.
Is there any part of yourself you hold back from your spouse because of things such as guilt, embarrassment, fear, or the like?
A woman told me that early in their marriage, she committed adultery with her husband’s best friend. She ended the illicit relationship very quickly, but a decade later it haunted her enough that she asked my opinion about whether she should confess what she had done.
Because she felt guilt and regret about her actions, she held herself from emotionally bonding with her husband to the degree she wished. She feared if she told him he would divorce her.
I said, “Would you rather deal with that fear now or live for the rest of your life feeling what you feel now? Do you want to live in this emotional limbo, or do you want to have what you can and should have together? You are right that if you tell him, he may divorce you. Still, I repeat the question: Do you want to live like this for the rest of your life, or will you deal with it now?”
She made the decision to tell him. They went through a few months of difficulty, but we helped them work through it. They attended our workshop for marriages in crisis and learned tools for coping with the situation. They then learned how to strengthen their marriage and move toward greater intimacy. Today, they have what they always wanted. They have true intimacy, transparency, and openness. However, if she had not told him, she very likely would still be in the emotional emptiness that she suffered for a decade before dealing with the deep guilt she felt.
To anyone who wonders whether he should tell a spouse about behavior that should never have happened, I strongly suggest you consider the three questions above. If you answer any in the affirmative, your best course of action may well be to confess. If because of your confession you need further help for your marriage, seek it immediately.
If your marriage is in trouble, there are many who will help. If you wish my organization to assist you in getting the help you need, please call us toll free at 866-903-0990. We will listen, and we will help if we can.