Whether exposure occurs the day after an affair begins, or years after it ended, it marks the start of the relationship renewal process. The unfaithful spouse may wonder why an event from the past requires so much present attention, but the wounded spouse only begins to work through the hurt and confusion of the betrayal once it is known. The moment of affair exposure is so significant in a marriage that it is often referred to as “D-day,” the day on which infidelity was either discovered or disclosed.
Affairs are revealed by many different means, but all of them fit into one of three categories: affairs revealed by the unfaithful partner’s disclosure, by the betrayed partner’s discovery, or a combination of both.
Affair Exposure by Disclosure
Most wayward partners will not choose to reveal their affair. This neglect is probably caused by their desires to hide their shame, stay with their lover, avoid expected consequences, or protect their spouse from the pain of knowing the truth. But there are exceptions to this norm. Sometimes an affair is first revealed by the confession of an unfaithful spouse.
What motivates some to confess?
Consider these four primary motives which may move an unfaithful spouse to confess an affair: a conflict of values, someone’s threat, a threat of circumstances, or a desire to exit the marriage.
1. A Conflict of Values
Some individuals experience conflict between their behavior and their moral values. Efforts to resolve this tension by justifying their choices, changing their beliefs, or ignoring their sense of guilt are ultimately unsuccessful and so they consider telling the truth.
For some, this inner turmoil drives them to quick confession. For others, it builds over time until they are no longer willing to endure the stress or its consequences (emotional struggles, physical problems, and diminished intimacy, to name a few). And there are those who hold their secret for years until some significant life event or spiritual awakening brings a new perspective to their past behavior, evoking a need for disclosure.
“I kept my horrible secret for five years… always felt like a fraud…. Several times I sensed [I should] confess the affair and move forward, but I would argue that nothing good would come of it; it would only hurt my husband. [He] had always become angry when talking about infidelity, so I knew he would not take it well... but I decided to come clean.
“My husband and I have grown so much closer through times of honest communication. No more hiding… Sticking with my marriage has allowed me to experience the love I've always wanted and a relationship I didn't think was possible. It required a commitment to make it work, to change my way of thinking, to ‘let go and let God,’ but it has been worth it.” [Robin]
2. Someone’s Threat
A confession may be prompted if another person threatens to tell the betrayed spouse about the affair. Consider these real experiences:
Jerry had always been careful when arranging time spent with his affair partner, making sure to minimize the risk of running into anyone he knew. So he was surprised when he exited an afternoon movie, holding hands with the other woman, and saw the shocked face of his teenage daughter across the lobby. Not knowing what else to do, he waved, but the girl turned and walked quickly away.
What had she seen? What would she tell her mother? How was he going to explain this? As he left the theater, Jerry’s began thinking about what he needed to say to his wife.
3. A Threat of Circumstance
Unexpected situations can risk the uncovering of secrets. Events like these have been known to prompt a confession:
Sheri had always handled the family’s finances, paying the bills and balancing the accounts, so she had little concern that her charges to restaurants and motels would ever be noticed. However, a recent mix-up with purchases Matt had made for business prompted him to ask for the bank login information. When she offered to take care of it, he said he needed to handle it himself. As her resistance continued, his insistence increased. She knew that once he saw the records, she would have a hard time coming up with enough reasonable excuses.
4. A Desire to Exit the Marriage
If the marriage connection is damaged enough, and the affair connection is strong enough, an unfaithful partner may decide to announce their intent to leave the marriage by revealing the affair and expressing love for the other person. “I’m leaving you because I’m in love with someone else.” This firm declaration is actually rare. Spouses who want to exit a marriage will usually offer other reasons for their departure, not wanting the affair to be blamed as the motivation for divorce.
“The first time I heard about the affair was when my wife told me she was filing for divorce. We had some problems in our marriage, but I never thought we were even close to ending it. She told me she had fallen in love with [a guy from work] and was enjoying life again. It was like she expected me to be happy for her, or something. She said she hoped I’d find someone to be happy with, too.” [Ed]
“After two months of counseling (after he told me he loved me but wasn't in love with me) he kissed me on the cheek on our 20th New Year's Eve together, then admitted to past affairs hoping I would leave him so he could be with the girl waiting in the wings.” [Anonymous]
What might be the consequences of disclosure?
Disclosure may cause the betrayed partner to leave. That is always a possibility. But attempting to save your marriage by covering the truth or proclaiming a lie is behavior that is consistent with infidelity, not intimacy. You can’t build an intimate relationship on the foundation of falsehood. Even if the betrayed spouse never learns the truth, the covered-over affair will be a “lump under the carpet” that constantly trips them in their marriage dance.
Of course, if the goal is to avoid divorce rather than build a connection, then hiding the affair may sometimes be a prefered course of action. As a counselor, however, I hope to do more than simply help a couple manage to stay precariously together. Additionally, I believe the betrayed spouse has the right to make their choice based on all the facts, not just the ones their spouse wants to share.
In rare cases, disclosure may mean a risk to someone’s physical safety. If a betrayed spouse has a history of either self-injury or violence against others, professional counsel should be sought before deciding what to reveal about an affair.
What are the benefits of disclosure?
A willing disclosure almost always enables a healing process that is quicker and easier than one in which an affair is “found out.” If the ultimate goal is to experience a marriage that is intimate and secure, a confession that is quick and complete will create a context in which ongoing damage can be minimized and honesty can be reclaimed.
The best scenario, of course, is the one in which confession is made without compulsion. Admitting infidelity only when there is a threat of exposure usually causes the betrayed spouse (and others) to question the motive. Would there have been an admission without the threat of exposure? Is there regret over having an affair, or just over being caught in it? But a willing admission usually demonstrates sincerity.
There is also a benefit to making a quick confession instead of waiting for each bit of truth to be uncovered. I have repeatedly observed a direct correlation between how long it takes for an affair to be fully disclosed and how long it takes for the marriage to be healed. Drawn-out confessions result in longer periods of recovery and reduced chances of ultimate success. The unfaithful spouse who uses the opportunity to be completely honest is likely to regain trust, but attempts to minimize the affair by telling half-truths and lies will only encourage ongoing suspicion.
Disclosure also allows the unfaithful spouse to reclaim some integrity. They cannot undo their choice of infidelity, but they can take a step of redemption by accepting responsibility for it. While their guilt is certain, confession can offer some relief from their shame.
Affair Exposure by Discovery
Most affairs are exposed when the betrayed spouse uncovers something, either accidentally or intentionally, which gives evidence of their partner’s discretion.
These discoveries are made by husbands and wives who, without suspicion of an affair, unexpectedly encounter something that reveals it. The potential for discovery in any affair is greater than most people expect. Sure, cheaters are able to contrive countless strategies for hiding the truth, but there are just as many ways for it to be revealed.
I remember when two different couples came to me for counseling in the same week, both wives having learned about their husband’s affair when he accidentally butt-dialed them while in the company of the other woman. The intimate conversations left no doubt as to what was going on.
Here are a few other ways in which accidental discoveries are made:
Examples from posts in our Community forum:
“I discovered a note in his jeans pocket when I was getting the clothes ready to wash one day…”
“I was using my husband's laptop one afternoon... When I closed the browser, there was a text page that had symbols mixed with text that was readable. The readable text was shocking and there was no mistaking its intent. When I minimized the page, an email account came up that had correspondence, pictures, etc. of various women that my husband had been communicating with. We still don't know how that happened because it was a secret email account that he only accessed in the private setting and he swears he was meticulous about closing it out, knowing I could potentially use the computer.”
“I found a McFlurry spoon in our car. [My husband] is not one to stop for an ice cream, unless he’s with the kids or I suggested it. I asked right then and there about it and he said he had stopped for it. When he got out of the car, I decided there must be more evidence and, sure enough, I found a receipt of a hotel where he had spent time with the other woman earlier that afternoon.”
“My husband’s affair partner was trying to contact him and somehow ended up "facetiming" me about 25 times and messaging me on my iPad instead of his iPhone. To this day, I have no idea what happened and nothing like that has ever happened again.”
These discoveries are made by someone who purposefully seeks to learn more about a partner’s behavior. Suspicion usually prompts an investigation to determine whether or not an affair exists. Among the numerous causes of suspicion, here are some of the most common:
I have frequently been told, especially by women, that they just had a feeling something was wrong. Several have told me that their first conscious awareness of a possible affair came from a dream. Whatever the origin of their doubt, these women began searching for truth by taking on the role of an investigator or hiring someone else to do it.
Example from a post in our Community forum:
“I eventually discovered a note in his jeans pocket when I was getting the clothes ready to wash one day. That made me go online and check the mobile phone account. There were plenty of text messages that had been sent to a number I didn't know, and this had been going on for some time.
“I turned into a real detective, checking his phone when I could, making sure he was where he said he was, carefully questioning him about what he'd done that day without giving too much away. I didn't want to confront him without enough physical evidence. I finally got what I needed and confronted him.
“I have to say, though, turning detective becomes a mania if you are not careful… Invading someone’s privacy is not something I liked doing, but because it served a purpose it became a necessary evil.”
What might be the consequences of discovery efforts?
There are two potential risks of becoming an investigator in your marriage. First of all, you may become obsessed in your attempts to find every possible piece of evidence. Secondly, you may do further damage to trust that is already broken.
1. Becoming Obsessed
Unfortunately, I have watched too many betrayed spouses become fixated on finding “one more” piece of evidence. The desire to uncover every possible detail can become consuming, constantly turning the wounded partner’s attention to the source of their pain.
Honestly, a person does not need to know a whole lot of information in order to make an informed choice about what to do next. Once you know about lies and indiscretions, you know enough to establish your boundaries. Digging up a bunch of dirt will usually exhaust you and leave you with little more than empty holes that need to be filled again.
Example from a post in our Community forum:
“When I have downtime, I find myself consumed in looking at phone records and tracing his every step. I'm going crazy and I know that I am just making myself more angry.”
To guard against this risk, I encourage a discovering spouse to make themselves accountable to someone else: a friend or family member. An agreement to only investigate in cooperation with that person can reduce the risk of falling into obsession.
2. Damaging Trust
It may seem absurd to raise concern about damaging trust in light of a spouse’s possible betrayal, but the danger should not be minimized. If the damage comes only from the affair, then repairing trust is primarily a one-way effort. But if investigations are recklessly pursued, trust will be damaged on both sides of the marriage.
Unless you have undeniable evidence, do not to accuse your spouse of having an affair even if your suspicions are strong. Unproven accusations will only cause your partner to become defensive. Instead, confront them honestly and ask for an explanation. If a particular circumstance prompted suspicion (a found receipt, for example), I would encourage a careful investigation of that one detail prior to the conversation. Then say, “I found something that is troubling me, and I would like to ask you about it. Before you answer, please consider that I need you to be honest with me.”
If their explanation is consistent with what is known, then let it go. If not, more discovery may be needed to uncover the truth.
Michael had been feeling disconnected from his wife for many months, and so he was alarmed to discover a text she received around nine o’clock one evening—a text that seemed a bit too personal.
Suspecting the worst, he hired a private investigator who tracked her for several days and gained access to her messages from the past several months. The investigation turned up no evidence of inappropriate conversations or behavior. She did not appear to be involved in an affair.
Several weeks later, his wife saw a USB drive plugged into their notebook computer and opened it to discover all the files from the investigation. Even though Michael had suspected her of infidelity, she is the one who felt betrayed.
What are the benefits of discovery efforts?
The dilemma of a spouse who suspects an affair is this: the one person who knows the truth may also be the one who is working to hide it. Discovery may be the only way of knowing the truth. Discovery can provide an adequate understanding of the affair and an accurate measure of the unfaithful spouse’s honesty. Knowing these things, the betrayed spouse can make choices that are more informed and confident.
Example from a post in our Community forum:
“I was able to get hold of hundreds of emails and text messages between the other woman and my husband. I learned a lot of details about the affair: their plans, their activities, etc. Although it was (and still is, at times) painful, I'm glad that I know… Having actual evidence helped because [my husband] couldn't deny anything.”
Affair Exposure by Both Discover & Disclosure
Affairs are frequently exposed through alternating steps of both confession and investigation. Something is found out and so the wayward spouse admits enough to provide an explanation, which prompts further searching to uncover more truth, more confessions, more discoveries… a back-and-forth pattern that inches toward the complete truth. If it goes on too long (a process referred to as “Trickle-Truth”), trust completely erodes, causing damage that may be beyond repair.
But this shared struggle toward honesty can be beneficial if both partner remained focused on the goal of relationship healing rather than self protection.
Pam had been sexually involved with a co-worker for nearly four months, but the initial “wow” of their connection had started to diminish, leaving her feeling guilty and wishing she could get out of the affair. But her fear of the affair partner’s reaction if she tried to end things kept her involved.
When her husband, Daniel, came across an obviously personal text sent from the other man to his wife, he questioned her about it. She admitted to an emotional affair and felt some relief in knowing that she finally had an excuse for ending her relationship with the co-worker. She was sure the affair partner did not want to risk the wrath of her husband.
But something about Pam’s explanations didn’t make sense to Daniel. He went digging and discovered evidence that the affair was more than emotional. When confronted, Pam broke down and confessed everything. She finally felt the full relief of disclosure, but now she and Daniel had to make some hard decisions about the future
of their marriage.
However it happens, exposure is only the beginning of process toward marriage renewal. The truth of an affair will have a tremendous impact on the relationship. Each partner will need to determine their reaction to this new reality.